Evelyn Waugh is often described as a comedic author. If he is, then his novels must be categorized as extremely dark comedies. I laughed twice during A Handful of Dust, but only twice. And yet much of the powerful effect of the novel comes from jarringly conflicting elements juxtaposed in a comedic way. So the traditional label does make sense. Brenda Last develops a thing for Mr Beaver and asks Tony Last for a divorce. Everyone “agrees” (I’m not sure how) that it will be “convenient” for Brenda to be the plaintiff in the court case. So Tony’s solicitor hires detectives and Tony hires a woman to spend a weekend with him at the beach – and then he consults with the detectives on what he should do so they can “catch” him. Detectives don’t make plans with their targets, right?
When I was about nine years old, my parents took me to see The Cactus Flower. I remember laughing out loud at the line “That’s my wife, all right. And with her boyfriend.” I also remember my parents giving me a look that said, “That is not anything to laugh about.” But I was nine. I didn’t know what any of it meant. I just saw the crazy juxtaposition, so I laughed. Every nine-year-old knows that a person’s mouth is not a radio. But Gilligan’s mouth becomes a radio, so it’s funny. Every nine-year-old knows that people don’t make cages out of water pipes. But Curly Howard traps himself in a maze of plumbing, so it’s funny. Every nine-year-old knows that married women don’t have boyfriends. But in The Cactus Flower, they do, so it’s funny. I don’t know why my parents didn’t see it.
But of course I do know why they didn’t see it. Sadly, although we never lose our understanding that mouths are not radios and that plumbers don’t make cages, we all find out soomer or later that many wives do indeed have boyfriends. So the line in The Cactus Flower is both funny (I wasn’t the only person in the theater laughing) and tragic. And in this way, A Handful of Dust is both funny and tragic, even if you want to cry more than you want to laugh.
Another way to put it: If comedic scenes like the one from Gilligan’s Island and the one from the Three Stooges work by putting on screen a mad situation that conflicts with the standard of reality, can’t it be funny to focus on a mad situation from real life that conflicts with a higher standard of how things could be – or even should be? And Waugh does exactly this. He portrays modern society in all of its veneer-crusted emptiness, and yet his narration and pacing always carry an undertone of criticism. By making his scenes and characters excruciatingly realistic, he writes satire, because modern life itself is a satire. And whether I laugh out loud or not, I see satire as funny.
Yes, I know that by recognizing comedy in a story of divorce, I’m laughing at the Fall of Man. But somehow, scowling at sin in a story often ends up feeling judgmental, while laughing at sin in a story seems to keep me aware that I’m one of the good old sinners, too. Thanks for reminding me, Mr Waugh.