Choosing the next writer to include in this series was a no-brainer. Known to many chiefly for his legendary movies and comic routines, Woody Allen was also a master of the humorous short story. But selecting which three stories to include here was a difficult task, one that forced me to spend the better part of a morning rereading some of his story collections. Not a bad way to spend some time. No demons or dark thoughts could survive against the relentless onslaught of Woody’s absurdity.
I’ll start with “The Kugelmass Episode.” If you’ve never read the story, right off you’re wondering, Who the hell was Kugelmass and why should I care? Since you’re hooked already, I’ll tell you. Kugelmass is a professor at City College who’s unhappy with his marriage. So he seeks the services of a magician by the name of The Great Persky, who promises to bring some excitement to his life. He tells Kugelmass to climb into a cabinet where he “can meet any of the women created by the world’s best writers.” All Kugelmass has to do is choose a book and Persky promises to project him into it for however long he wishes. Choosing Madame Bovary, Kugelmass proceeds to have an passionate affair with Emma, while at the same time dismaying literary professors and students the world over who puzzle over the sudden appearance of Kugelmass as a new character in the book. I’ll stop there. You’ll just have to read the story to find out how the affair turns out.
Another of my Woody Favorites is “The Shallowest Man.” Like most of his stories, it starts in some familiar setting in Manhattan and is told in the first person by an urbane narrator who is usually well-versed in literature, art, philosophy and the latest trends in modern culture. While sitting in a delicatessen, the narrator Koppelman brings up the name of Lenny Mendel as “positively the shallowest human he’d ever come across, bar none,” and then proceeds to tell a story backing up his claim. The story is deliciously cynical, and I’ll leave it to you to decide whether Lenny truly deserves this title.
One of the things I most like about the story “This Nib for Hire” is the preposterous name Woody gives to one of the characters—E. Coli Biggs. It is safe to say that no other writer in literary history ever considered using E. coli for a name. The main character, Flanders Mealworm, is offered a job by film producer Biggs to write a novelization of a classic old movie starring the Three Stooges. Flanders, who considers himself a writer of serious literature, flat out refuses, then reluctantly decides to sacrifice his integrity for promised riches. Check out the story to see how the novelization works out.
Many of Woody Allen’s stories first appeared in The New Yorker. “This Nib for Hire.” can be found in his book Mere Anarchy, while the other two are part of the collection Side Effects.