Perelman is the subject of an expansive and essential new anthology, published by Library of America and edited by New Yorker writer and Perelman aficionado Adam Gopnik.
“One of the truths about Perelman is, I think, he was the most gifted pure writer in American English in the 20th century,” Gopnik said in a phone interview. “He could do things with language that no one else could remotely do.”
Such as: “She was as dead as vaudeville.” That line comes from his Raymond Chandler parody, “Farewell, My Lovely Appetizer,” one of more than 60 New Yorker pieces included in the anthology, along with his 1962 play, “The Beauty Part,” excerpts from his unfinished autobiography and personal letters. A definitive Notes section identifies now obscure references (the Mermaid Tavern; look it up) and translates the copious Yiddish slang.
It is a sad cultural irony that at a time when any book or film can be summoned with a click, such literary titans as Perelman have become a niche taste. Gopnik has a glass half-full take on this. “Our society is very large,” he said. “Even if 1 percent of American people have any idea who Perelman is, that’s a lot of people.”
This conversation was edited for length and clarity.
Q: I am among those who were introduced to S.J. Perelman via the Marx Brothers. What was your gateway?
A: Like you, I had a Marx Brothers conversion experience in the early ’70s. I was also, though, a New Yorker reader by that point, so I’m not sure which came first. Actually, I can predate it. I grew up in Montreal, and McGill University did a student production of “The Beauty Part.”
Q: What do you respond to in his writing?
A: His work is very much writing about reading, and as an addictive reader, I immediately responded to that aspect of it. I love his ear for cliche and his feelings for the absurd, but I love the way he ran together all the styles of American vulgarity — advertising and Hollywood — with what was clearly an advanced literary sensibility and taste. Perelman is certainly a benevolent angel in that collision between lowbrow and highbrow.
Q: As editor, how did you go about compiling this anthology?
A: I let my own personal tastes, some of which are idiosyncratic, push me forward. He wrote wonderfully for a very long time, but I love all of the writing from the 1950s. I like somewhat less the travel writing, which I found became more routine: He goes to someplace he’s dreamed of, it turns out to be a tourist trap and he’s indignant. It’s less surprising than the mid-’50s work.
Q: How do you recommend readers approach this anthology — read it front to back or dip in and out?
A: I’m a dipper. I wanted to edit this anthology with the pleasure principle. There’s nothing in it I feel is a duty to read, but everything that is a joy to read. It’s meant to be more like a day at the beach, where you go in and out of the waves.
Q: You've included the essentials, such as "Farewell, My Lovely Appetizer," as well as lesser-known gems. Do you have a personal favorite you would direct readers to?
A: If I had to pick out a favorite, and I’m glad I don’t, it would be the “Cloudland Revisited” pieces, which are all about him revisiting the penny dreadful books or silent movies of his childhood. Those pieces are irresistible because there is such affection for the dreck seen from the view of someone whose tastes have become more sophisticated.
Q: There are pearls on every page. Do you have a favorite?
A: That’s so hard. I rarely pick up a copy of [his anthologies] “The Ill-Tempered Clavichord” or “The Road to Miltown,” which are my two absolute favorites, without coming upon a sentence that I find irresistible. I’ll give you one from “Scenario,” which is a virtuoso, astounding piece of pure writing. It’s one long, surrealist movie pitch meeting: “I guess I’m just an old mad scientist at bottom. Give me an underground laboratory, half a dozen atom-smashers, and a beautiful girl in a diaphanous veil waiting to be turned into a chimpanzee, and I care not who writes the nation’s laws.”
Q: There's a wonderful line in one of the letters you included in the anthology. Perelman is talking about some of the top screenwriters from Hollywood's golden era. He writes, "These were the Roman candles, the Catherine wheels of that epoch of movie writing, and their names are now writ in water." The same could be said for the wits and humorists that preceded him, such as Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley and Ring Lardner.
A: One of the functions of Library of America is to try to preserve the canon of American literature. It’s always changing and expanding, but Perelman belongs there. He is one of the great masters. I’m a firm believer that every book can still be alive for us if we dive back into them. You don’t have to know what’s being satirized to love the satire. I find Perelman irresistibly funny in his grouchy misanthropic way.
Q: When I read Perelman in high school, I wish I would have had the Notes section for all the references and slang that eluded my comprehension. It reminded me of those Folger editions of Shakespeare's plays.
A: A lot of his language is slipping away from us. It depends on that collision between Yiddishisms and cliches of pulp fiction and so on. I hope this anthology will help preserve Perelman’s lingo awhile longer.
Q: Woody Allen's early New Yorker pieces in the 1970s had a Perelman influence. Do you see anyone now carrying Perelman's torch forward?
A: Veronica Geng has pushed Perelman’s style in the direction of abstract art. The Coen brothers are big Perelman fans and there is a Perelman feeling in something like “O Brother, Where Art Thou” and “The Big Lebowski.” It’s still out there.
Donald Liebenson is an entertainment writer. His work has been published by the Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, VanityFair.com and New York Magazine’s Vulture website.
Edited by Adam Gopnik
Library of America. $35. 594 pp