Evelyn Waugh once said about his work, “I regard writing not as investigation of character but as an exercise in the use of language, and with this I am obsessed. I have no technical psychological interest. It is drama, speech and events that interest me.”
The carefully crafted “drama, speech and events” by which Waugh was so intrigued, serve, in Scoop, to satirize journalism – specifically, British journalism in the 1930s. Here’s a little snippet of the novel that serves as a marvellous example:
Corker looked at [Boot] sadly. “You know, you’ve got a lot to learn about journalism. Look at it this way. New is what a chap who doesn’t care much about anything wants to read. And it’s only news until he’s read it. After that it’s dead. We’re paid to supply news . . . “
Corker recounted the heroic legends of Fleet Street; . . . how Wenlock Jakes, highest paid journalist of the United States, scooped the world with the sinking of the Lusitania four hours before she was hit; how Hitchcock, the English Jakes, straddling over his desk in London, had chronicled day by day the horrors of the Messina earthquake; how Corker himself, not three months back, had had the rare good fortune to encounter a knight’s widow trapped by the foot between lift and landing.
Waugh is lively, over-the-top and scathing. He doesn’t limit his castigation to exploitive journalists, either; European mining of African resources, government bureaucracy, bribery of officials, expense accounts, things tourists are interested in while abroad – all is fodder for his biting wit. Perhaps it sounds a little dry and political; don’t be turned off, though. Scoop is a funny, fascinating read.
And it’s wondrously written! The novel actually startled me with its clarity; I was surprised, stung, by the perfectly chosen words, the sharply set scenes, the articulate conversation. Consider this excerpt from the beginning of the novel:
After an early luncheon, William went to say good-bye to his grandmother. She looked at him with doleful, mad eyes. “Going to London, eh? Well, I hardly suppose I shall be alive when you return. Wrap up warm, dear.” It was eternal winter in Mrs. Boot’s sunny bedroom.
With just forty-eight words, Waugh paints a vibrant picture of William Boot (the protagonist) and his grandmother: Boot, the man of routine, whose life’s rhythm is being interrupted by a forthcoming trip to London; his grandmother, with whom he has a cordial relationship, a woman of hilarious gloominess. I don’t think I’ve come across an author yet that can say so much with so few words!
Humourously, Boot is the very opposite. When he’s coerced into taking the position of foreign correspondent in Ishmaelia, an assignment for which he is quite unsuited, Boot is told to keep in touch with his editor by cable. These expensive missives, meant to be succinct, are ridiculously wordy (and highlight the bumbling quality of his reporting): “DONT WORRY QUITE SAFE AND WELL IN FACT RATHER ENJOYING THINGS WEATHER IMPROVING WILL CABLE AGAIN IF THERE IS ANY NEWS YOURS BOOT.” Too funny!
Boot is likeable, but hapless – the perfect character to navigate the seas of foolishness Waugh sees around him. I’d love to explore more worlds conjured up by this magician of a wordsmith!
How about you? What were your thoughts after reading Scoop? Have you read any other novels by Evelyn Waugh you’d recommend?