Thursday, October 25, 2018

Literary dust

W.G. Sebald’s comments about dust and my own efforts to rid some books and shelves of dust just prompted me to think about dust in literature.

Can you think of a work of literature in English in which dust plays a significant part? I can think of three; there may be many more. Leave your answer(s) in a comment, and we’ll see how things add up.

comments: 21

Elaine Fine said...

"I will show you fear in a handful of dust" ("The Waste Land")
I'm sure Grapes of Wrath has lots of dust in it as well. And there's dust all over the place in Great Expectations

Chris said...

The Grapes of Wrath, of course, though that's not ordinary house dust.

Frex said...

I only have a dusty answer...
Ha, ha.
"Dusty Answer," by Rosamond Lehmann (1927--I read the Virago reprint when I was an ardent young feminist--loved it but haven't even thought of it again... till now).
Of course dust is not really in it.
Not literal dust.
Title from the lines, "Ah, what a dusty answer gets the soul, when hot for certainties in this our life!"--George Meredith
But, again, mopey, but no real dust.

Jesus writing in the dust comes to mind--that's a stretch of your question: It says "ground" not "dust"... and it's not "in English" (originally)-- but it introduces such a great unanswered question people that still discuss: what was he writing?

I feel like Edgar Allan Poe and Agatha Christie and JRR Tolkein surely all must have employed dust in some significant, but I can't come up with any example. Aaargh.
Must muse some more on this...

Michael Leddy said...

Thanks for playing, Chris and Elaine. I had Dickens and Steinbeck. I didn’t think of Eliot, though now I remember that there’s dust in Four Quartets too (“Dust inbreathed was a house,” I think, and dust on a bowl of rose-leaves). I’ll spill my third work if no one has it.

Michael Leddy said...

Fresca, thanks for playing. I didn’t see your comment until after I added mine.

Dust in the title should get bonus points. There’s also Evelyn Waugh, A Handful of Dust (TSE!), and William Faulkner, Intruder in the Dust, though I’m not sure that dust really plays a part in either novel.

The Poe is easy: “The Tell-Tale Dust.” Isn’t that it? The one with the narrator who keeps finding dust bunnies, no matter how often he cleans?

There’s still at least one more work with major dust. Anyone?

Frex said...

Can't think of a direct example, but coal dust is significant in DH Lawrence.
I'm thinking of the movies of his work, really--- eyes looking out from faces black with dust---does he have some spectacular passages about it? I wouldn't know because I can't stand to read him--but certainly all those cruddy lungs are significant to his work.

A couple other significant dusts came to mind--coal dust, both.
These aren't answers to your question because they are movies, not literature, but they're fun, so I'll mention them.

1. "The Lady Vanishes"
Miss Froy writes her name on a train window (it's the 1930s, so it's not said, but the window I assume must be dirty with coal dust), for the young heroine to read. Later when Miss Froy has disappeared and everyone's trying to convince the young heroine that Miss Froy never existed, the heroine sees the name on the window again, and knows she's being gaslighted.

2. "Brief Encounter"
The married lovers only meet because she gets coal dust in her eye at the train station, and he, a doctor, takes it out. Then they must have tea, and so forth, and so on...

Frex said...

I keep thinking there must be some classic mystery that hinges on dust--showing where something has been moved... but I just can't place it.
There's "dusting" for fingerprints, of course.

And, related--clues from footprints. Not exactly dust, but Sherlock Holmes says the dirt in someone's soles is the wrong color--of course he knows his dust.

And now I shall say, I do not know, I retire from the game, eager to hear your final

Frex said...

P.P.S. Dust bunnies! *snorts* Good one.

Frex said...

OF COURSE D.H. Lawrence writes about coal dust--I cheated and looked it up, and he has a chapter "Coal-Dust" in _Women in Love_---I remember it well... from the Ken Russell movie.

I loved it when I was 15, but now I cringe a bit at this sort of thing:

"On the roads silted with black ***dust,*** the rich light fell more warmly, more heavily, over all the amorphous squalor a kind of magic was cast, from the glowing close of day.

`It has a foul kind of beauty, this place,' said Gudrun, evidently suffering from fascination. `Can't you feel in some way, a thick, hot attraction in it? I can. And it quite stupifies me.'

They were passing between blocks of miners' dwellings. In the back yards of several dwellings, a miner could be seen washing himself in the open on this hot evening, naked down to the loins, his great trousers of moleskin slipping almost away."

Michael Leddy said...

So much dust. I didn’t think of DHL. But I was thinking, right away, of James Joyce, “Eveline.” The first paragraph: “She sat at the window watching the evening invade the avenue. Her head was leaned against the window curtains and in her nostrils was the odour of dusty cretonne. She was tired.” And later: “She looked round the room, reviewing all its familiar objects which she had dusted once a week for so many years, wondering where on earth all the dust came from.” And later: “Her time was running out but she continued to sit by the window, leaning her head against the window curtain, inhaling the odour of dusty cretonne.”

Chris said...

Joseph Mitchell's "Up in the Old Hotel," where the dust in the abandoned hotel floors is a major presence.

Michael Leddy said...

Great! I would suspect that “Eveline” was an influence there.

Chris said...

And Mitchell (surprisingly? or maybe not) was a devoted Joycean. The topic of dust always makes me think of the Quay Brothers' great film adaptation of Bruno Schulz's The Street of Crocodile, which uses dust, iron filings, loose screws, and other detritus to great effect.

Michael Leddy said...

Yes, he was big on Joyce and aspired to write a Ulysses-like novel.

Given all these comments, I’m glad I posed this question.

Michael Leddy said...

How could I forget Sebald himself? Dust lurks in The Emigrants, The Rings of Saturn, and Austerlitz . Maybe in Vertigo too.

Unknown said...

How about Ron Padgett's 'The Sweeper'? A beautiful short poem about the pleasures of sweeping up dust. And of writing poems I guess:

I like to sweep the floor
with a cornstraw broom
and watch the dust mass up
and move along
each time I swing the broom.
I like the swoosh and scratch
along the boards
that brighten up as I go by.
And when I have a pile
that’s big enough. I nudge it
in the dustpan, this way
and that, until it’s all aboard,
except a thin line of dust
that can’t be smaller.
Tough little dust! I raise
the broom up high and bring
it down and past the line
to make a gust and then
the tiny dust is gone. I love
my pan of big new dust.

Michael Leddy said...

Terrific! I have that book — You Never Know. The poem must also be in the Collected Poems.

Frex said...

One more!
The influential sci-fi classic "Dune" (1965) by Frank Herbert--the whole planet is dust & sand & storms.
Sort of a sci-fi Dust Bowl.

I thought of literature in North Africa, much not written in English--but there's Paul Bowles. The Sheltering Sky is dusty...

Who knew this would get so many answers? Fun question.

Michael Leddy said...

Yes, who knew? Not me!

Daughter Number Three said...

Ursula LeGuin's The Dispossessed includes a chapter or two when the characters are assigned to work in "the dust," if I remember correctly... during a time of drought and famine. The main character develops a permanent deep dust cough.

Karen Hesse's Newbery-winning poetry/novel Out of the Dust (which I have only read once, but remember really liking) is another one.

Not sure if you will consider either of these literary exactly... but since Dune was mentioned, I figured The Dispossessed was fair game.

Michael Leddy said...

I’d say they’re fair game. I’m amazed by how many answers the question has.