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I don’t see today’s kids busting their allowance to find buy Perelman books on ebay; in fact, the name name retrieves only 12 items, and four of them are other Perelmans. I think I know why the writer’s short comic pieces, so influential in the last century, have little resonance in this one. It’s because they are written in a dead language: English.
VICTORIA AND EDWARD, GALLAGHER AND SHEAN
I should refer to it as Perelman English: a cocktail of Victorian and Edwardian sentence structure, Jazz Age slang whose sell-by date had long since expired, and a veritable Mount Meron of Yiddishisms. “Sid commands a vocabulary that is the despair (and joy) of every writing man,” proclaimed his New Yorker colleague E.B. White. “He is like a Roxy organ that has three decks, 50 stops and a pride of petals under the bench. When he wants a word it’s there.... His ears are as busy as an ant’s feelers. No word ever gets by him.” The language was, for Perelman, a gentleman’s orgy, and he was Petronius, knowing which wench to peel, which grace to savor.
His stock of references could have filled the Great Library of Alexandria, if that august edifice had housed every copy of Cap’n Billy’s Whizbang. Even those introduced to Perelman in his prime had to cram for antique references. The man was an instant anachronist, peppering his stories with allusions to Greek and Roman mythology, vaudeville dialect comics like Gallagher and Shean (Al Shean was the Marx Brothers’ uncle), silent movies, and “the exact method of quarrying peat out of a bog at the time of the Irish Corn Laws.” Add 50 years to these arcana, toss them at a collegiate today and he’ll expect a translation on the recto. (Buck up, young scholar. That’s what Google’s for.)
In his time, though and why shouldn’t that time be now, again? Perelman was called America’s foremost humorist, a comic genius, mein Yiddishe Aristophanes, a gift from Providence (he was reared in Rhode Island), but Perelman preferred the simple designation “writer.” Even when his feuilletons don’t stir a Gorgon to chuckle, they educe awe for the Wallenda grace of his prose, his solving of sentences. Attend to the choice of verbs in this relatively simple description: “Struggling into a robe, he reeled across the room, fumbled with the chain latch, and wrenched open the door.” Action words, picture words, funny words.
Perelman’s free-associative style spun fantasias out of girdle ads, tabloid tattle, sleazy pulp fiction and recipe prose. He was a Charlie Parker on tenor Underwood, running bizarre and beautiful variations on the tritest themes. With a difference: Perelman’s prose was improv with agony. He perspired platelets to make it read cucumber-cool. “This particular kind of sludge is droned over while working so that it becomes incantatory and quite sickening,” he told William Cole and George Plimpton for a 1963 Paris Review interview, reprinted in “Conversations With S.J. Perelman.” In another interview, discussing travel glitches, he notes that “the stresses and strains [are] highly productive of the kind of situation I can write about. In other words, misery breeds copy.”
In three little words: comedy is hard. No other wordsmith is obliged to provoke the same reaction (a laugh) with different techniques (gags, puns, elegant locutions, etc.) in every line. Comic surprise that twist of a word, situation or idea that momentarily outwits the reader and wins a smile or a spit-take becomes, when repeated, expectation, and then impatience. And still the comic writer soldiers on, staring glumly at his typewriter, laying the narrative bricks and, once in a while, blowing them up. The crutches of sameness, of leisurely character building, of the blah blah... “Astonish me” (Cocteau’s demand of art) is a cinch compared to “Make me laugh.”
Not only does comedy have to be smart, it needs smart readers. They must know what’s being mocked, know that it’s being mocked. They must be familiar with at least some of the writer’s litany of cultural references. Perelman often wondered whether his humor was too obscure for general audiences (a suspicion his sometime collaborator Groucho Marx may have put in his mind). That’s why the writer was pleased to receive a certain kind off fan mail: “you are happily surprised to find yourself appreciated at what you thought might be your most obtuse level.”
“PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST AS A YOUNG CAT’S PAW”
Perelman’s most fertile subject of satire was himself. His verbal sketches in the mirror twist similes into Germanic compound adjectives: “button-cute, rapier-keen, cucumber-cool, and gall-bitter” or, another time, “button-cute, rapier-keen, wafer-thin and pauper-poor,” or “cucumber-cool and rocket-swift, canny as Sir Basil Zaharoff” (the Greek arms dealer and war-facilitator). The cucumis sativus loomed large in his arsenal: he once reported that the director Ernst Lubitsch was seen “smoking a cucumber and looking cool as a cigar.”
His self-descriptions, like much of his prose, tended to the mock-heroic, followed by the pin-prick-deflative: “In appearance he suggests the Apollo Belvedere, though his brain has the same specific gravity as that of Blaise Pascal.” At the start of “Swiss Family Perelman” (another round-the-world trip, this time with Laura and their kids, Adam and Abby), the narrator spies a solitary passenger on the promenade of the S.S. President Cleveland as it courses from San Francisco Bay into the Pacific. Who could it be...?
“Under a brow purer than that of Michelangelo’s David, capped by a handful of sparse and greasy hairs, brooded a pair of fiery orbs, glittering like zircons behind ten-cent-store spectacles. His superbly chiseled lips, ordinarily compressed in a grim line that bespoke indomitable will, at the moment hung open flaccidly, revealing row on row of pearly white teeth and a slim, patrician tongue. In the angle of the obdurate outthrust jaw, buckwheat-flecked from the morning meal, one read quenchless resolve, a nature scornful of compromise and dedicated to squeezing the last nickel out of any enterprise. The body of a Greek god, each powerful muscle the servant of his veriest whim, rippled beneath the blanket, stubbornly disputing every roll of the ship. And yet this man, who by sheer poise and magnetism had surmounted the handicap of almost ethereal beauty and whose name, whispered in any chancellery in Europe, was a talisman from Threadneedle Street to the Shanghai Bund, was prey to acute misery....”
When not comparing himself to classical statuary, he dipped into homier tropes. His country farm, as libeled in “Acres and Pains,” may have been short on amenities, but it was well stocked with simile checkers. The artist’s self-portrait includes the phrase “as lean and bronzed as a shad’s belly (I keep a shad’s belly hanging in the barn for comparison)” and, documenting a tumble down into the cellar, he notes that “I sustained a bruise roughly the size of a robin’s egg; I speak of this with certainty as there chanced to be a robin’s egg lying on a nearby shelf.”
When not bound between hard covers or meandering in the meadows of The New Yorker’s pages, Perelman stood five-foot-six, outfitted himself in Savile Row haberdashery and gave great company. A comic writer is supposed to be morose, but until his wife died, Sid was by all accounts a genial fellow, with a facility in conversation as exhilarating and daunting as in print. He had become was he’d planned back in Providence, all those weekends curled up with the not-so-great books: a perfect fictional gentleman named S.J. Perelman.