As a writer, sometimes you read something and wonder why you even bother with writing. You will never be as brilliant as *insert writer name here*, so why waste your time. You can just tell everyone to go read *insert writer name here*..
I recently got that feeling (I’m here to tell you that what can be a joy as a reader can be agony as a writer). The first thirty-five pages of Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop are so good that I can replace the unknown writer from the first paragraph with Waugh and not feel in the least bit guilty.
Now, I’m no stranger to Waugh’s work, but Brideshead Revisited is a very different animal. It’s a beautiful book, and a beautifully written book, but it’s not a brilliant book of the kind that makes you shake your head in wonder that someone can make words do what they are doing.
That feeling only comes once in a while. Wodehouse is probably the guy who does it to me most often, but Waugh… well, the first thirty-five pages of this one are pure gold.
It can’t go on, of course, and once the story hits Africa, it loses a little momentum and becomes merely very good and very entertaining. Also, the characterization of how things work in a third world country are spot-on. Modern readers from the developed world might be offended at the generalizations about banana republic governments, but I’m writing to you from Argentina to say that it’s perfectly all right and you can read the book without guilt. Waugh satirizes it perfectly.
And that doesn’t even touch on the central tenet of the book: Waugh’s masterful send-up of the British newspaper industry, its lords and ladies and hangers-on. Though the misunderstandings in the plot are worthy of the Marx Brothers, it comes across as truth… and I’m pretty certain that there’s a central kernel of true story around which each of the anecdotes in the book accreted. It would be fascinating to have lived back then to know which ones.
Like in Dickens, the characters are archetypical with the most predatory of all being “the girl” as in “boy meets girl”. In Waugh, of course, boy certainly does not keep girl… and the reasons for it are spectacularly funny.
Also interesting is that Waugh was apparently conscious of the way this book’s style approximated Wodehouse’s. He even named a character Bertie Wodehouse-Bonner in case anyone missed the point. Two masters coming together in prose.
I’ve had my eye on the Folio Society edition of Vile Bodies for a while now, and my reading of Scoop has pushed it to the very top of my list.
Do yourself a favor and read this one. It will make you happy.
Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer. He has recently launched a collection of linked short stories entitled Love and Death. You can check it out here.