[The meal] was a great, white fish, cold and garnished; the children had rejected it with cries of distress; it lay on a charger of imitation silver; the two brown thumbs of the coloured steward lay just within the circle of mayonnaise, lozenges and roundels of coloured vegetables spread symmetrically about its glazed back. William looked. “It is very dangerous,” said the administrator. “In the tropics one easily contracts disease of the skin.”
If Wodehouse is fresh in my mind, I read those sentences and think they could be tighter, more rhythmic, more precise, and thereby funnier. No one has ever wrung more comedy out of the careful polishing of sentences than Wodehouse; for comedy, Waugh isn’t in his league.
But judged by a non-Wodehousian standard, the paragraph is sharp, funny, and effective. It conveys the horror the hard-luck central character sees looming ahead of him as, due to a case of mistaken identity, he sets out to cover a war in Africa. Waugh follows it up wonderfully twelve pages later—an interval just long enough for the fish to be forgotten by the reader—with a reaction on the part of the one journalist who did partake:
Corker began to wriggle his shoulders restlessly, to dive his hand into his bosom and scratch his chest, to roll up his sleeve and gaze fixedly at a forearm which was rapidly becoming mottled and inflamed.
It was the fish.
Waugh, of course, has merits that Wodehouse does not. Whereas Wodehouse aimed solely at laughter, Waugh was a satirist, turning his dislike—verging on hatred—of contemporary society into unsparing attacks on its manifold faults. He shares with fellow Catholic Graham Greene a sense of the fallen nature of the world, and at times his writing is so bleak that he’s hard to read even when he’s being funny, which is quite an accomplishment. (The ending of A Handful of Dust, for example, though perfectly in keeping with the tone of the book, is astonishing and horrifying.)
Scoop may be my favorite Waugh, because it manages to balance the elements that always vie for control in his stories—critique, satire, physical comedy, and eccentricity bordering on lunacy. On top of that, Scoop features a likeable main character in nature-writer-turned-accidental-war-correspondent William Boot. Most Waugh novels seem designed to make us, by their end, agree with the Old Testament God’s decision to open the floodgates, but William, through his incompetent efforts to return home, manages to generate sympathy not just for himself, but for all the weirdoes he encounters as well.
And, oh, there are a lot of them. Describing half-lunatics may be what Waugh is best at, and in Scoop he shines. Take the following exchange between William and Eriksen, a heretofore mild-mannered Swedish missionary:
“That absinthe is very dangerous. It was so I killed my grandfather.”
“You killed your grandfather, Erik?”
“Yes, did you not know? I thought it was well known. I was very young at the time and had taken a lot of sixty percent. It was with a chopper. . . . When I was very young I used often to be drunk. Now it is very seldom. Once or two time in the year. But always I do something I am very sorry for. I think perhaps I shall get drunk tonight,” he suggested, brightening.
“No Erik, not tonight.”
Weeks later, as Eriksen stands before a shattered bar, drinking the sixty percent from the jagged edge of a broken bottle, a colleague asks William,
“Your friend here—does he become more or less pugnacious with drink?”
“I believe, more.”
Then there’s William’s Uncle Theodore, greeting a guest:
Mr. Salter hobbled down the steps, clear of the porch, and saw framed in the ivy of a first-floor window, a ruddy, Hanoverian face and plump, bare torso. “Good evening,” he said politely.
“Good evening.” Uncle Theodore leaned out as far as he safely could and stared at Mr. Salter through a monocle. “From where you are standing,” he said, you might easily take me to be totally undraped. Let me hasten to assure you that such is not the case. Seemly black shrouds me from the waist down. No doubt you are the friend my nephew William is expecting.”
“Yes . . . I’ve been ringing the bell.”
“It sounded to me,” said Uncle Theodore severely, “as though you were hammering the door with a stick.”
“Yes, I was. You see . . .”
“You’ll be late for dinner, you know, if you stand out there kicking up a rumpus. And so shall I if I stay talking to you. We will meet again shortly in more conventional circumstances. For the moment—a riverderci.”
And, despite my opening this post with an unfavorable comparison to Wodehouse, toward the end of Scoop, I should say that with that scene, Waugh ventures directly into Wodehouse territory—the unhinged country house—and succeeds. He even handles the butler well:
“I regret to say, sir, that your luggage is not yet available. Three of the outside men are delving for it at the moment.”
“Assiduously, sir. It was inundated with slag at the time of the accident.”
“Yes sir, there has been a misadventure to the farm lorry that was conveying it from the station; we attribute it to the driver’s inexperience. He overturned the vehicle in the back drive.”
“Was he hurt?”
“Oh, yes, sir; gravely. Here is your room, sir.”
Assiduously. Now that's a word choice worthy of Wodehouse.