Thursday, December 21, 2006

Evelyn Waugh versus mince pies

Reading group on Tuesday night at Doug's. He had a beautiful huge Christmas tree, tastefully decorated with red baubles and tiny white lights, which made everyone exclaim as they entered, and people brought Christmas food, mince pies and chocolates, and Jenny had a bag of samosas left over from her other reading group at Didsbury library which had had a Christmas gathering earlier in the day. And no one was much inclined to get down to business and discuss the book.

In the middle of all the hilarity I asked everyone if they minded my writing about our meetings on my blog (previously my reports have appeared on my website), and everyone said it was fine. But then Doug said suddenly that that reminded him: he had a good mind to start a rival web report because my last one (on Hubert Selby Jr's Last Exit to Brooklyn) was totally biased (towards my own view of the book) and ended on a yah-boo-sucks note. (Trevor added that he's always shocked by how different my memories of the discussion are from his.) Quite right! I retorted, refusing to be chastened.

Anyway, this is my memory of the discussion we had on Tuesday:

Ann had chosen Evelyn Waugh's 1938 novel Scoop in which, in a classic case of mistaken identity, a naive aristocratic nature-features writer, Boot, gets sent as a war reporter to the fictional African Republic of Ishmaelia, and in which journalistic contempt for the truth is famously satirised. Having read other Waugh novels and enjoyed them, she said she had chosen it as a civilised and urbane antidote to the linguistic grimness of Selby Jr. However, having expected to enjoy it without reservation, she now wasn't so sure, finding it on the whole to be in fact more of a farce than a satire. Everyone readily and strongly agreed, although most had enjoyed it - though Sarah said she had given up after the first seventy pages, for the very reason that she hates farce.

John pointed out that, while the overriding trope of mistaken identity and that of the innocent abroad were in the realm of farce, there was true satire in the treatment of the activities of the journalists and their newspapers, and most people agreed that the telegrams passing between them were very funny. Most were agreed too that the book was in any case very clever, but John and Ann weren't so sure since it wavered between satire and farce. Trevor said that, having previously avoided Waugh because of his right-wing reputation, he had been amazed to find how even-handedly Waugh had poked fun, representing the aristocratic Boot family as dodderers mainly confined to their beds. At which point Jenny expressed her oft-stated opinion that aristocrats are anything but duffers, it just suits them to have people think they are, and Waugh (who was not in fact aristocratic) had fallen for that.

John also noted that Boot is something of a psychological blank, and he said that while this is part of the satirical or farcical point, he found that it created a sense of something incomplete. We discussed this - the fact that in a satire you don't really need psychological complexity but that somehow here it seemed like a flaw - without coming to much conclusion as to why this should be. I said it was particularly noticeable in the 'love' interest (Boot falls innocently in love with a young German woman who is quite cheerfully taking him for a ride), and Trevor, who'd had quite a bit to drink by then, explained to me their relationship. I said I understood what their relationship was, I was talking about the treatment of it, and he explained it to me again.

Ann wondered how much more impact the book might have had in its day, as we are now so much more used to the idea of not trusting the press, but Doug said, haven't there always been satirical cartoons?

And that was about it. A very short discussion (as far as I remember it), and by the time Mark arrived, late from putting his kids to bed, we'd long gone onto other topics which we stayed late discussing, even though Doug had to go to London next day...

Our archived discussions can be found here, and a list of all the books we have discussed here.

1 comment:

Adrian said...

Ah, it's good to see that other book discussion groups are the same as the one I'm in: conflicting opinions from all sides and never anything even remotely resembling consensus at the end.

I do like your idea of posting a summary of the discussions - it made for interesting reading.