I don’t know if it was just me or my mood or what, but Evelyn Waugh’s comic novel that the NYT Book Review called “thoroughly enjoyable, uproariously funny” just felt like a P.G. Wodehouse wannabe, except more pretentious and not nearly as accessible or humorous. Scoop is a parody of the world of sensational journalism, and as such it’s neither dated nor inaccurate. If anything, Big Journalism has become more unreliable and farcical in the twenty-first century than it seems to have been in 1937-38 when this book was first published. But I did keep thinking, as I read the story of the accidental foreign correspondent for the Daily Beast, William Boot, that I’d rather be reading about Bertie Wooster and Jeeves.
In a case of mistaken identity, Boot is sent to the country of Ishmalia to cover an incipient rebellion. Although set in a fictional country in North or East Africa (near Soudan?, Waugh’s spelling), the novel doesn’t really have much to say about Africa either. The Africans in the novel are simply foils for the oh-so-comical exploits of the European press corps and the politicians who seek to exploit the Africans. The N-word makes frequent appearances, and although the mere appearance of such a term doesn’t offend me as much as it does some people, the attitude of condescension and superiority that all the Europeans in the novel have toward “the natives” does make for reader discomfort and weariness after a while.
“The novel is partly based on Waugh’s own experience working for the Daily Mail, when he was sent to cover Benito Mussolini’s expected invasion of Abyssinia – what was later known as the Second Italo-Abyssinian War. When he got his own scoop on the invasion he telegraphed the story back in Latin for secrecy, but they discarded it.” Wikipedia
Now that’s funny.
One main idea in the novel is that the news reporters create the news. Even if nothing of importance is happening, where there are reporters, news must happen. So the reporters make it happen or make it up. Nowadays with CNN and the internet and the 24 hour news cycle, news must be created even faster and in greater quantity. Maybe that insight is worth wading through some of the obscure slang and bewildering politics of Scoop, but I’m not sure.
“And the granite sky wept.”
“So the rain fell and the afternoon and the evening were succeeded by another night and another morning.”
“William once more turned to the Pension Dressler; the dark clouds opened above him; the gutters and wet leaves sparkled in sunlight and a vast, iridescent fan of colour, arc beyond arc of splendor, spread across the heavens. The journalists had gone, and a great peace reigned in the city.”
Scoop is the first book I’ve read from my Classics Club list. I’m hoping it only gets better from here.