The Ill-Tempered Clavichord, by S. J. Perelman
The Peeve as Humor
The Ill-Tempered Clavichord.
by S. J. Perelman.
Simon and Schuster. 244 pp. $2.95.
This most recent collection of S. J. Perelman’s essays, though small like all of his volumes, makes, as usual, exasperatingly slow reading. On each page you have to plow through a syntax and vocabulary as self-consciously baroque as Sir Thomas Browne’s. More than one sketch at a sitting cloys your senses. Not that Perelman isn’t the funniest American writer still actively working: the fantastic cavorting of his imagination is as ridiculously hilarious today as when he wrote scripts for the Marx Brothers. But the strain, the near violent tension of a Perelman production leaves you limp.
Like a hockey goalie, Perelman lets nothing get by him—no foible of language or life—without taking a swipe at it. Never relaxed or off-hand like Benchley or Thurber, or urbane like E. B. White, or casual like Will Rogers, he insists on taking personally all lapses from grace in writing or living that impress themselves on him. He is derisive, sour, nihilistic, uncharitable, in short, as he himself suggests in the title of this latest book, ill-tempered, a Boys’ High humorist permanently engaged in a crazy imitation of a retired Pukka Sahib growling at the decay of standards.
Part of his acerbity is the result of his seldom working directly from life. His wit is exegetical; it lives largely off the writing which sees experience through the weird prisms of advertising agencies or Hollywood publicity offices. But reality nevertheless underpins his burlesque. He is always contrasting the implausibility of advertising and cheap culture with the unexpected but convincing tawdriness that reality, however carefully manipulated, inevitably takes on. It is in the pull between the two kinds of distortion—Perelman’s of reality, the other of a manufactured tinsel ideal—that we find the fun.
In thus rooting himself, however remotely, in life, Perelman is nearer to the earthy traditions of Twain and Will Rogers than most contemporary American funny men. But he differs even more significantly from Cantor, Berle, Durante, Benny, Hope, Skelton, Jessel, Sophie Tucker, and some of the syndicated columnists and occasional contributors to the mass-circulation magazines. These are either smart-alecky and flip, or they sell an artificial, vicarious vitality (we are never really meant to respond to much more than Sophie Tucker’s or Eddie Cantor’s or Durante’s being the last lively survivors of a breed fast becoming extinct—the nostalgia hangs like a pall during their appearances), or they just keep offering themselves masochistically, in the fashion of bobbing targets for baseballs at a carnival counter. One way or another, they all peddle personality; they insist on attention to their very bodies, emphasizing baldness, stoutness, proboscisity; and Berle, I understand, is most effective and nasty when subduing a night club heckler who is threatening to divert the audience from him.
Perelman is not, to be sure, so impersonal and anonymous as Sid Caesar, perhaps the finest of modern performing comedians and satirists; Perelman does use himself, but the “I” of his sketches seems factitious, a way merely of introducing the note of autobiography required by current written satire. Nor is he as spontaneously ebullient as Groucho Marx, with whom he shares, among other talents, a wonderful facility for shrewd and surrealistic punning. But like both Caesar and Marx, he bases his humor on the exploitation of technique rather than just personality or “material.”
I don’t suppose any recent writer outside of Joyce and possibly Beerbohm has shown a greater responsiveness than Perelman to the effect of written language—the flow of a sentence, the meaning of a word. And his consciousness of the multiple possibilities of communication is positively Talmudic. Here is a moderately representative sample:
Who, seeing me of a summer afternoon in the fashionable crush at the Plaza Auction Galleries, in a Savile Row suit and yellow dogskin gloves, my chin resting meditatively on a Malacca stick and acquiring some trifle of boiserie—my chin often acquires some trifle of boiserie independently of me—who, I repeat, would ever think of me as a connoisseur of livestock feed? Nobody would believe these tapering ivory fingers, from which elegantly depends a scented Egyptian cigarette, capable of detecting the sawdust that lurks in laying mash or of distinguishing one oat from another, and, as a matter of fact, they’re not.
It is this prodigality that is so tiring. The sustained cerebration in some of his sketches is almost of the kind required for playing or watching chess, or for reading a particularly ungraceful New Critic’s explication of a poem. Between sessions with Perelman you have to keep returning to the everyday world of sloppy communication and sloppy feeling to catch the full character of his astringency.
At the bottom of Perelman’s criticism of life and language is the traditional serious, self-satisfied, snobbish Jewish contempt for foolishness and the works of thick heads. It shows up mediocrity and idiocy by brilliant “showing off,” taking it for granted that criteria—whether in doing or living—must be preserved. If you insist on fiddling in public, you must be ready to be judged against Heifetz. But as my father used to say, trying to extenuate my failures in school to my implacable mother, not everyone can or needs to be a Heifetz or an Einstein. One becomes most impatient with Perelman when he expends his elaborate strategy and enormous fire-power on some minute pip of a target such as the lush prose of an inconsequential trashy novel of the 1920’s, totally forgotten now, perhaps never really known.
Perelman’s sprinkling of Yiddish throughout his essays suggests that he is slyly talking for the family—made up not necessarily of those who know Yiddish by inheritance, but of all the metropolitan sophisticates who read the New Yorker—where, with rare exceptions, his work appears—and who may be presumed by virtue of their civilized sense of inclusiveness to have picked up a smattering of the secret language. The Yiddish is just another device in his repertory, a part of the jargon of insiders. In the following, for instance, the mention of Thoreau is just as important as the use of the word “schlemiel,” and when Perelman calls Thoreau a schlemiel, the joke lies not in his pretending that he does not understand Thoreau, which would be the point of the joke if Eddie Cantor made it, but precisely in the easy insistence that he does.
The beautycoon, as I flinch at calling him, opened his heart. “The reason women buy cosmetics,” he said, laying his nose slyly alongside his finger, “is because they buy hope. In other words,” he added, glomming a phrase from an impractical schlemiel named Henry David Thoreau, who gets himself quoted in the damnedest contexts, “most women lead lives of dullness, quiet desperation, and I think cosmetics are a wonderful escape from it.” He then cited a liquid foundation called Touch and Glow that apparently confers powers of escape analogous to those enjoyed by Harry Houdini. . . .
In the following exchange, from what I found the funniest skit in the book, “A Hepcat May Look at a King,” Perelman indicates his own awareness of the hidden fraternities in our society. Two Oriental potentates are besieging a booking agent’s office after Michael Todd’s Peep Show used songs written by Bhumibol, the King of Siam (which, for the skeptical and uninformed, actually happened).
Bhopal: Mind you, I won’t say this Bhumibol ain’t an able administrator, but he don’t know a beguine from a cakewalk. The kid is absolutely devoid of rhythm.
Kapurthala: He’s a Buddhist, that’s why. A downbeat don’t mean a thing to a Buddhist.
Bhopal: I’m surprised a showman like Todd would fall for that type air.
Kapurthala: Eight to five he’s a Buddhist, too. All those guys stick together.
Perelman aficionados mayn’t really stick together, as Buddhists probably don’t, but like their Mexican and Spanish brethren they do know that they all enjoy watching a superb matador dispose of the bull.