- Author: Evelyn Waugh (1903 – 1966)
- Published: 1938
- Publisher: Chapman and Hall
- Pages: 222 (Penguin Books)
- First Line: “While still a young man, John Courteney Boot had, as his publisher proclaimed, ‘achieved an assured and enviable position in contemporary letters.’”
- Last Line: “Outside the owls hunted maternal rodents and their furry brood.”
- Film: 1972 BBC serial, 1987 TV movie
- Acclaim: Modern Library Top 100 English-Language Novels of the 20th Century #75; The Observer’s Top 100 Novels of All-Time
- First Read: Spring 1993
The Novel: If you think about Evelyn Waugh at all, and you likely don’t, you probably think of “Masterpiece Theater”. Or, you might be like Anna Ferris’ character in Lost in Translation and think he is a she (and mispronounce the first name). And so, you’re probably wondering how I’m about to compare him to Émile Zola and Sinclair Lewis.
The first comparison is to Zola. Months ago I wrote a piece on La Bête humaine, the great Zola novel. In that piece, I mentioned that I had never read Zola before a few years ago in spite of a degree in Literature, and reading my way through many great books lists. Waugh is another author I didn’t read in school, but I did come across him on the great books lists (this book I specifically read because it was on the Modern Library list, one of the few nice surprises on the list). I suspect that had I grown up in England my lack of Waugh reading in school might have been rectified, just as I mentioned in my Zola post that few people read Zola, but in France he is still widely read. Waugh is quintessentially British as Zola was quintessentially French and both are still appreciated in their home countries in a way they don’t seem to be here. And both are great authors and deserve wider readerships here.
Then there is Sinclair Lewis. If I were making a list of the very best American writers, it would include names like Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Roth, Bellow and Morrison, but Lewis would not be on it. These authors were represented in my Top 100 list. On the other hand, Sinclair Lewis, who didn’t appear at all in the Top 100, had 4 novels in the second 100. He would be right there in the Second Tier of American writers. Waugh is the British equivalent; he would not join Greene, Lawrence, Hardy and Woolf at the top, but the 3 novels of his in my second 100 would place him in the Second Tier. Lewis and Waugh were the only writers with more than 2 novels in my second 100 who weren’t in my Top 100.
I had never read Evelyn Waugh before the Modern Library list came out in 1998, but I was familiar with who he was because my parents, avid “Masterpiece Theater” viewers, has watched “Brideshead”. I began with A Handful of Dust, the film version of which I had already seen. I thought it was well-written, but it nothing like I would encounter with Scoop. Scoop was the middle of the three Waugh novels on the list – far below Handful (not surprising to most people) but above Brideshead (very surprising, I would think, to most people). It is very different from those two novels – a satirical look at the newspaper industry in Britan between the wars and scathing satire of governmental relations.
It begins with a bit of misdirection. In the first sentence we meet John Courteney Boot, a decent-selling author who wants to get away from London for a bit (“So it’s come to that?” he is asked by his friend Julia Stitch, a woman who is amazing at making things happen “All on account of your American girl?” She had warned him, apparently: “To my certain knowledge she’s driven three men into the bin.” Julia is a wonder – she drives a tiny car, and, well, not well: “Julia always drove herself, in the latest model of mass-produced baby car; brand-new twice a year, painted an invariable brilliant black, tiny and glossy as a midget’s funeral hearse. She mounted the kerb and bowled rapidly along the pavement to the corner of St James’s, where a policeman took her number and ordered her into the road.”). It is suggested to the head of The Daily Beast that Boot be made a war correspondent, who seems positively inclined (“Only last week the Poet Laureate wrote us an ode to the seasonal fluctuation of our net sales. We splashed it on the middle page. He admitted it was the most poetic and highly-paid week he had ever done.”). But, as word makes its way to the Managing Editor, he notices “At the back of the paper, ignominiously sandwiched between Pip and Pop, the Bedtime Pets, and the recipe for a dish named ‘Waffle Scramble,’ lay the bi-weekly half-column devoted to Nature: LUSH PLACES, edited by William Boot, countryman.” Naturally this is the boot, straight from the British pastoral scene, who is yanked from his country home, set to work to gather himself in London, and then thrown, after much confusion, onto a plane for Africa and the heart of a civil war.
The war itself is confusing for poor Boot even before he has left England: “I gather it’s between the Reds and the Blacks,” he tells Mr. Salter, the managing editor. The reply shows the brilliant satire that Waugh indulges in here, in those desperate days between the wars when such a thing lost its sense of humor:
“Yes, but it’s not quite as easy as that. You see, they are all Negroes. And the Fascists won’t be called black because of their racial pride, so they are called White after the White Russians. And the Bolshevists want to be called black because of their racial pride. So when you say black you mean red, and when you mean red you say white and when the party who call themselves blacks say traitors they mean what we call blacks, but what we mean when we say traitors I really couldn’t tell you. But from your point of view it will be quite simple. Lord Copper only wants Patriot victories and both sides call themselves patriots, and of course both sides will claim all the victories.”
In one paragraph, Waugh has managed to satirize both the war itself and the ridiculousness of such conflicts, as well as the way that the press deigns to cover it (much of the rest of the book will focus on how the press deigns to cover it, or not cover it, or make it up, as the case may be). And before Boot can even get out of England there is a considerable amount of trouble (and more than a considerable amount of humor) concerning his passport.
I don’t want to stress too much on the plot, because it is more about the humor than the plot itself. It nails the press, nails foreign affairs, nails the government, nails high society (“Lord Copper quite often gave banquets; it would be an understatement to say that no one else enjoyed them more than the host, for no one else enjoyed them at all, while Lord Copper positively exulted in every minute.”) and even nails those far away from all of it (“Discussion had raged for some days; every suggested economy seemed to strike invidiously at individual members of the household. At last it was decided to give up the telephone. Aunt Anne sometimes spoke bitterly of the time when ‘my nephew Roderick won the war by cutting me off from my few surviving friends,’ but the service had never been renewed.”).
In the brief knowledge I had of Waugh before I first read this book, this is nothing like I would have expected of him. Of course, this isn’t the only humorous book among his works. You could try Vile Bodies, one of his earliest novels, or The Loved One, a brutally funny book written after his disastrous trip to Hollywood. The point is, you should try him. Because the odds are, unless you’re British, you probably haven’t.
The Film: The 1987 television film made of Scoop was made in Britain, with a core of solid British actors (Michael Maloney, who would later be one of Branagh’s regulars stars as Boot and Denholm Elliot is the managing editor), so there was never any question that the adaptation could possibly be bad. There’s a certain quality built-in to this kind of production. But, the question was going to be, given the style of the novel, how good could it possibly be? The answer is, about as good as could be expected – it’s nothing on the level of a great television adaptation of a novel like Tinker Tailor but it’s solidly enjoyable and well-made.
The question was going to be over the matter of tone. The book is darkly satirical, tearing apart not only the Fleet Street business of making news, but also British society at the time as well as international relations. Look at the funniest scenes in the book – when poor Boot is trying to get his passport in order so that he can leave on the trip. Those scenes only work in book form, partially because of the extreme level of satire which would have sounded forced on screen, and partially because things always leave off at a certain point. The scene where his passport is destroyed would have been hard to put on film. So, the filmmakers wisely limited scenes like that and moved him rather quickly off to Africa to be involved in the larger complications of the actual plot, not to mention the bit of love story that would have helped to get it made in the first place.
Maloney is really a bit of inspired casting as Boot. Years before he would at least get some modicum of fame working with Branagh, his charm, his complete Britishness, his ability to work as a comedic actor (not a surprise to anyone who has seen In the Bleak Midwinter, but since no one but me ever seems to have seen In the Bleak Midwinter, I’ll just say it wasn’t a surprise to me) all work together to form the perfect shy little Brit, comfortable away on his estate writing about the pastoral scene, but suddenly swept off into a much larger, darker world that, like his own little country estate, bears no resemblance to the reality of the rest of the world.
Then there is Denholm Elliott. For three decades Elliott worked in film, television and stage, often in the background, a smaller character, sometimes quite seedy (think his role in Alfie). But in the early 80’s, the Brits finally seemed to realize the treasure they had on their hands. He became, rather quickly, one of the best character actors working in film, with great roles in Raiders, Trading Places, A Private Function, Defence of the Realm and A Room with a View. Elliott both lends a solid anchor to the proceedings and a comic foyle, setting things up in the first place by sending the wrong Boot off to Africa. But the quiet moment he has with Maloney at the end of the film provides for a nice, charming ending to what, after all, is a nice charming television film. If it doesn’t have the brutal satire of the original novel, it still is an enjoyable watch.
Evelyn Waugh Editions: Like with many great authors of the first half of the 20th Century, you have several choices.
- Penguin paperbacks (orange) – There are editions of these published in the 1970’s and that’s the edition I have of Scoop (I also have this edition of Brideshead Revisited). They have the typical orange Penguin spine and nice artwork on the covers. You can see many of them here.
- Everyman’s Library – In the late 90’s and early 00’s many of the Waugh novels were published in nice hardcovers by Everyman’s Library. Scoop was published in a single volume with three other novels. That edition is currently out of print.
- Penguin Classics (blue hardcover) – There are new editions of Waugh’s works out in nice matching Penguin hardcovers. Here is that edition of Scoop.
- Little, Brown (70’s) – The cover up at the top is from this set. They are nicely stylized and the edition I try to collect Waugh in. Like with many other authors (Greene, Bellow, Lawrence, Woolf), I stick to one particular edition because it was the one I had first (my first Waugh book was A Handful of Dust).
- Little, Brown / Back Bay (2000’s) – In 1993, Little, Brown started Back Bay Books as an imprint for their fiction. The Waugh titles were moved there (some of the older covers you can find with the Back Bay imprint). They then did new covers – the ones that are easiest to find in used bookstores today (here is that version of Scoop). You can see several of them here. But, like Penguin and Random House, they continue to throw new covers on their books, so there are even newer editions, though they lack the style of the older versions.