Complete Prose is a compendium of Woody Allen's three popular books, Without Feathers, Getting Even and Side Effects. Without Feathers and Getting Even were read and reviewed in 2014 but it was worth giving them a second read.
Woody Allen's absurd writing sings when he's hitting all the notes, but half the time it feels like he slips into excessive absurdity as a means of getting a cheap laugh, a bit like how some stand-up comedians get cheap laugh by dropping the f-bomb. This quibble aside, Woody Allen does occupy a pretty unique space in the comedy landscape and I'm pretty sure I'll be returning to my favourite pieces whenever I feel the need for an asburdist lift-me-up.
The pieces I rate between 4 and 5 stars are worthy of revisiting are:
From Without Feathers
Selections from the Allen Notebooks
Examining Psychic Phenomena
Match Wits With Inspector Ford
The Whore of Mensa
If the Impressionists Had Been Dentists
From Getting Even
The Metterling Lists
The Schmeed Memoirs
Yes, But Can the Steam Engine Do This (p177-181)
A Twenties Memory
From Side Effects
The Kuglemass Episode
My Speech to the Graduates
Quotes From Without Feathers
- Getting through the night is becoming harder and harder. Last evening, I had the uneasy feeling that some men were trying to break into my room to shampoo me.
- The wheezing comes and goes, and I get dizzy more and more frequently. I have taken to violent choking and fainting. My room is damp and I have perpetual chills and palpitations of the heart. I noticed, too, that I am, out of napkins. Will it never stop?
- Idea for a story: A man awakens to awakens to find his parrot has been made Secretary of Agriculture. He is consumed with jealousy and shoots himself.
- Today I saw a red and yellow sunset and thought, How insignificant I am. Of course, I thought that yesterday, too, and it rained.
- How wrong Emily Dickinson was! Hope is not "the thing with feathers". The thing with feathers has turned out to be my nephew. I must take him to a specialist in Zurich.
- I am plagued by doubts. What if everything is an illusion and nothing exists? In that case, I definitely overpaid for my carpet. If only God would give me some clear sign! Like making a large deposit in my name at a Swiss bank.
- Wandering around the fairgrounds is a beautiful girl names Natasha, who is sad because her father has been sent to fight in Khartoum, and there is no war there.
- Following are a few of the early essays of Woody Allen. There are no late essays, because he ran out of observations.
- A modified form of the hunger strike for those whose political convictions are not quite so radical is giving up chives.
- “I jokingly suggest thou sacrifice Isaac and thou immediately runs out to do it.”
And Abraham fell to his knees, “See, I never know when you’re kidding”
And the Lord thundered, “No sense of humour, I can’t believe it.”
“But doth this not prove that I love thee, that I was willing to donate my only son on thy whim?”
And the Lord said, “It proves that some men will follow any order no matter how asinine as long as it comes from a resonant, well-modulated voice.”
- ..And it came to pass that a man who sold shirts was smitten by hard times. Neither did his merchandise move nor did he prosper. …
And the Lord hear the man (praying) and said, “About thy shirts…”
“Yes Lord,” the man said, falling to his knees.
“Put an alligator over the pocket”
“Pardon me, Lord?”
“Just do what I’m telling you. You won’t be sorry.”
And the man sewed on to all his shirts a small alligator symbol and lo and behold, suddenly his merchandise moved like gangbusters…
- “Well, I heard of this young girl. Eighteen years old. A Yassar student. For a price, she’ll come over and discuss any subject – Proust, Yeats, anthropology, Exchange of ideas. You see what I’m driving at?”
“I mean, my wife is great, don’t get me wrong. But she won’t discuss Pound with me. Or Eliot. I didn’t know that when I married her. See, I need a woman who’s mentally stimulating, Kaiser. And I’m willing to pay for it. I don’t want involvement. I want a quick intellectual experience, then I want the girl to leave. Christ, Kaiser, I’m a happily married man.”
- On the floor was a cryptic suicide note. “Dear Edna, My woollen suit itches me, and so I have decided to take my own life. See that our son finishes all his push-ups. I leave you my entire fortune, except my pork-pie hat, which I leave to the planetarium.
- …Fogarty published a magazine for new poets and although its circulation was limited to his mother, its impact was international.
Quotes From Getting Even
- Not only is there no God, but try getting a plumber on weekends.
- Eternal nothingness is O.K. if you're dressed for it.
- The universe is merely a fleeting idea in God's mind - a particularly uncomfortable thought, particularly if you've just made a down payment on a house.
- As a teenager he was punished by his father for varnishing his brother's head, although his father, who was a painter by trade, was more upset by the fact that he gave the boy only one coat.
- July 10 - Today was generally a good day, despite the fact that we were ambushed by Arryo's men and badly decimated.
- when it came time to see the Minister the appointment was postponed....an assistant said 'Certain vague notions have arisen and he is not seeing anyone.'
- Brooklyn: Tree-lined streets. The Bridge. Churches and cemeteries everywhere. And candy stores…. Stifling heat and humidity descend on the borough. Residents bring folding chairs out onto the street after dinner to sit and talk. Suddenly it begins to snow. Confusion sets in. A vender wends his way down the street selling hot pretzels. He is set upon by dogs and chased up a tree. Unfortunately for him, there are more dogs at the top of the tree.
- where was the celery? Was the omission deliberate? At Jacobelli's, the antipasto consists solely of celery. But Jacobelli is an extremist. He wants to call our attention to the absurdity of life. Who can forget his scampi: four garlic-drenched shrimp arranged in a way that says more about our involvement in Vietnman than countless books on the subject.
- The sentence clearly cannot be stated as 'The fettuccine was delicious'. It must be stated as 'The fettuccine and the linguine are not the rigatoni.' As Godel declared over and over, 'Everything must be translated into logical calculus before being eaten.'
On literature (preserved insights from the great Helmholtz): "All literature is a footnote to Faust. I have no idea what I mean by that."
Rapid Reading: ...This course will increase reading speed a little each day until the end of the term, by which time the student will be required to read The Brothers Karamazov in fifteen minutes. The method is to scan the page and eliminate everything except pronouns from one's field of vision. Soon the pronouns are eliminated. Gradually the student is encouraged to nap. A frog is dissected. Spring comes. People marry and die. Pinkerton does not return.
The bulk part of "Yes, But Can a Steam Engine Do This?":
"The sandwich," it read, "was invented by the Earl of Sandwich." Stunned by the news, I read it again and broke into an involuntary tremble. My mind whirled as it began to conjure with the immense dreams, the hopes and obstacles, that must have gone into the invention of the first sandwich. My eyes became moist as I looked out the window at the shimmering towers of the city, and I experienced a sense of eternity, marvelling at man's ineradicable place in the universe. Man the inventor! Da Vinci's notebooks loomed before me—brave blueprints for the highest aspirations of the human race. I thought of Aristotle, Dante, Shakespeare. The First Folio. Newton. Handel's Messiah. Monet. Impressionism. Edison. Cubism. Stravinsky. E=mc2 . . .Holding firmly to a mental picture of the first sandwich lying encased at the British Museum, 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 though my capacity for romanticizing easily dwarfs that of the average acidhead, I hope I have captured at least the essence of this unappreciated genius, and that these sparse notes will inspire a true historian to take it from here.
1718: Birth of the Earl of Sandwich to upper-class parents. Father is delighted at being appointed chief farrier to His Majesty the King—a position he will enjoy for several years, until he discovers he is a blacksmith and resigns embittered. Mother is a simple Hausfrau of German extraction, whose uneventful menu consists essentially of lard and gruel, although she does show some flair for culinary imagination in her ability to concoct a passable syllabub.
1725-35: Attends school, where he is taught horseback riding and Latin. At school he comes in contact with cold cuts for the first time and displays an unusual interest in thinly sliced strips of roast beef and ham. By graduation this has become an obsession, and although his paper on "The Analysis and Attendant Phenomena of Snacks" arouses interest among the faculty, his classmates regard him as odd.
1736: Enters Cambridge University, at his parents' behest, to pursue studies in rhetoric and metaphysics, but displays little enthusiasm for either. In constant revolt against everything academic, he is charged with stealing loaves of bread and performing unnatural experiments with them. Accusations of heresy result in his expulsion.
1738: Disowned, he sets out for the Scandinavian countries, where
he spends three years in intensive research on cheese. He is much taken with the many varieties of sardines he encounters and writes in his notebook, "I am convinced that there is an enduring reality, beyond anything man has yet attained, in the juxtaposition of foodstuffs. Simplify, simplify." Upon his return to England, he meets Nell Smallbore, a greengrocer's daughter, and they marry. She is to teach him all he will ever know about lettuce.
1741: Living in the country on a small inheritance, he works day and night, often skimping on meals to save money for food. His first completed work—a slice of bread, a slice of bread on top of that, and a slice of turkey on top of both—fails miserably. Bitterly disappointed, he returns to his studio and begins again.
1745: After four years of frenzied labor, 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. Heartened by the philosopher's friendship, he returns to work with renewed vigor.
1747: Destitute, he can no longer afford to work in roast beef or turkey and switches to ham, which is cheaper.
1750: In the spring, he exhibits and demonstrates three consecutive slices of ham stacked on one another; this arouses some interest, mostly in intellectual circles, but the general public remains unmoved. Three slices of bread on top of one another add to his reputation, and while a mature style is not yet evident, he is sent for by Voltaire.
1751: Journeys to France, where the dramatist-philosopher has achieved some interesting results with bread and mayonnaise. The two men become friendly and begin a correspondence that is to end abruptly when Voltaire runs out of stamps.
1758: His growing acceptance by opinion-makers wins him a commission by the Queen to fix "something special" for a luncheon with the Spanish ambassador. He works day and night, tearing up hundreds of blueprints, but finally—at 4:17 A.M., April 27, 1758—he creates a work consisting of several strips of ham enclosed, top and bottom, by two slices of rye bread. In a burst of inspiration, he garnishes the work with mustard. It is an immediate sensation, and he is commissioned to prepare all Saturday luncheons for the remainder of the year.
1760: He follows one success with another, creating "sandwiches," as they are called In his honor, out of roast beef, chicken, tongue, and nearly every conceivable cold cut. Not content to repeat tried formulas, he seeks out new ideas and devises the combination sandwich, for which he receives the Order of the Garter.
1769: Living on a country estate, he is visited by the greatest men of his century; Haydn, Kant, Rousseau, and Ben Franklin stop at his home, some enjoying his remarkable creations at table, others ordering to go.
1778: Though aging physically he still strives for new forms and writes in his diary, "I work long into the cold nights and am toasting everything now in an effort to keep warm." Later that year, his open hot roast-beef sandwich creates a scandal with its frankness.
1783: To celebrate his sixty-fifth birthday, he invents the hamburger and tours the great capitals of the world personally, making burgers at concert halls before large and appreciative audiences.
From The Kuglemass Episode
'Get me back into the novel or marry me,' Emma told Kuglemass. 'Meanwhile I want to get a job or go to class, because watching TV all day is the pits'
'Fine, we can use the money' Kuglemass said, 'You consume twice your weight in room service.'
From My Speech to the Graduates
- More than any other time in history, mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness. The other, to total extinction.
- Put in its simplest form, the problem is: How is it possible to find meaning in a finite world given my waist and shirt size.