July 12, 2010

Flaubert, Nietzsche, Dentists, and Lobsters - Woody Allen's Prose

I've recently read Woody Allen's 2007 collection of stories/ sketches/ articles Mere Anarchy, and while it is not as successful as his three earlier collections - Getting Even(1971), Without Feathers(1975) and Side Effects(1980), collected in a single volume under the title The Insanity Defense - I still have to wonder why Allen is often given the slightly dismissive title of "humor" writer, in the vein of Dave Barry, rather than simply a short story writer. While it's true that many of his pieces are not strictly stories, they all fall under the heading of "fiction," and are not much different in form than certain works by Donald Barthelme or Jorge Luis Borges. Many also have a decidedly literary pedigree, including the 1978 O. Henry Award winning story, "The Kugelmass Episode"(SE), Wherein a CCNY professor is magically injected into Madame Bovary to carry on an affair with Emma, much to the confusion of Flaubert scholars.


Other pieces which suggest Allen as a tongue-in-cheek Borges include "The Metterling Lists"(GE), a review of a book analyzing Hans Metterling's laundry lists, and "By Destiny Denied" (SE), containing notes towards the 800 page novel "they're all waiting for." Like Barthelme, Allen is also a fan of mixing high and low culture, as in "If the Impressionists Had Been Dentists"(WF), "Thus Ate Zarathustra"(MA), and "Notes from the Overfed"(GE), inspired by Dostoevsky and "a Weight Watchers magazine." Other pieces include comic variations on established genres like Hassidic tales, Detective fiction, Socratic dialogues, literary memoirs, and Kafkaesque parables and the plays "Death", "God" (both in WF), and "Death Knocks" (GE), which exhibit the familiar style and humor of Allen's early films.

You're bound to get some sense of repetitiveness if you read all four collections (perhaps even a certain motion sickness from too many one-liners, a sort of Schtick-nausea), but even the less successful pieces have at least a line or two of Woody Allenisms which make them worth reading, so if you find the following video enjoyable, I suggest you read them.


Some recent essays by Allen published in The New Yorker (where many of these collected pieces were originally published) are available online, including "Think Hard, It'll Come Back to You" and "Tails of Manhattan," which tells the story of two wealthy Manhattanites bilked by Madoff and reincarnated as lobsters.

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