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A masterpiece of simple passages, profound effect

A Handful of Dust
By Evelyn Waugh
Back Bay, 320 pp., paperback, $14.95

Saturated in images, we may have forgotten what it is like to be frightened by literature, or mere words on the page. But few narratives can be more frightening -- and more slowly so -- than ''The Man Who Liked Dickens," a short story by Evelyn Waugh transposed into the penultimate chapter of his 1934 novel, ''A Handful of Dust." A lone English explorer, Tony Last, washed up in the remotest reaches of the Amazon, is saved and brought back to health by a Mr. Todd, who asks only of his charge that, since he, Todd, unfortunately, is illiterate, Tony read Dickens aloud to him, a few hours each day. Slowly the reader realizes, about as slowly as Tony, that this man Todd will never let him go; that no one in civilization will hear from him again; that, like at least one man before him, he will be reading Dickens for the rest of his life.

There was a search party from England, Todd acknowledges at one point, but unfortunately Tony had been asleep -- drugged -- for two days. ''It is a pity you missed them," Todd says. ''A pity for them, too, as they particularly wished to see you. . . . I gave them a little souvenir, your watch. They wanted something to take back to England where a reward is being offered for news of you. They were very pleased with it. And they took some photographs of the little cross I put up to commemorate your coming. They were pleased with that, too. They were very easily pleased. But I do not suppose they will visit us again." For a reader it evokes what must be the feeling of waking up to discover one has been buried alive.

Waugh's readers revere him for his relentlessness, the savagery of his humor and its unpitying, unflinching response to all life, all joys and tragedies. It seems steelier than what we are used to; we don't know others who write like this. In this regard ''A Handful of Dust" may be his masterpiece. The slow cuckolding of a decent man by his heedless wife, the accidental death of a child, exile, and finally Tony's encounter with Todd: The novel is a progression of catastrophes, each recounted with relish and a pleasing, if bracing, and utterly complete lack of sentimentality or, it can seem, sentiment.

It would be easy to see the novel as heartless, only it is so much more serious than that. The Coen brothers' movies are heartless; there is never the sense on the screen that these are real people. Feeling is the one thing their creators have not invested in them. They might amuse us, these pastiche characters, but in the end we do not recognize them. Waugh can be said to have written like that too, in his earliest novels (like ''Decline and Fall" and ''Vile Bodies") about the ''bright young things" of the '20s, but he himself knew that in ''A Handful of Dust" something else was at work; as he wrote in a letter to a friend, ''For the first time I am trying to deal with normal people instead of eccentrics."

As ''normal people" its characters are not easily recognizable to contemporary Americans or anyone else unfamiliar with the English upper-middle classes, and there is that one eccentric -- Todd -- whom we probably don't feel can live, any more than a Monty Python sketch character can be said to have lived. But the book is deeply felt, moving, and, one feels even now, true; each scene or episode -- save the last, except perhaps as allegory -- is something that we know happens to people. There is no excess. Each shattering turning point in Tony's life is told so simply we wonder why all writers can't do it, to similar effect -- the death of his son John Andrew riding his horse (''Then this happened"); the discovery, after everyone else in London, of his wife's adultery (''He had got into a habit of loving and trusting Brenda," which is only one of the times we shall see this phrase). For an often ornamental, even baroque writer whose prose got ahead of itself in works like ''Brideshead Revisited," it is the pared-down storytelling that absorbs us, the following plain sentences with which significant passages end: ''That was how the New Year began"; ''They discussed this problem in all its aspects"; ''Everyone agreed that it was nobody's fault"; and ''All this kept him awake."

For the exquisite stylist (ambiguous compliment) had also an exquisite ear. Waugh's contemporary V. S. Pritchett has tried to undo the myth of ''a writer who jumps with inspired carelessness from one fantasy to the next," citing among Waugh's strengths his ''accuracy" in dialogue, its ''grave exactitude." For all its unremarkable language, no reader will soon forget the momentary confusion of Tony's wife, Brenda, when news is brought to her of her son's death. Suffice it to say that her London lover, a proverbial worthless young man, is also named John.

The title is from ''The Waste Land"; the epigraph of this novel whose protagonist casts no shadow quotes four of Eliot's lines: ''I will show you something different from either / Your shadow at morning striding behind you / Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you." Then this: ''I will show you fear in a handful of dust."

Eric Weinberger teaches expository writing at Harvard University.

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