Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Recos: Woody Allen stories

Via PrufrockTwo, here’s a new short story by Woody Allen, “Thus Ate Zarathustra”, which takes the form of excerpts from a little-known work titled Friedrich Nietzsche’s Diet Book.
No philosopher came close to solving the problem of guilt and weight until Descartes divided mind and body in two, so that the body could gorge itself while the mind thought, ‘Who cares, it’s not me’. The great question of philosophy remains: If life is meaningless, what can be done about alphabet soup?
There’s a notable tradition in modern American humour writing of the “what if” story, spun off from a real-life personality or event – S J Perelman for instance would often use a stray line in a newspaper report as a starting point for his stories. Likewise, Allen is very funny when he’s weaving hypothetical tales around famous historical figures. Some of his earlier short stories in this vein:

Yes, But Can the Steam Engine Do This?” – a short chronology of the life and struggle of the Earl of Sandwich, “inventor” of the now-ubiquitous snack.
1745: After four years of frenzied labour, he is convinced he is on the threshold of success. He exhibits before his peers two slices of turkey with a slice of bread in the middle. His work is rejected by all but David Hume, who senses the imminence of something great and encourages him.
If the Impressionists Had Been Dentists” – letters written by Vincent Van Gogh (who defied his father’s wishes and became a dentist instead of a painter) to his brother Theo.
Dear Theo,
Toulouse-Lautrec is the saddest man in the world. He has real talent but he’s too short to reach his patients’ mouths and too proud to stand on anything…Meanwhile my old friend Monet refuses to work on anything but very, very large mouths and Seurat, who is quite moody, has developed a method of cleaning one tooth at a time until he builds up what he calls “a full, fresh mouth”. It has an architectural solidity to it, but is it dental work?
A Giant Step for Mankind”, about the three forgotten scientists who almost beat Dr Heimlich to the patent for what became known as the Heimlich Maneuver, a method used to aid people who are choking on their food.
January 7: Today was a productive day for Shulamith and me. Working around the clock, we induced strangulation in a mouse. This was done by coaxing the rodent to ingest healthy portions of Gouda cheese and then making it laugh. Predictably, the food went down the wrong pipe, and choking occurred. Grasping the mouse firmly by the tail, I snapped it like a small whip, and the morsel of cheese came loose. If we can transfer the procedure to humans, we may have something. Too early to tell.
Wonderfully funny stories all, and these, along with many others, can be found in three collections: Without Feathers, Getting Even and Side Effects. But try to get your hands on Woody Allen's Complete Prose, which includes all three books.


  1. Picked up "Side Effects" from one of the Churchgate pavement stalls. Some of the stories are so funny you cant help but laugh out loud. And if you happen to be in a public place like the Bombay local, you laugh out so loud, you become an object of unwanted attention.

  2. I first read "Thus Ate Zarathusthra" through, PrufrockTwo.
    It was delightful and was an unfettered throwback to Allen's earlier works.
    And yes, I do have a copy of Woody Allen's Complete Prose!! I was revisiting some of it yesterday.

  3. Yes his short stories are quite something. Dint we discuss 'The Whore of Mensa'?

  4. Ah, Allen! You forget the Metterling Lists - that lovely collection of laundry lists from the pen of the author / philosopher known to his admirers as the 'Prague Wierdo', so evidently a take on Kafka. Not to mention the Irish genius Sean O'Shawn and his epic poem Beyond Ichor.

  5. "God" and "Death", "The Whore of Mensa" and above all "The Kugelmass Episode".
    This last is about a middle-aged Brooklyn Jew who finds himself romancing Emma Bovary, with all the attendant complications for literature students worldwide. It was adapted for the Indian screen as "Shakuntalam", with Naseeruddin Shah, Anuradha Patel and (I think) Farooq Sheikh.

    I must look for "The Complete Prose" even though I have "Without Feather" and "Side Effects". Or had, they may have been swiped.

    Interesting to compare Woody Allen with other masters of the absurd such as Spike Milligan (notably "Puckoon") and some of the Python stuff.


  6. You're right to mention Perelman, of course -- he was a huge early influence on Woody Allen. Not to mention on the sublime Alan Coren.

  7. Woody Allen's humor is in some ways negative yet it's still great. He has such unique talent when it comes to comedy and movie production. Although some of his movie's aren't the best. If you look back he has released many cult classics. The guy is a genius.