Mr. and Mrs. Buce enjoyed a viewing of Scoop, the other night--not the Woody Allen Scoop, but the earlier movie based on the Evelyn novel. It's good, though a bit slow paced, a bit Merchant Ivory-like--a visual aid best enjoyed by people who already knew the novel.
But it did remind us how much we enjoyed the novel (along with its companion piece, Black Mischief). And it caused us to marvel again--how did Waugh understand so much, so early, about kleptocracy, chaos and general mismanagement in the Third World (or more precisely in Central Africa)? In this respect at least, he makes you think of Conrad, who had an uncanny way of understanding things in his own time that other people didn't figure out for a couple of generations (think Secret Agent, Under Western Eyes, Nostromo, etc.).
But it might be helpful to put him context. It happened that just a few days before, on whim, I had been reading a Sven Birkerts essay on V. S. Naipaul (reprinted in the excellent collection, An Artificial Wilderness (1987--but the essay is obviously earlier)). Birket focuses on Naipaul's A Bend in the River and Guerillas--two corrosively clear-sighted novelistic accounts of misgovernment in forgotten places. They are good, Birkerts admits, but a little, well hard, as in cold, unfunny.
They are hard; you don't read Naipaul for laughs (the mature Naipaul, at any rate--the early stuff has some warm-hearted chuckles). But I remember reading them in the late 70s or early 80s with a great sense of delight--at last! Someone knows how to speak the truth!
Naipaul was, then, a tipping point: a point at which we recognized (or admitted to ourselves) that all was not well in the new nations and that some of our best hopes were being defeated by experience. Waugh, of course, had seen it all a generation before. At the time, readers recognized that his books were funny, in an unkind, scabrous ("hard") kind of way. But they were a bit of a scandal in their own time; not the sort of thing that nice people admitted to reading, or liking.
We've come a long way. Waugh's stock has never been higher. Naipaul's stock--well, it hasn't exactly fallen, but he certainly isn't on the radar the way he was a few years ago. He's done his job, and moved on. That we can now enjoy Waugh without apology or even any obvious regret--I leave it to the reader to consider whether or not this is an improvement.
Fn.: the movie may be a bit ho hum, but Donald Pleasance as the megalomaniac press lord, is a stitch.