From the moment you first read them, some writers inspire writerly envy. You want to learn from them how to write, and if you’re young and feckless that often means imitation bordering on plagiarism. In high school I went through that phase with Bernard Malamud and, soon after, Saul Bellow. But before that, beginning around sixth grade, my model was an American humorist who had already been dead for almost twenty years – Robert Benchley (1889-1945). I knew nothing about Dorothy Parker and the Algonquin Round Table but Benchley was funny in a dry, flat-affect-faced way that appealed to me. He did with words what Buster Keaton could do with his body – small, effortless, contained explosions of energy. I envy no one more than a person who can make me laugh.
On New Year’s Day, Boris Dralyuk posted an unlikely pair of videos -- Mikhail Zoshchenko (1894-1958) reading his story “The Receipt” (1929) in Russian and Benchley performing “The Causes of the Depression” (1931). Boris’ translation of Zoshchenko’s Sentimental Tales will be published this summer by Columbia University Press. Like me, Boris loved Benchley as a kid: “I first discovered him at 14 or so,” he writes, “when his books were being discarded from my high school library at the rate of one a week. (Since it took me just about a week to get through each of them, I choose to believe that the librarian was doing me a special favor.)” I borrowed After 1903 -- What?, The Treasurer’s Report, and Other Aspects of Community Singing, and his other collections, all with drawings by Gluyas Williams. Enjoy this excerpt from “Christmas Afternoon,” subtitled “Done in the Manner, if Not the Spirit, of Dickens,” from the 1921 collection Of All Things:
“Then there were the toys! Three and a quarter dozen toys to be divided among seven children. Surely enough, you or I might say, to satisfy the little tots. But that would be because we didn't know the tots. In came Baby Lester Gummidge, Lillian’s boy, dragging an electric grain-elevator which happened to be the only toy in the entire collection which appealed to little Norman, five-year-old son of Luther, who lived in Rahway. In came curly-headed Effie in frantic and throaty disputation with Arthur, Jr., over the possession of an articulated zebra. In came Everett, bearing a mechanical negro which would no longer dance, owing to a previous forcible feeding by the baby of a marshmallow into its only available aperture. In came Fonlansbee, teeth buried in the hand of little Ormond, which bore a popular but battered remnant of what had once been the proud false-bosom of a hussar's uniform. In they all came, one after another, some crying, some snapping, some pulling, some pushing—all appealing to their respective parents for aid in their intra-mural warfare.”
Phrases made me giggle as I read them alone in the house: "electric grain elevator," "articulated zebra," "mechanical negro," "its only available aperture." Boris wrote to me that he loves “Benchley’s perfectly crafted, gentle (and genteel) squibs. Indeed, he has a lot to teach us about craft: `Nine-tenths of the value of a sense of humor in writing is not in the things it makes one write but in the things it keeps one from writing. It is especially valuable in this respect in serious writing, and no one without a sense of humor should ever write seriously. For without knowing what is funny, one is constantly in danger of being funny without knowing it.’”
The Benchley quote comes from the March 8, 1929 issue of Life magazine, which seems not to be available on line. It reminds me of G.K. Chesterton’s observation that the opposite of funny is not serious but unfunny.