Sidney Kugelmass, his love affair with Emma Bovery and other funny stories

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Complete Prose by Woody AllenThe Complete Prose of Woody Allen is a bumper collection of comic fiction and essays and consists of the three Woody Allen books of humorous prose – Getting Even (1971), Without Feathers (1975), and Side Effects (1980). There are over fifty pieces of comic writing here which makes the book both great value for money (my paperback copy is 473 pages long) and a handy companion to dip into on a train or when you are stuck for something to read. The book is a good example of Allen’s versatility and comic flair and the pieces, mostly written for The New Yorker originally, are very much in the spirit of SJ Perelman and Groucho Marx, absurdist but with a cerebral comic twist courtesy of Allen and plenty of references to history and classic literature.
The collection finds the author musing in a not very serious manner about everything from Eschatological Dialectics as a Means of Coping with Shingles to The Cosmos on Five Dollars a Day.
There are far too many highlights and pieces to mention here but the most famous inclusion would probably be Allen’s short story The Kugelmass Episode where a Sidney Kugelmass, bored with his life and looking to live, enters Flaubert’s Madame Bovary with the help of a magician and begins an affair with Emma Bovery. ‘What he didn’t realise,’ writes Allen. ‘Was at this very moment students in various classrooms across the country were saying to their teachers who is this character on page 100? A bald Jew is kissing Madame Bovary.’ This is a clever piece of short comic fiction with magic and fantasy elements that anticipates Allen’s 1985 film The Purple Rose of Cairo. Another favourite of mine is Yes, But Can the Steam Engine Do This?, a short but enjoyable piece of nonsense chronicling the history of the sandwich. ‘Holding firmly to a mental picture of the first sandwich lying encased at the British museum,’ writes Allen. ‘I spent the ensuing three months working up a brief biography of its great inventor, his nibs the Earl. Though my grasp of history is a bit shaky, and my capacity for romanticising easily dwarfs that of the average acidhead, I hope I have captured at least the essence of this unappreciated genius.’

Enjoyable too is Mr Big which features a hard-boiled detective called Kaiser Lupwitz in a pulp crime parody who is hired to find God – a story which hints at the existential comic dialogue that would feature more and more in Allen’s films. ‘I like being a private eye,’ writes the narrator. ‘And even though once in a while I’ve had my gums massaged with an automobile jack, the sweet smell of greenbacks makes it all worth it. Not to mention the dames, which are a minor preoccupation of mine that I rank just ahead of breathing.’ Also great fun and one of my favourites is Viva Vargas! Excerpts from the Diary of a Revolutionary, a piece very much in the vein of Allen’s 1972 revolutionary comedy Bananas with the increasingly desperate exploits of a group of rubbish revolutionaries. ‘Bounding from my bath with understandable alacrity,’ writes the narrator. ‘I stepped on a wet bar of soap and cascaded off the front patio, luckily breaking the fall with my teeth, which skidded around the ground like loose chiclets.’

“Is it true that some men can forsee the future?’ writes Allen. “Or communicate with ghosts? And after death is it still possible to take showers?’

The Schmeed Memoirs takes of the form of the diaries of Hitler’s barber and My Philosophy has a writer attempting to flesh out his own personal framework on morality, art, ethics, life and death. ‘The development of my philosophy came about as follows,’ writes Allen. ‘My wife, inviting me to sample her very first souffle, accidently dropped a spoonful of it on my foot, fracturing several small bones.’ Another nice addition to the collection is Death Knocks, a short play and a riff on Bergman’s The Seventh Seal where Death pays a visit to the apartment of garment manufacturer Nat Ackerman who challenges him to a game of gin to stave off the inevitable. This is a nice piece of writing with Death first having to convince Ackerman he is really Death – “You see the black costume and white face? I’m five seven. It’s average for my weight” – and then complaining about the lack of nibbles. ‘A stranger drops in, you don’t have potato chips?’

I like too Selections from the Allen Notebooks, a highly enjoyable glimpse at the ‘hitherto secret’ diary of Woody Allen – ‘Do I believe in God? I did until my mother’s accident. She fell on some meat loaf and it penetrated her spleen. And how can I believe in God when just last week I got my tongue caught in the roller of an electric typewriter?’ Also worth a look is The UFO Menace where Allen takes a not very serious look at the history of UFO phenomena. I particularly enjoyed the case of a Sir Chester Ramsbottom from Shropshire who, Woody tells us, was tailed by a UFO he could not shake off for some time in 1961. ‘Upon investigation,’ writes Allen. ‘Experts determined that the cigar-shaped object was Sir Chester’s nose. Naturally, all his evasive actions could not lose it, since it was attached to his face.’ The Gossage-Vardebedian Papers is worth a mention too, a very clever and funny exchange of letters between two chess players about a match they are playing through the post which becomes increasingly pedantic and bitter.

Other highlights include A Look at Organised Crime which sees Allen have fun with the Mafia – ‘Other illicit activities engaged by the Costra Nostra members included gambling, narcotics, prostitution, hijacking, loansharking, and the transportation of a large whitefish across the state line for immoral purposes’ – and a story called Count Dracula which finds the Count trapped in a closet after mistaking an eclipse for sunset. ‘Really, I’d like to stay but there’s a meeting of old Romanian Counts across town and I’m responsible for the cold cuts.’ Loveborg’s Women Considered takes a comic look at women in the work of the Scandinavian author Jorgen Lovborg, the man responsible, Allen tells us, for classics like A Mother’s Gums. ‘Perhaps no writer has created more complex and fascinating females than the great Scandinavian playwright Jorgen Lovborg, known to his contemporaries as Jorgen Lovborg.’ Another amusing addition is Examining Psychic Phenomena, featuring extracts from a book supposedly written by a Dr Osgood Twelge. “Is it true that some men can forsee the future?’ writes Allen. “Or communicate with ghosts? And after death is it still possible to take showers?’

The Complete Prose of Woody Allen is a hugely enjoyable book crammed with funny lines, aphorisms (‘Eternal nothingness is OK if you’re dressed for it’) and comic ideas. There are literally dozens of essays and pieces here I haven’t even mentioned so the book is a great purchase for any Woody Allen fan who doesn’t own the original books that make up this collection. The pieces are especially interesting too because they were mostly taken from a period in Allen’s life when he seemed on course to become the new SJ Perelman more than anything else. Of course his directing career took off in the meantime and he became much more interested in becoming the new Ingmar Bergman than anything else. This is though a clever and amusing product of that era and a lot of fun.

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Complete Prose of Woody Allen (The)
by Woody Allen

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Written by James