WOODY ALLEN has done very nicely since being born Allen Stewart Konigsberg 45 years ago -- can it be that long? -- in Brooklyn. Taking time out from his critically acclaimed and big box office (some of them) films, Allen finds diversion by playing jazz clarinet and contributing miscellaneous prose, mostly short stories, to such highly regarded periodicals as The Kenyon Review, The New Republic and especially, The New Yorker. The present volume brings together 16 of these occasional pieces.
Besides stories there is a one-act play about an incident in Abraham Lincoln's life; a restaurant review of Fabrizo's Villa Nova, with follow-up correspondence, in "one of the more thought-provoking journals" ("The green noodle does not amuse us. . . . The linguine, on the other hand, is quite delicious and not at all didactic"); even a graduation address happily not deficient in the mind-boggling pseudo-profundities expected, and, alas, usually forthcoming, on such occasions: "More than any other time in history, mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness. The other, to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly."
Allen's literary endeavors are rather more than, as his title would have it, side efects. Many film makers these days are essentially nonverbal -- the best virtuoso effects of Brian De Palma's flashy Dressed to Kill, for example, are achieved without any dialogue at all; but words have always been central to Allen's art. He early began writing material for television performers and went on to become a stand-up comic on the nightclub circuit. I recall first catching his act when Ed Sullivan, rising from his crypt to host his popular Sunday night variety show, introduced the physically uncharismatic Allen to a national audience. The rest, to coin a phrase, is history. In some of the present pieces Allen comes across as a stand-up comic working sitting down.
"Keep it light," Lenny Mendel muses in "The Shallowest Man" while visiting a dying friend, "keep the one-liners coming." The American comedic genius flourishes on them. Our most successful entertainers, Bob Hope, Henny Youngman, Ronald Reagan, and the rest, not to mention Neil Simon on Broadway, all keep the one-liners coming. I found a lot of them in Side Effects quite funny. In "Remembering Needleman," Sandor Needleman, obsessed with death, confides, "I much prefer cremation to burial in the earth, and both to a weekend with Mrs. Needleman." He is in the end cremated with a hat on: "A first, I believe," the narrator notes. Pinchuck in "By Destiny Denied" is politically an independent who casts his presidential write-in vote for Cesar Romero. This Pinchuck finds consolation for "his earlier theories that the urge to be liked at any cost is not socially adaptive but genetic much the same as the ability to sit through operettas."
Other gags fall flat. "He has two sons by Margaret Figg -- one normal, the other simpleminded, though it is hard to tell the difference unless someone hands them each a yo-yo." Any attempt to get a laugh out of a yo-yo carries some air of desperation. The hallucinating hero of "Nefarious Times We Live In" recalls "seeing Frankenstein stroll through Covent Gardens with a hamburger on skis." Frankenstein references are fairly desperate too, and Allen surely knows enough to distinguish between the Doctor and his Monster. At such moments the subliminal laugh track becomes intrusive, although this fan was never tempted to switch channels.
Between covers, as on film, the Big Apple defines Allen's favored perimeters. We are in the Manhattan of Manhattan: I think of the prologue, stunning despite, or maybe in part because of, the black and white; all Gershwin and fireworks. It is the New York of subscribers to The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books, of concert goers taking in Brahms at Lincoln Center, art lovers enjoying a Matisse exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, apartment dwellers knocking back Valpolicella and finger foods in their Manhattan towers on Central Park West. Genteelly educated, middle-class Jewish.
We hear of shrinks and high holidays; Aunt Rose waxes Lysterical over the prospect of her young nephew marrying a 55-year-old shiksa. The references may at times puzzle WASPs in the sticks. What will readers in Peter Rabbit, Iowa, make of praise for "skin like satin, or should I say like the finest of Zabar's novy?" Will they recognize the homage to Zabar's Appetizers and Caterers at Broadway and 80th, or that novy is unsalted Nova Scotia smoked salmon, the very best lox money can buy? Probably not; but, then, you can't reasonably hope to have the inside track all of the time.
Mostly, though, the name-dropping and other references are not calculated to stir cultural anxieties. The reverse rather; they reassure Allen's audience that they too have indeed paid their dues to the intelligentsia. Existentialism, ontology, hermeneutics. Malraux, Kafka, Wittgenstein, Max Planck, Hannah Arendt, and Willie Maugham. Murals by Orozco, Emil Jannings in The Blue Angel, the figure in Edvard Munch's "The Scream." For New York Review regulars, Robert Craft on Stravinsky. Invoking T.S. Eliot, listening to Vivaldi. Uplift without strain. You don't have to have visited the Huntington Library art gallery in San Marino to realize that, when Moses Goldworm in "A Giant Step for Mankind" turns "a shade of blue invariably associated wtih Thomas Gainsborough," you are expected to think of "The Boy" everybody associates with that master. And you don't have to be able to tell contemporary ontology from Heinz baked beans to enjoy "Remembering Needleman."
But the greatest treat of Side Effects is "The Kugelmass Episode," which is alone worth the not exorbitant admission tab. A professor of humanities at City College and miserably married, Kugelmass yearns for romance. One night a magician phones to bring a little exotica into Kugelmass' life. For a double sawbuck The great persky tosses his client and a paperback Madame Bovary into his magic cabinet, and three taps Kugelmass is transported to Emma Bovary's bedroom in Yonville. She speaks in the fine accents of the paperback English translation. They stroll in the French countryside, and Kugelmass, from City College, rescues the bored matron from her crass rural existence.
Students in lit classes across the country begin to ask, "Who is this character on page 100? A bald Jew is kissing Madame Bovary." Months pass; a passionate liaison develops. Kugelmass transports Emma to a suit at the Plaza. "'I cannot get my mind around this,' a Stanford professor said. 'First a strange character named Kugelmass, and now she's gone from the book. Well, I guess the mark of a classic is thay you can reread it a thousand times and always find something new.'" Retribution inevitably follows. In Allen's moral world the joys of proscribed sex exact their Talmudic penalties. The last story is, indeed, appropriately entitled "retribution," and its last words are "Oy vey," best translated as -- well -- "Oy vey."
A note "about the Author," winding up Side Effects, concludes: "His one regret in life is that he is not someone else." A curious lament, on the face of it, for someone who in 1977 won the O. Henry Award for best short story of the year (for "The Kugelmass Episode") and two Oscars -- director and co-screenwriter -- for Annie Hall , which was picked best picture. Does Allen miss not having instead turned out, say, Alex & Gypsy, and being pelted for his pains with rotten tomatoes by Pauline Kael? I expect not. In a review of Manhattan the film critic Stanley Dauffmann acutely noted that Allen "wants a kind of twinning between his work and himself," and we all know what the self of Allen's films and fiction is. Hans-Ullrich Lemming, the Zurich psychiatrist whose untimely demise at sea is much lamented, wrote in a classic paper of "The Triumph of the Persona" (the Lemming Syndrome). Artists should perhaps resist such triumphs, and anyway Allen is getting on for hang-ups about the mating game. It would be stirring if this wonderfully gifted creative presence were to begin seeking fresh woods and pastures new.