Scoop, by Evelyn Waugh
This uproariously funny novel is an example of what happens when someone uses their imagination and their experience to the best possible outcome. In the mid 1930’s, Waugh was sent without experience as a correspondent to cover the war in Ethiopia against the Italians, and that informs his work here. In our contemporary world, we are used to bumbling foreign correspondents whose knowledge of the world is limited but who are experts in their field. It is not a new phenomenon, and this book is a helpful reminder of the author’s cynicism in a situation where at least some cynicism about the press seems warranted . In this novel you get a glimpse of newspaper writing in the pre-internet age, as well as some humorous discussions of travel and the accidents of being in the right place at the right time told through the perspective a particularly appealing but naive writer who is wholly unsuited for the task of being a daring international correspondent but whose native pluck and decency serves him well in his accidental mission handled in best blundering fashion. There is certainly a lot to be enjoyed here.
The setup of the novel, which is around 270 pages in this edition, is superb. A case of mistaken identity from Lord Copper, owner and managing editor of the Daily Beast, leads him to pluck a shy writer named William Boot out of his obscure and peaceful existence writing about country life and sends him off to be a war correspondent to a supposed civil war in the obscure African republic of Ishmaelia. Through a comic series of events he manages to be the only reporter who doesn’t go to an imaginary city to cover an imaginary war effort, and so he manages to scoop his competitors on a real story and earn a degree of fame as a war correspondent before things return to normal and everyone goes home. We see the lure of mineral concession rights, the poisonous competition between fascism and communism, and the high-handed attitudes of people who think themselves to be lords of the press, as well as the behavior of those who simply want to live a modest life but whose desires to do so are prevented because of their skill with the pen and the ends to which that skill can be put, with hilarious results.
Speaking somewhat personally, I found the narrator to be a rather Nathanism person, from his enjoyment of a relaxed life and his passion about somewhat obscure subjects to the fact that he finds himself involved in dramatic situations because of misunderstandings and blunders but manages to cope successfully with them all the same. The novel presents competing visions about what it means to be truly English by contrasting the London scene with the provincial one, and also manages to puncture a great deal of the pride that the press takes in its own work. One wonders whether Waugh, who was notoriously cynical in his writings, would have written so savagely about the press without being experienced as a neophyte war correspondent, and while that is likely to have been the case, his own writing informs his work here and makes his native sardonic wit even more pointed. While Boot is an appealing protagonist, there are a lot of other people involved here who have their own motives which just happen to coincide with Boot’s success as a writer despite not having much of a clue about what to do and how to handle a situation that is far different than anything he was led to believe by people who barely knew more than himself.
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