Evelyn Waugh’s 1934 novel A Handful of Dust satirizes Britain’s landed gentry, whose power and influence diminished between the World Wars. It’s a book that gets called out on “best” lists, such as Time magazine’s All-TIME Best Novels and Modern Library’s Top 100. Last July, John Self in The Guardian tagged it as Waugh’s greatest achievement in an article about writers being famous for the wrong book. I get that now, being a big fan of Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited and presently a bigger fan of A Handful of Dust.

This greatest achievement became a beach read for me during a recent Florida visit. It came along in the suitcase as a book I’d intended to read before the close of 2011 and missed the deadline by a week. I didn’t think of it as beach material but wanted to meet my goal. Classics and bests carry a hovering stigma of something to be trudged through. That aforementioned Modern Library list also includes Ulysses and The Sound and the Fury, hardly sun, sand and surf material. Nevertheless, I sat in the beach chair – actually, a balcony chair overlooking the beach – and there read Waugh’s masterpiece for long hours of escape, completely surprised and delighted by this classic’s engaging force. This is one wickedly funny novel. 

The book focuses on Tony and Brenda Last, who live on Tony’s inherited country estate, Hetton Abbey. It requires every penny they have to keep it going. Weekend visits by the London social set fill the Gothic structure’s cold, uncomfortable rooms. And while Brenda’s bored with the old house and its requirements, Tony lives for it. Not surprising, then, that Brenda escapes to London, where she engages in an affair with John Beaver, the novel’s moneyless social climber.

Waugh’s ingenious send-up includes many lively characters whose affiliation with the Lasts helps exaggerate their arrogant blindness. One most enjoyable is their literal-minded son, a young boy who, when told the London socialite Lady Cockpurse looks like a monkey, imagines her to be a “hairy, mischievous Countess:”

“When kindly people spoke to him in the village he would tell them aboutt her and how she swung head down from a tree throwing nutshells at passers-by.

‘You mustn’t say things like that about real people,’ said nanny. ‘Whatever would Lady Cockpurse do if she heard about it.’

‘She’d gibber and chatter and lash round with her tail, and then I expect she’d catch some nice, big, juicy fleas and forget all about it.'”

 Even though we realize Waugh is on a mission to ridicule country estate heirs and their privileged friends, he creates these characters without the drag of giving a lesson. It’s his witty, acerbic digs and savage humor that do the educational work and make A Handful of Dust so much fun.

A tragic accident on a fox hunt at Hetton Abbey hurdles the Lasts toward their downfall, with Brenda making a very telling and shocking remark. It’s an unforgettable moment in reading history, a blurted “Oh thank God” positioned with enormous implication. Despite the dark turn of events, Waugh skillfully controls the experience so we stay within bounds of the book’s irony and satire. He shocks us, and then lifts us right back up into the amusing divorce proceedings and a threat to Hetton Abbey, such as, in this scene, when Brenda’s brother negotiates with Tony:

“The truth is that Beaver is cutting up nasty. He says he can’t marry Brenda unless she’s properly provided for. Not fair on her, he says. I quite see his point on [sic] a way.”

“Yes, I see his point,” said Tony. “So what your proposal really amounts to is that I should give up Hetton in order to buy Beaver for Brenda.”

“It’s not how I should’ve put it,” said Reggie.

My reference to Downtown Abbey in this post’s title is a bit cheeky, considering I’ve not seen the popular PBS show, what with no TV in the house; however, from all I’ve read about it, I couldn’t resist the juxtaposition, for a Last perspective, so to speak. Because Waugh would’ve had a field day with this show about an English country estate and its inhabitants. But then, maybe he already has had that day in A Handful of Dust, which ends with Tony lost in a South American jungle and to Hetton Abbey. Indeed, Waugh’s greatest achievement.

Shopping Brooklyn bookstores

December 6, 2011

Oh that every city had indie bookstores like those in Brooklyn. I visited five in the New York City borough this past weekend and was reminded what we miss out here in the other-land that sells books via food markets, big-box “I can sell you everything” stores and, of course, Barnes & Noble. The browsing was extraordinary, tables covered not with the typical and predictable, rather the unusual and hard to find in novels, art books, travel memoirs, classics and literary non-fiction. Here I found shelves devoted to the New York Review Book Classics Series and Melville House Art of the Novella Series. I found signed books in paperback and hard-cover, including The Day Before Happiness by Italian author Erri de Luca at Book Court in Cobble Hill.  A very nice store with a wide space for author readings. This independent has been around since 1981.

The Community Bookstore in the Park Slope area of Brooklyn is a small, comfortable shop filled with literary discoveries. A cat snoozed beside a bookcase and a lizard chirped in the back of the store. This is the kind of shop we all think about when imagining an independent bookstore, crowded with books but easily navigated and smartly organized, cozy in lighting and exuding a sensory feel of profound riches. One shelf provided the personal recommendations of authors who reside in Brooklyn, including Paul Auster, Mary Morris and Jonathan Safran Foer. 

I came away with one of those Melville House novellas, Henry James’ The Lesson of the Master, and also Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward, which recently won the National Book Award for fiction — a choice copy because it’s a first edition without the NBA award sticker. Also, Evelyn Waugh’s A Handful of Dust, which somewhere in my reading this year someone said must be read, and also The Conference of the Birds by Peter Sis.

Greenlight Books is nearby in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, a bright modern space offering a plethora of signed books, many of them paperbacks stacked among the unsigned, the signature within signified by a sticker. Here I purchased a signed copy of my all-time favorite Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem and also a debut novel by Justin Torres, We the Animals, which I’ve been meaning to read since it came out this year. A glance at their literature shelf, and there I saw not only Hans Fallada’s popular Everyman Dies Alone, but also his lesser-known books.  It’s just that which is so lacking in literary mega-store retail and depriving us of possibility and exposure — the lesser-known books kept in stock to be discovered.

Most impressive for its distinctive selections is Spoonbill & Sugartown Booksellers (“I’ve been to Sugartown, I shook the sugar down”*) in the  Williamsburg area of Brooklyn. I couldn’t figure out its focus at first, seeing eclectic art, philosophy and design books among recently released novels on its large center table in the small space. The bookseller told me “it’s not a literary bookstore,” and then added the owners don’t like it when she says that, but it’s true. 

There’s something very different about Spoonbill & Sugartown, as if the selections come from someone’s vision for the store, which has been around since 1999. The store’s website says, “We also hand pick thousands of good books every month for our voracious clientele.” The bookseller told me the owners are descended from a former gallery owner in New York City and that the bookstore opened with books from his personal library. I wish I could’ve spent more time asking questions about the store’s history, but it was time to move on. I came away with a copy of Rudolph Wurlitzer’s Hard Travel to Sacred Places.

Also in the Williamsburg area, selling used books and specializing in literary fiction, both classic and contemporary, is bookthugnation. I didn’t spend much time here, but I came away with a vintage paperback, Aldous Huxley’s After the Fireworks and Other Stories. It was originally published as Brief Candles by Harper & Bros. and likely one of those paperback editions bestowed with a passionate,romantic illustration to sell more copies.

Across the street, not a bookshop but the Brooklyn Art Library where the Sketchbook Project is underway, a collaborative series of art books created by 5,000 artists. Anyone can participate. The Brooklyn Art Library sells vintage notebooks, art supplies and stationary inspired by the past.

If you go to Brooklyn, here’s where you’ll find the bookstores:

  • BookCourt 163 Court Street, Cobble Hill
  • Community Bookstore 143 7th Avenue, Park Slope
  • Greenlight Bookstore 686 Fulton Street, Fort Greene
  • Spoonbill & Sugartown Booksellers 218 Bedford Avenue, Williamsburg
  • Bookthugnation 100 N. 3rd Street, Williamsburg

*Quoted on the Spoonbill & Sugartown bookmark, this line is from a Bob Dylan song, Tryin’ to Get to Heaven.

The title of this post was changed 12.13.11. It formerly was “I’ve been to Sugartown.”

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