Saturday, 18 April 2020

Re-Reading A Handful of Dust

A Handful of Dust was my random choice for 2020 re-reading challenge out of many novels by Evelyn Waugh, although I probably read more of them than my friends, and definitely more than my parents and their friends, because I could read them in English. Inexplicably, Waugh's novels in paperback were sold among a handful – no pun intended – English-language books in a major bookstore in Moscow. The price was 5 or 6 rubles – my salary was 100 rubles (for comparison: a kilo beef was 2 rubles; a pair of tights was 10 rubles). I bought as many books as were available, maybe spending a month's salary. That's what you did. The reason those paperbacks made their way into Russia was that a couple of Waugh's novels had been translated into Russian, including A Handful of Dust. In a handbook of British literature, written by an esteemed Russian scholar, Waugh was presented as ultra-reactionary, so it is surprising he was translated at all, but there was never any logic behind what was or wasn't acceptable.

I remembered merely one detail from the book, which I also believed happened in a totally different book. A young boy is learning to ride a pony and gets kicked off. His coach tells him it happened because he ”opened his bloody legs and cut an arser”. The boy dutifully reports this to his parents. This was the first time a rude word was published in a Russian book, and my father was delighted. He read it outloud for my mother and me, and later to several guests. Maybe this is why I remembered this particular episode, because I didn't remember anything else, and it didn't come back as I was reading. So I can almost say I had never read this book before.

It is one of those books where all characters are repulsive, but unlike many books with repulsive characters I was curious about them and wanted to get to know them better. Against all my convictions as a reader, I wished I could warn them: Don't be a fool, stop doing this! I wished I could change their destinies.

My scholarly self prompts that Waugh's sarcastic writing goes back to Jane Austen, although he would probably deny it. Anyway, the book is brilliantly written, and I may re-read it again soon. Warmly recommended.


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