How witty and tongue-in-cheek can one get? This is a delightful novel written in 1938. It is a satire on the field of journalism, conveyed through the experiences of William Boot, a naive nature writer with no ambition who is hired in error as a foreign correspondent by the Daily Beast (now I know what inspired Tina Brown) and then sent to the fictional east African country of Ishmaelia.
The confusion begins when William Boot is contacted instead of fiction writer John Boot by the foreign editor, Salter, and the managing editor, both incomptents who are beholden to their authoritarian publisher, Lord Copper. The confusion lasts until the very end, when John is rewarded instead of William and Uncle Theodore is accepted to replace William.
But not only are the Beast people incompetent, so are the competing papers and fellow foreign correspondents that William meets in Ishmaelia. These correspondents are easily road-blocked and then sent on wild-goose chases by the local government of Ishmaelia, whose own actions are arbitrary and incompetent. Waugh, of course, is having fun with all of these people—with London society which fumbles it influences, with the newspaper editors out to please their boss, with the gullible foreign correspondents, and with the doctrinaire Ishmaelia government, a country run by one family, the Jacksons.
Some today will look back at the description of the men who run this country, and accuse Waugh of racism. Actually, however, he is having the same fun with these incompetent blacks as he is with London society and the journalistic profession. Such satire in those days, the thirties, was acceptable; but we look at such matters differently today.
The bitterest comment on the press is when both the bosses and the correspondents think that nothing is happening in Ishmaelia, so they had better come up with something to justify their time there. William, however, is too naive to understand this, and has to be taught by friendly companions both the hidden political life in that country and the meaning of the cables that he is receiving from his London bosses. Until the Scoop of the title—the scoop of what is really happening in Ishmaelia—has to be explained to him by others. A great example of his incompetence is when he meets the British ambassador and fails to inform him of what he has just learned about the plot against the Ishmaelia government—and fails to get his own resulting scoop in return.
This is Waugh at his finest, as he looks down on all these people, turning them into incompetent fools. It is perhaps characteristic of this author, who will later be revealed to be secure in his conservative faith, that here he writes with the smug attitude of a self-satisfied member of society. Unlike Greene.
Which may help to explain why Greene used his faith as the core of his early novels, because he had doubts about it; and these doubts provided the (internal) conflict that is at the heart of literature. Whereas, since Waugh had no doubts about his faith, he turned to society for his subject matter. And so, where Greene is deeply involved with his characters, Waugh is quite aloof.
The greatest fun with this novel is at the beginning, when the confusion sends the unprepared William to Africa, and at the end, when the Beast tries to reward him for his success. My favorite scene, in fact, is at the end, when Salter travels to rural England to William’s home in order to persuade him to continue working for the Beast and to attend Lord Copper’s banquet in his honor. His hike from the railroad station, his arrival unkempt (the family thinks he is drunk), and his meeting of this eccentric family—all this is delightful, Waugh’s devastating portrait of rural English society.
William’s success abroad is, of course, none of his doing. The result is a lot of byways in the early portion of his travels in Ishmaelia; and it slows the novel until the revolutionary activity is revealed. In the meantime, we are introduced to Katchen, a Polish girl without a country who is married (sort of) to a German who has disappeared into the interior of Ishmaelia.
Katchen is the “love” interest for William, who thinks he loves her but is not really interested in love. Neither is she, of course, except to get the Beast’s money she can finagle through William. Interest picks up when her husband returns, and they escape uproariously in a canoe William gives them. Her presence works, however, because her husband is involved in the search for minerals that interests both the Germans and the Russians and motivates the basic story, their attempts to take over the government of Ishmaelia.
And then there is the mysterious “Baldwin,” who travels incognito with William on his way to Africa, is helped by William, and then parachutes into Ishmaelia to save the day for the government—and William. He also provides an opportunity for Waugh, through exaggeration, to needle the Soviets.
Waugh spent time in Africa covering the Italian invasion of Abyssinia, and this novel is said to be inspired by that experience. Further speculation relates many of these fictional characters to real journalists, from Lord Beaverbrook (Lord Copper) to John Gunther (Jakes).
Waugh wraps up the fate of his various characters in the final two pages. It is clever and somewhat arbitrary, but it works, not least because it is in keeping with the aloof style of the rest of the novel.
To sum up, this is marvelous Waugh—to be appreciated especially by journalists, who are the victims of his satire. But he spreads the satire all around: to politicians, to high society, to publishers, to empire builders, to dictators, even to the Communists. The work is both witty and funny, witty in style, funny in subject matter. And most of all, its characters act believably even as they act deviously or stupidly. The naïve William is truly three-dimensional. The remaining characters are not, but they are alive on these pages because they are so incompetent. (June, 2013)