With the 30th anniversary of the death of S.J. Perelman recently passed, it’s time to remind people why he remains one of my favourite comic writers:
There is nowhere that Sid Perelman would rather have had his centenary commemorated than in The Times. In that bizarre anachronistic anglophilia of his, he would have relished the fantasy of antique retainers ironing this paper in their butler’s pantries before hobbling up the Grinling Gibbons staircases to lay it beside the master’s kedgeree; or the thought of crumpled copies lying around the Athenaeum and the Reform, on cracked leather arms and Regency side-tables, one or two, perhaps, covering the faces of wizened bishops with curious names; or the vision of this sheet or that blowing through Burlington Arcade and fetching up against the premises of a swordstick factor, a cobbler of rustic brogues, an importer of hand-rolled Burmese stogies.
Throughout the 1970s, we used to meet for tea, Sid and I, at Brown’s Hotel, during his years of exile in a London that could never come up to his impossible Edwardian expectations, and eat cucumber sandwiches the size of Cape Triangulars. Neither of us liked them much, but ritual has nothing to do with personal fancies, or communion wafers would come with raisins in: Sid enjoyed sitting in a hermetically enclosed cell of Old Mayfair, watching frail dowagers from the shires fluttering to and fro. That he could watch the toing and the froing at the same time, at least apparently, had much to do with the fact that his eyes pointed different ways; one could never be quite certain just how much of his attention one was commanding. He wrote regularly about his appearance, hating the way he looked; he once murmured to me — everything was murmured; I used to walk beside him with a permanent list towards the moving mouth beneath — in Sulka’s, whither we had repaired (his words) to buy six pairs of dress socks: “I never get over the shock of being Rex Harrison inside and then catching sight of myself in one of these damned mirrors.”
We looked at him, then, in the glass, and I had the impression of a tiny military man, the martinet-in-chief of some courageous, smart, but very short regiment. He had clipped his moustache, and it turned up slightly at the ends; he wore thornproof tweeds and a checked shirt and a collegiately striped tie: a foot taller, and he could have been a retired Grenadier colonel, perhaps even an Uhlan — those fine mad words of his floated into my head, from one of his Cloudland Revisited extravaganzas in which he confessed that, for some time after seeing Erich von Stroheim in Foolish Wives, “I exhibited a maddening tendency to click my heels and murmur ‘Bitte?’ along with a twitch as though a monocle were screwed into my eye. The mannerism finally abated, but not until the dean of Brown University had taken me aside and confided that if I wanted to transfer to Heidelberg, the faculty would not stand in my way.”
That wild incongruity between the ego-ideal of the English country gentleman and the reality of the Brooklyn-born son of pogrom-fleeing immigrants was, of course, something of which Sid was constantly aware, and constantly on the qui vive to ridicule. We were once strolling down Constitution Hill, on an especially English spring morning, engaged in a slightly pretentious discussion anent, as I dimly remember, some claret he intended buying for no better reason than the pleasure he took in visiting St James’s wine-merchants, when, from the direction of Buckingham Palace behind us, came the clatter of the Household Cavalry in the process of changing themselves. Whereupon Sid clutched my arm, and, in a rare shout, cried: “Cossacks! Run for your life!”
It informed his miraculous prose, all this. Critics prepared to take the crazy risk of analysing humour have generally banged on about Perelman’s acid wit, his immaculate ear, his bottomless vocabulary, his visionary extravagance and so forth, and true enough it all is; but, for me, what sets him apart from the other comic masters (and mistress) of The New Yorker’s lost heyday is demotic shock: swept along by the extraordinary deft elegance of his line and rhythm, walking on the air of those precision-balanced periods packed with arcane literary reference, you suddenly fetch up at the corner where Henry James collides with Groucho Marx — when the dandy with the James Lock fedora, the John Lobb brogues, and the James Smith cane looks in the mirror and sees, aghast, the kid from Washington Heights.
I can remember not only discovering Perelman, but also the first paragraph of his I ever read; and also what it did to me. While better hacks than I may have pubescently pledged themselves to the lifelong nib after coming across The Waste Land or Finnegan’s Wake and falling into anaphylactic literary shock, my course was undeviatingly set when, in 1950, a New Yorker found its unlikely way into the school library, and I read: “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.”
And that was more or less that. For several months thereafter, I not only read all the Perelman I could lay hands on, but also imitated enough of it to fill a medium-sized incinerator. He wasn’t an easy man to find: suburban librarians had never heard of him; bookshops curtly sent me away to look up the name again and come back when I had it right; and newsagents carried only spasmodic issues of The New Yorker, many of which I forked out good dinner-money for, only to find they contained no Perelman whatever, being lined instead with leaden romans faux about growing up in either Maine or Alabama.
And then, in 1951, Crazy Like A Fox was published, in Penguin. It lies before me as I write: it cost something called two shillings, and I have to open it with great care, because it has been opened a thousand times before, and the yellowed pages drop, now, from the gumless spine, and form new conjunctions on the floor: fine for the rambling drivel of William Burroughs, maybe, but no fate for the impeccable precision of Sid.
A dozen years later, having read all his books, I shoved my own boat out, but it took a long time for me to chart a course that lay off Perelman’s trade routes; and I wasn’t alone, because there is a lot of Perelman in a lot of humorists — how could there not be? — and even if they succeed in finding their own voices, there is invariably a slight inflection in them whose provenance is unmistakable. And inescapable: in the autumn of 1979 — I tell this bit with awkwardness and much embarrassment, but I want to tell it for a particular commemorative reason, and there’s only one way of getting into it — The New York Times wrote a flattering review of a book of mine, which contained the unnerving phrase: “He is the natural heir to S. J. Perelman.”
The next day I received a cable from Sid. “I SEE SOME CAD HAS LET SLIP YOUR MOTHERS DARK SECRET STOP DONT THINK THIS ENTITLES YOU TO A LIEN ON MY ESTATE STOP MY LAWYERS ARE IN THE MAIL.” It may have been the last thing he wrote: a week later, he died. And the estate? Despite its spendthrift heirs, it remains intact. Solid gold, every word. -Alan Coren
Basically, that was a long-winded way of leading up to saying: it’s comic verse time again, campers…