I enjoy comparing baseball and football.
Baseball is a nineteenth-century pastoral game. Football is a twentieth-century technological struggle.
Baseball is played on a diamond, in a park.The baseball park! Football is played on a gridiron, in a stadium, sometimes called Soldier Field or War Memorial Stadium.
Baseball begins in the spring, the season of new life. Football begins in the fall, when everything's dying.
In football you wear a helmet. In baseball you wear a cap.
Football is concerned with downs - what down is it? Baseball is concerned with ups - who's up?
In football you receive a penalty. In baseball you make an error.
In football the specialist comes in to kick. In baseball the specialist comes in to relieve somebody.
Football has hitting, clipping, spearing, piling on, personal fouls, late hitting and unnecessary roughness. Baseball has the sacrifice.
Football is played in any kind of weather: rain, snow, sleet, hail, fog... In baseball, if it rains, we don't go out to play.
Baseball has the seventh inning stretch. Football has the two minute warning.
Baseball has no time limit: we don't know when it's gonna end - might have extra innings. Football is rigidly timed, and it will end even if we've got to go to sudden death.
In baseball, during the game, in the stands, there's kind of a picnic feeling; emotions may run high or low, but there's not too much unpleasantness. In football, during the game in the stands, you can be sure that at least twenty-seven times you're capable of taking the life of a fellow human being.
And finally, the objectives of the two games are completely different:
In football the object is for the quarterback, also known as the field general, to be on target with his aerial assault, riddling the defense by hitting his receivers with deadly accuracy in spite of the blitz, even if he has to use shotgun. With short bullet passes and long bombs, he marches his troops into enemy territory, balancing this aerial assault with a sustained ground attack that punches holes in the forward wall of the enemy's defensive line.
In baseball the object is to go home! And to be safe! - I hope I'll be safe at home!
However, it's a hell of a lot funnier when he tells it:
Farewell to one of our comic greats, certainly safe at home.
I first went to see Bo Diddley at a great New York nightclub called Limelight, a converted gothic church between the West Village and Chelsea, on July 26, 1987. This was a big comeback show for Bo Diddley, who had recently made his face familiar on MTV playing the pool player with the box-shaped guitar in George Thorogood's video for "Bad to the Bone". Curious about the swaggering guy in the Thorogood video, and vaguely aware of his music, I went and bought a Bo Diddley album and found a treasure chest of primal, hard-driving, joyful, funny three-minute blues-rock songs I could listen to over and over. I jumped at the chance to see him in concert, and managed to squeeze into the fifth row of the packed nightclub to gaze up at his thick hands laying that pulsing tremolo over those Bo Diddley chords on that beautiful box-shaped guitar. Bo Diddley was pretty old in 1987, but he wasn't too old to snarl his lyrics, or to enjoy himself. It was 75 minutes of the Bo Diddley beat, leavened by the Bo Diddley sense of humor. I don't know which I enjoyed more, the beat or the humor.
The Bo Diddley beat is such a good beat (and by the way, of course he didn't invent the beat, he just figured out how to do it on an electric guitar) that listeners may mistake this for his only credit and neglect what a good writer Bo Diddley was. Like his friend and partner-in-crime Chuck Berry, Ellis "Bo Diddley" McDaniels lived to tell stories and create characters. His songs are what made him famous, even more than his beat. His words were as simple as his guitar playing, and just as strong. Many blues fans don't even know that Bo Diddley wrote this song, which became a blues staple and a Muddy Waters classic:
Now when I was a little boy,
At the age of five,
I had somethin' in my pocket,
Keep a lot of folks alive.
Now I'm a man,
You know baby,
We can have a lot of fun.
I'm a man,
I spell M-A-N ... man
Bo Diddley's greasy hambone style was always rooted in humor. Influenced by earlier raunchy vaudeville acts like Butterbeans and Susie, Diddley often worked comedy routines into songs, most successfully with his maracas player Jerome Green as comic foil. He had a couple of hit singles with Say Man and Say Man, Back Again:
Bo: Say man
Jerome: Yeah, what's that?
Bo: Speaking of your old lady, I seen that new girl you got.
Jerome: Yeah, ain't she nice?
Bo: Yeah, she's got everything a man could want.
Jerome: Sure has!
Bo: Hair on her chest, a mustache, everything a man could want ...
Sometimes Jerome is straight man, and other times Bo gets stuck with the role:
Jerome: Say, look here
Bo: What's that
Jerome: I can do what you're doing
Bo: Then how come you not doing anything?
Jerome: I got you doing it
The humor frequently reflects the tradition of aggressive boasting that also characterizes today's gangsta rap:
500%, mo' man
A livin' dream
Bo Diddley, baby
Mo' man than you ever seen
Strong and handsome
And a teasin' tan
Bo Diddley, baby
A nat'ral born man
I'm drivin' a '48 Cadillac
With Thunderbird wings
Tellin' you baby, that's a runnin' thing
I got wings that'll open
And get her in the air
I think I can take it away from here
Other times his leery, suspicious barbs recall Groucho Marx, as when he sends up the children's song "Mockingbird":
Bo Diddley buy his babe a diamond ring
If the diamond ring don't shine
He gonna take it to a private eye ...
Bo Diddley died yesterday at his home in Archer, Florida. Some obituaries I've read call him an ornery man, referring to his bitterness over the greater fame of several of his early-rock pioneer peers. I don't know if he was ornery or not, but he seemed quite happy with life at the Limelight concert on July 26, 1987. The concert was such a big success that immediately afterwards a second Bo Diddley concert was announced, this time to be recorded for a live album featuring Rolling Stone lead guitarist Ron Wood and an impressive lineup of musicians. I got tickets for the show at the Ritz on November 25, 1987, but found it disappointing compared to Limelight four months earlier. I blame the overly professional band. Like Chuck Berry in concert, Bo Diddley just needs a spirited and sloppy trio to thrash in the background, and can be easily overpowered by slick backup musicians. There was also no need for Ron Wood to join Bo Diddley on guitar, as everybody in the audience knew: when Bo Diddley's on stage, you don't need another guitar.
The live album was released but quickly forgotten, because it wasn't a great show. But I remember a moment towards the end that you won't catch on the album. Diddley, perhaps sensing that the band wasn't hitting it hard enough, started shouting at them. "Come on!" Then he started pogoing. Up and down. The whole bulk of him. "Come on, man!" he shouted at Ron Wood, who presumably had never seen such behavior from Keith Richards.
Ornery? The guy was 58 years old and at least 250 pounds, and he was pogoing onstage at the Ritz. That's not any kind of ornery I know.
I walk 47 miles of barbed wire,
Got a cobra-snake for a necktie,
I got a brand new house on the roadside,
Made from rattlesnake hide,
I got a brand new chimney made on top,
Made out of a human skull,
Now come on take a walk with me, Arlene,
And tell me, who do you love?
Who do you love?
Tombstone hand and a graveyard mind
Just 22 and I don't mind dying.
Who do you love?
The New York Times has put up some very good articles about Bo Diddley, and here's a note posted at NewCritics.
I hadn't realized the extent to which Mark Sarvas had written a psychological comic novel in the classic tradition of Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, Joseph Heller and Bruce Jay Friedman (John Updike even dabbled in this specific tradition with Bech: A Book). Since I love this style of writing (these writers were all loosely part of a "dark comedy" or "black comedy" scene in the 1960s and 70s), I am thrilled to find in Harry, Revised a skillful homage to that past tradition, as well as a very original novel that should find many happy readers today.
Here's the good news: Mark Sarvas is a really funny writer. But as a comic novelist must, he deploys the humorous touches very carefully at selected points within this generally morbid story about a forty-something husband and doctor whose wife suddenly dies, leaving him with no clue what to do or who he is.
Told in present tense, the jerky plot evokes the unhinged motions of a grieving mind, which is what makes it work. The character floats through funerals and relatives and diners and waitresses and sandwiches. He talks to people with names like Max, Bruce, Molly and Lucille. In the end, Harry, Revised is a book about love, though it's not quite a love story (in the same way that The Great Gatsby was a book about love but not quite a love story). It's also a sobering book about marriage, about the importance of forgiveness and honesty in marriage. (Since I'm getting married this summer, I think I'll take this book's lessons to heart.)
The book's main character only learns these lessons too late, though, and so this is a sad book. But, as in Saul Bellow's Seize the Day (which it resembles), this book is about redemption through sadness.
The main character's name is the key; throughout the novel this lurching doctor is not yet Harry Revised. He is Harry Rent -- Harry torn, Harry destroyed, like a ripped shirt.
The book's denouement takes some shaky turns, and one feels the author strain slightly towards the end, as the book descends to gay prison sex jokes and unlikely elaborate setup schemes to reach its finale. But every comic novel is allowed to ride off the rails; Bellow and Roth did it all the time. By this book's moving final pages, the title character has truly become Harry, Revised.
Bravo to Mark Sarvas, the first lit-blogger to hit a home run.
Bobbitt's book sounds to me like yet another apocalyptic argument for total war against Islamic extremism -- the NYTBR is fond of these arguments -- and Niall Ferguson has absolutely massive praise for it:
This is quite simply the most profound book to have been written on the subject of American foreign policy since the attacks of 9/11 -- indeed, since the end of the cold war.
And what does this incredibly profound book offer? A blank, infinite fear of our enemies, of course:
The rats that transported the lethal fleas that transported the lethal enterobacteria Yersinia pestis did not mean to devastate the populations of Eurasia and Africa. The Black Death was a natural disaster. Al Qaeda is different. Its members seek to undermine the market-state by turning its own technological achievements against it in a protracted worldwide war, the ultimate goal of which is to create a Sharia-based "terror-state" in the form of a new caliphate. Osama bin Laden and his confederates want to acquire nuclear or biological weapons of mass destruction. Precisely because of the nature of the market-state, as well as the actions of rogue nation-states, the key components and knowledge are very close to being available to them -- witness the nuclear Wal-Mart run in Pakistan by A. Q. Khan. With such weapons, the terrorists will be able to unleash a super-9/11, with scarcely imaginable human and psychological costs.
Ferguson, enraptured, ends the article like this:
Yet it is striking that, despite being a Democrat, Philip Bobbitt so often echoes the arguments made by John McCain on foreign policy. He sees the terrorist threat as deadly serious. He is willing to fight it. But he wants to fight it within the law, and with our traditional allies.
Perhaps — who knows? — this brilliant book may also be an application for the post of national security adviser. In times of war, stranger bedfellows have been known than a Democratic Texas lawyer and a Republican Arizona soldier.
There is not the slightest suggestion in Ferguson's article that peaceful problem-solving could ease the tensions that roil our world. Instead ... well, as our next President John McCain sang: "bomb bomb bomb, bomb bomb Iran". And let's hope that President John McCain will bomb those Shiites who run Al Qaeda too, right? Bring on more war, better war, smarter war! The New York Times Book Review says Terror and Consent is the most important book about American foreign policy since 1991, and who on earth has the credentials to argue against "a professor at Harvard University and Harvard Business School, a fellow of Jesus College, Oxford, and a senior fellow of the Hoover Institution at Stanford"?
This cover article has ruined my aesthetic radar for the weekend, but several of the other pieces I'd like to discuss revolve around political questions too, so let's keep going. I wasn't sure whether or not I would read N+1 editor Keith Gessen's much-anticipated debut novel All the Sad Young Literary Men. I like N+1's sense of style and I love their inellectual (over-)confidence. But as I wrote when I reviewed the work of Keith Gessen and other N+1 writers a year ago, I am disappointed by Gessen's passive approach to politics, which seems to amount to a deeply internalized sense of hopelessness (precisely the same kind of hopelessness, I think, that one will feel after reading too many pro-war articles by senior fellows from Harvard, Oxford and Stanford).
Fortunately, according to Andrew O'Hagan in his favorable review of Sad Young Literary men, this novel adopts a bemused and self-critical tone towards the confused politics of modern young literate hipsters, mocking the same lack of conviction I described in my earlier review above. It sounds like Gessen has found the right angle from which to write this novel, and I bet I'll like the book once I read it.
Richard Brookhiser's summary of Steven Waldman's Founding Faith (about the religious beliefs of America's founding fathers) is satisfying and informative, and so is Jacob Heilbrunn's angry piece about Philip Shenon's The Commission, which describes several ways the Bush/Cheney administration manipulated the 9/11 commission to serve their plans for war in Iraq.
I'm excited to learn of a new book about Allen Ginsberg and other Beat writers' adventures in India, A Blue Hand by Deborah Baker. Critic Celia McGee is a talented writer -- several phrasings in this review caused me to pause with admiration -- but I regret her attitude of condescension towards Ginsberg and towards Indian religion:
Baker keeps tabs on a certain Asoke Sarkar, whose genie-like materializing in a saffron robe turns out to be somewhat responsible -- or, depending on the viewpoint, to blame -- for Ginsberg’s loosing the Hare Krishna chant on the United States.
I don't blame anybody for spreading the ancient practice of praying to Krishna to the United States. I'd rather hear chants of "Hare Krishna" than chants of "let's bomb those motherfuckers back to the stone age". Guess which chant I hear more often these days?
Finally, having witnessed countless failed attempts at literary satire in the New York Times Book Review in recent years (particularly within the endpaper essay), I just have to point to Sarah Weinman's New York Magazine piece on Philip Roth's 75th Birthday. Why doesn't the NYTBR ever run a funny piece like this?
I'd always imagined his good-humored style to have originated in his early years as a football commentator, following in the witty tradition of Howard Cosell and John Madden. But I was pleasantly surprised, upon attending an event at the Paley Center for Media in midtown Manhattan and chatting with a curator named Ron Simon, to learn that Keith Olbermann cites early-television personalities Bob Elliot and Ray Goulding as his formative influences, and that Olbermann will be appearing at the Paley Center with Bob Elliot and his comedian son Chris Elliot to celebrate the Bob and Ray legacy on March 31.
This is bound to be something special, and I wouldn't miss it for the world. Ron Simon explains more, and offers a good video sample, on the Paley Center's blog. Literary content? Well, hmm, Chris Elliot is a writer. The Paley Center, formerly the Museum of Broadcasting, has great literary material in its media archives (at the event I mentioned above, we screened the classic Dick Cavett/Gore Vidal/Norman Mailer television dust-up). And whenever I think of Bob and Ray, I think of the first time I encountered them -- it was inside a book.
2. Other New York stuff I'm going to? I'm not sure but I'll try to catch Tom Wolfe at Barnes and Noble "Upstairs in the Square" Thursday night. And the Happy Ending show on March 26 features Tod Wodicka, Fiona Maazel and Samantha Hunt.
3. My verdict is finally in on Jennifer 8 Lee's cultural history of chinese food. Here's a typical sentence from this book:
General Tso's Chicken is probably the most popular chinese chef's special in America. What's there not to like? Succulent, crispy fried chicken is drenched in a tangy, spicy sauce and sauteed with garlic, ginger and chili peppers until it bursts with flavor.
This is utterly conventional writing. And the book's beginning sequence, which goes into way too much detail about a lottery won by a large number of people who'd taken the numbers from a fortune cookie, will similarly turn off anybody looking for in-depth coverage of this interesting topic. There are good ideas in this book, but the level of cuteness is fatal. Too bad.
Something good has come from this exercise, though. I mention in the blog post above that I first heard of this book while chatting with a Psychology Today writer on a train a year ago, and since posting that last week I heard from this writer, Jay Dixit, who recently wrote about his friend's book himself on the Psychology Today blog. Naturally Jay likes the book more than I do, but that's besides the point. I'm happy to learn that a Psychology Today blog exists (as my mother is a psychologist, I grew up reading Psychology Today magazine), and it's now in my RSS reader.
4. Some have asked me: when am I going to complain about dysfunctional book pricing and promote alternative publishing/packaging ideas again? Soon, soon. Till then, here's Evan Schnittman on a real-life success model, and here's an argument that books should cost more, not less.
5. The Filthy Habits Human Smoke roundtable continues, and you'll notice I managed to shoot my mouth off in every installment of this conversation so far. Meanwhile, the book has been harshly slammed by William Grimes in the New York Times and referred to as "bad", "delusive" and "stupid" by Adam Kirsch in the New York Sun. Both adopt a condescending tone towards Baker, who they depict as a playful postmodernist out of his depth in the fields of war. William Grimes dismisses Baker's sense of history entirely, citing the Holocaust as the clearest reason World War II had to be fought.
Did the war "help anyone who needed help?" Mr. Baker asks in a plaintive afterword. The prisoners of Belsen, Dachau and Buchenwald come to mind, as well as untold millions of Russians, Danes, Belgians, Czechs and Poles. Nowhere and at no point does Mr. Baker ever suggest, in any serious way, how their liberation might have been effected other than by force of arms.
This doesn't hold up, since Baker is clearly not trying to explain how millions of starving concentration camp prisoners might have been liberated, but rather how they might never have been put there in the first place. Grimes takes comfort in the idea that the Allies fought to liberate persecuted minorities, even though this cozy bedtime story has never corresponded with historical fact. USA and Great Britain never made it their policy to combat Hitler's openly racist domestic regime, instead standing by as Germany established and enforced horrifying racial laws several years before World War II began. Both nations refused frantic pleas to allow Hitler's victims refuge. Once World War II began, the Allies did not make liberation or protection of oppressed minorities any part of their strategic agenda, and in fact Allied starvation blockades designed to frustrate German citizens unfortunately claimed oppressed minorities as unintended victims. When an enemy government is already intent on oppressing its minorities, are long-term starvation blockades really the best way to fight this enemy? Think about it.
I don't usually quote myself, but I'd like to refer to a post I wrote a few months ago on a similar subject:
The hyperbole that surrounds America's glory in World War II was really made clear to me when I was recently arguing with a friend about why I should love the American military unquestioningly. "The American military saved your ass in World War II!" he said. "The Jews would have been slaughtered if it wasn’t for us!"
I had to remind him that actually the Jews were slaughtered.
6. How do you segue from that? You don't. Here's a Moby sighting. Okay, it's an orca, not a sperm whale. But it is an albino sea mammal, and that's rare enough.
7. Speaking of white whales ... Melville House is publishing a third Tao Lin book! Tthis time it's a poetry textbook, whatever exactly that might mean. We'll find out soon.
I've just seen a wonderful movie, The History Boys, based on a hit play by British comedian Alan Bennett about a likeable gang of characters in a British prep school. The smartest students in this idealistic working-class school yearn to be accepted at Oxbridge (Oxford or Cambridge University) rather than the more proletarian schools (Leeds, Sheffield, Bristol and Hull) that are their lot by class selection. This film follows their quest for one year.
The students' hero is an inspired History teacher, Hector. Hector is a marvel to look at and listen to, an obese, aging, bumbling apparition with a bowtie and an outlandish drooping belly, played by Richard Griffiths in a performance so good you may want to rewind the movie and watch it again as soon as it's finished, just to enjoy him some more.
History Boys is a performance-driven movie, but the storyline is rather sophisticated and complex. Hector is the best teacher any student ever had -- the excitement his charges feel for Latin and the Classics attest to this -- but he is also a serial pedophile with a known habit of gently touching his students while giving them rides on his motorcycle. The fact that his "crime" is a public secret among the faculty and student body adds richness to this story. Is it a crime, they wonder? He never takes his molestations far, and he only approaches students who expect and agree to it (they allow him this liberty, apparently out of appreciation for his teaching, even though most are not gay). Hector seems to have constructed an entire Platonic society, in all senses of the word, a modern agora. It takes an actor with the charm of Richard Griffiths (whose other roles have included Falstaff, as well as Harry Potter cameos) to make this fully believable, and he does.
While I am clearly comfortable critiquing other newspaper book critics, I'd never imagined until recently that I'd ever see my own byline in print. I met editor Frank Wilson at a panel on book reviewing in 2006, and it's due to his generosity (as well as the encouragement of some blogging colleagues) that I was given this chance. I was nervous writing the review, and I sure was nervous as hell this morning reading it back. But I guess I sound like I know what I'm talking about, and I see I managed to name-check Wittgenstein and Descartes in an article about comedy, so it must be me.
LitKicks is still on hiatus (until Thursday or so) as I try to get our new poetry software to work. Happy New Year, people!
Mark Twain is so well known for his successes that it's refreshing to learn that he wrote several mediocre plays, mostly commercial-minded light comedies, to help pay bills in his later years. Some of these plays were better than others, and it was only five years ago that Stanford University Twain scholar Shelley Fisher Fishkin discovered one diamond in the rough, a crazy send-up of the French art scene called Is He Dead? that Twain wrote in 1898 (it was almost produced, but the plans fell through).
Fishkin published a book version of the play that caught the attention of a top Broadway team headed by Michael Blakemore, and Is He Dead? is finally opening on Broadway this Friday night. I caught a preview last weekend.
Twain's comic sendup of the pre-Impressionist art scene in Paris and Barbizon, France is hardly sophisticated; it resembles a Three Stooges comedy more than a Whit Stillman film, and there's nothing wrong with that. A great real-life painter, Jean-Francois Millet, is the hero of this comedy, although the character based on Millet is played mainly for laughs and would certainly have horrified the real life Millet, who was the creator of many touching scenes of French peasant life, including The Sower:
... which also happens to be the source of the Simon and Schuster logo:
Millet was a revolutionary artist of his time (Vincent Van Gogh admired him), but he gets no respect at all from Mark Twain, who simply employs him as a standard character type, the starving Bohemian artist. Desparate for money, Millet and his rakish friends decide to drive up the prices of his paintings by faking his death, and for some reason they end up dressing Millet as his long-lost sister, turning Is He Dead? into a staple cross-dressing comedy (in the tradition that stretches from Twelfth Night to Tootsie).
And that's where the evening's best talent comes in: skilled comic actor Norbert Leo Butz makes little impression on stage as Millet until he puts on a fancy dress, and then the actor becomes suddenly possessed by an inexplicable strangeness. Butz's performance completely dominates the play at this point, particularly whenever he speaks in a hilarious plaintive bray that evokes Harvey Fierstein or possibly Joan Rivers. The good news is, Butz is so funny that anybody who showed up at the Lyceum Theatre to laugh will be satisfied with Is He Dead?.
The surprising news is that Butz's performance thoroughly eclipses not only every other performer on stage (they are barely noticed), but also eclipses both Mark Twain's script and Jean-Francois Millet's presence as a character. Millet's paintings are well displayed within the clever sets, and Mark Twain's comedy is polished enough. But the remarkable thing about Is He Dead? is Norbert Leo Butz roaming the stage like a madman for an hour and a half, and Norbert Leo Butz doesn't even need a script by Mark Twain or a character like Jean-Francois Millet to do that.
Is He Dead? is good literary history and good laughs. Find out more about the play at the Is He Dead? site.
2. Chekhov's Mistress looks at the ecological cost of book publishing and a company called Eco-Libris that's raising awareness about the topic. The Eco-Libris website includes some basic statistics and names Random House as "the biggest publisher to go green" (today's news brings an announcement that Simon and Schuster is also "going green").
But printing on recycled paper is hardly the only way a book publisher can cease to be wasteful. Two avenues are unexplored here: how much more can be saved by printing smaller paperbacks instead of larger hardcovers, and how much can be saved if publishers and store chains pledge to work together to avoid the ridiculous practice of shipping massive print overruns of hopeful bestsellers, which in most cases are then shipped back unsold to the publishers and pulped. That's the question Eco-Libris should be asking.
3. NewCritics.com is running a series of articles on the art of comedy, inspired by M. A. Peel's question: What is the purest comedic moment you have ever experienced? I've contributed an article with my own answer, which I'll link to here once it runs. Hint: I wanted to cite something impressive and slightly highbrow, perhaps a wicked moment from a Preston Sturges classic or a subtle line from a recent Mike Leigh masterpiece. But I am truthful above all, and ended up writing about a dumb (but great!) comedy film from 1988 that I bet you laughed at too, even though it earns neither of us any street cred to admit as much. I'll update this post to link to my piece once it's up. (UPDATE: here's my article).
4. Via Syntax, a new movie called Obscene will tell the story of publisher Barney Rosset (Grove Press, Evergreen Review). More info here.
Allen's follow-up Without Feathers was every bit as good, though a third volume called Side Effects began to show the unintended side effects of Allen's increasing overexposure (which would peak about two decades later). But even Side Effects had a few killer pieces, and you can rediscover all three books inside a new and very welcome volume, Insanity Defense: The Complete Prose.
Insanity Defense is a handsome and understated collection, smartly packaged as a $15 paperback. I don't like the title phrase as much as the Emily Dickinson-inspired "Without Feathers", and I'm sorry the excellent one-act plays that were included in that book don't make the "prose" cut here. But why complain? Here are just a couple of short samples of Allen's manic style, which will hopefully inspire you to buy the book like you should. First, from "A Twenties Memory":
Picasso's studio was so unlike Matisse's in that, while Picasso's was sloppy, Matisse kept everything in perfect order. Oddly enough, just the reverse was true. In September of that year, Matisse was commissioned to paint an allegory, but with his wife's illness, it remained unpainted and was wallpapered instead. I recall these events so perfectly because it was just before the winter that we all lived in that cheap flat in the north of Switzerland where it will occasionally rain and then just as suddenly stop. Juan Gris, the spanish cubist, had convinced Alice Tolkas to pose for a still life and, with his typical conception of objects, began to break her face and body down to its basic geometrical forms until the police came and pulled him off. Gris was predominantly Spanish, and Gertrude Stein used to say that only a true Spaniard could behave as he did, that is, he would speak Spanish and sometimes return to his family in Spain. It was really quite marvelous to see.
Or, from "The Irish Genius":
Liam Beamish went to Jesuit school with O'Shawn but was thrown out for dressing like a beaver. Quincy Beamish was the more introverted of the two and kept a furniture pad on his head till he was forty-one.
The Beamish Brothers used to pick on O'Shawn and usually ate his lunch just before he did. Still, O'Shawn remembers them fondly and in his best sonnet: "My love is like a great, great yak" they appear symbolically as end tables.
There's also a new volume of recent Woody pieces out, Mere Anarchy, but I'm sorry to say it doesn't fully capture that old 70's magic. I've already read several of the pieces in The New Yorker, but much has changed since Getting Even. Our psychotic sophomore has become an eccentric (at best) elder statesman, which isn't nearly as funny. Mere Anarchy is a fine volume, and you should really get both of these books as a set, but if you're only getting one, I suggest you reach for the classic.
And if you like what you find in either volume, dig up the comic writer who inspires Woody Allen's prose style more than any other, S. J. Perelman. Allen has never made a secret of the fact that his manic literary style is an homage to this older humorist, who wielded a massive vocabulary and regularly originated scattershot lines like the following, describing himself:
Denied every advantage, beset and plagued by ill fortune and a disposition so crabbed as to make Alexander Pope and Doctor Johnson seem sunny by contrast, he has nevertheless managed to belt out a series of books each less distinguished than its predecessor, each a milestone of bombast, conceit, pedantry, and stunning pomposity. In his pages proliferate all the weird grammatical flora tabulated by H. W. Fowler in his "Modern English Usage" -- the Elegant Variation, the Facetious Zeugma, the Cast-Iron Idion, the Battered Ornament, the Bower's Bird Phrase, the Sturdy Indefensible, the Side-Slip and the Unequal Yokefellow. His work is a museum of mediocrity, a monument to the truly banal.
This is comedy writing from the masters, and the stuff still scans.
Woody won't mind if we use this space to say goodbye to another one of his role models, the great director Ingmar Bergman, who has died. Allen referenced Bergman constantly in his career -- A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy was a direct spin on Bergman's Smiles of A Summer Night, for instance (Smiles of A Summer Night, itself a Shakespeare fantasia, also became A Little Night Music in the hands of Stephen Sondheim). My favorite Bergman film is his most classic, the stark Seventh Seal, in which a knight plays chess with Death to save the life of a baby.
Woody Allen also famously parodied The Seventh Seal in one of the plays that appears in Without Feathers but not in the upcoming collection, "Death Knocks", which features a grumpy old Jew who challenges Death to a game of gin rummy.
Farewell also to Bill Walsh of the San Francisco 49'ers, who I enjoyed watching through several Super Bowls, and finally to TV journalist Tom Snyder. When I was a teenager, Tom Snyder was something like a Jon Stewart to me. I particularly remember his Charlie Manson interview ("off the space shuttle, Charlie"), and the John Lydon confrontations, and I also remember a hilariously painful silent conversation with the folksinging Roches, who he just didn't get and couldn't think of anything to say to.