Saturday, February 01, 2014

`Cackling Over What I've Written'

The saddest of readerly losses, after blindness, dementia and death, is disillusion with the once-consuming enthusiasms of youth. Not the books of childhood – that’s another category. I mean the books we discover as teenagers and claim as our own. Such reading is proprietary. We may even resent the intrusion of other readers – a contrast with our later, more generous impulse to share the literary bounty. Such a writer for this reader is S.J. Perelman. 

His generation of American humorists, many associated with The New Yorker – Thurber, Benchley, Parker and the rest – has not fared well.  First alcohol and politics, and later our radically altered tastes in humor – the least stable and quantifiable of human qualities – took their toll. I started reading Perelman when I was about twelve, the perfect age. His titles alone cracked me up – Dawn Ginsbergh’s Revenge, Strictly from Hunger, The Swiss Family Perelman – and his highly mannered prose seemed clever and hip in an old-fashioned way, a rich impasto of Yiddishisms, puns (“The Song Is Endless, But the Malady Lingers On”), parodically elegant palaver “(button-cute, rapier-keen, wafer-thin and pauper-poor”) and Hollywood jive. With Perelman, it was all about the language, and it helped that he wrote for the Marx Brothers in the nineteen-thirties and appeared on The Dick Cavett Show in the sixties and seventies. You sometimes sense when reading Perelman that entire sentences and feuilletons (his term, of dubious irony, for his short prose pieces) exist solely because he savored a word and wanted to find a good home for it. Take a look at this sample from “Amo, Amas, Amat, Amamus, Amatis, Enough” (Acres and Pains, 1947). How many readers of the May 8, 1943, issue of The New Yorker parsed the parody and Yiddish: 

“For timeliness, melodrama, and a good old-fashioned concupiscence like Mother used to make, I haven’t met its equal since the Decameron. The principals in this droll tale are two: John Craig. `tall, masculine, tweedy…a big overgrown Newfoundland pup, with his rough tawny hair and steady brown eyes,’ and Judy, a zäftick [now, conventionally, zaftig – but the umlaut is funny] little proposition bent on bringing him to heel.” 

Boys grow up (most of them) and their tastes evolve in unexpected ways. P.G. Wodehouse, whom I started reading around the same time as Perelman, still makes me laugh. So do Kingsley Amis and early Waugh, and Thomas Berger and Stanley Elkin, but Perelman’s humor, which once seemed highly mannered, now reads like pure mannerism. The leering, kvetching and self-preening take over. He makes gesture toward being funny but his heart isn’t in it. His pieces read like “college humor,” in the old, compulsively cute sense – literally sophomoric. As he told his Paris Review interviewer in 1963: “…let me assure you I don't sit in the chimney corner cackling over what I've written.” Nor, sadly, do I. Perelman was born on this date, Feb. 1, in 1904, and died Oct. 17, 1979.


Chuck Kelly said...

I once read an article (I can't remember its title or where it appeared) that addressed humor and how it ages over time. The writer said Charlie Chaplin is no longer funny to contemporary audiences because he's cloyingly sentimental. W. C. Fields on the other hand is still funny because his jaundiced view of the world squares with our cynical age.

The Marx Bros still click because their humor is based on wordplay. I agree with that although their wordplay has a level of sophistication that keeps it funny. I watch reruns of Monty Python or listen to old Goon Show broadcasts, and they don't age well. Mere zaniness has a short shelf life IMHO.

George said...

I disagree, mostly. There are pieces that just pile it on too much--reading all of The Swiss Family Pearlman through is not particularly enjoyable--but then there are such gems as the "Cloudland Revisited" series, some of Acres and Pains, some of Westward, Ha.

Buce said...

Went back to Perelman a few months ago after a long hiatus and felt like I was reacquainting myself with an old friend And I may be the only person on the planet who never got the point of Wodehouse.