Scoop. Evelyn Waugh. London and New York: Chapman & Hall, Penguin Books, 1938.
Movie comedies do not age well. Things that seemed funny 60 or 70 years ago seldom make us laugh today. That is even more true of books. Rather than laugh one is more likely to be bemused that our parents or grandparents found them funny. Yet there might be a few books that test the rule.
In 1938 Eric Voegelin slipped out of Vienna, without his boots, so to speak, just ahead of the Gestapo. In that eventful year he probably had other things to keep himself occupied besides a new British comic novel. And one must doubt he ever read it, for if he had, he certainly would have quoted from it when he wished to lighten the atmosphere. The book’s name is Scoop and the author is Evelyn Waugh. He wrote a number of comic novels but this one has always stood out. I reread it every five or ten years and surprise myself by occasionally laughing out loud. I was surprised to learn a few years ago that it was also the favorite comic novel of the late Richard John Neuhaus. And worlds apart, it became the inspiration for socialite Toni Morrison’s website, The Daily Beast.
Waugh could sketch personality in a line or two and had an ear for different voices (a rather rare quality in contemporary fiction). In this tale a young English nature writer is sent to report a war in the East African country of Ishmaelia. His encounters with the Ishmaelis and with visiting Europeans, especially veteran newspapermen, is the basis for the tale. A glimpse:
Various courageous Europeans, in the seventies of the last century, came to Ishmaelia, or near it, furnished with suitable equipment of cuckoo clocks, phonographs, opera hats, draft-treaties and flags of the nations which they had been obliged to leave. They came as missionaries, ambassadors, tradesmen, prospectors, natural scientists. None returned. They were eaten, every one of them; some raw, others stewed and seasoned – according to local usage and the calendar (for the better sort of Ishmaelites have been Christian for many centuries and will not publicly eat human flesh, uncooked, in Lent, without special and costly dispensation from their bishop).
As there was no form of government common to the peoples thus segregated, nor tie of language, history, habit, or belief, they were called a Republic. . . .
On this reading, I was surprised to see in Dr. Benito, the Director of the Ishmaeli Press Bureau, an evocation of a currently prominent American Politician.
To fully enjoy this book one should have some appreciation of the history of Europe and Africa in the first half of the 20th century and some liking for British culture. But to miss out on this little book because one hasn’t heard of it would be a shame. It has gone through many many editions and is available in paperback from internet book sellers such as ABE books.
This is the sort of read one can savor. One slows down and enjoys the conversations. We can think of nothing better to offer for a change of pace.