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SJ Perelman, Virtuoso of the Written Word

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25.11.2021

Sidney Joseph Perelman, better known to the world as SJ Perelman, (he didn’t care for his given names)specialized in turning life into a string of gags. His hundreds of short sketches are packed with crazy associations dressed up in erudite language and peppered with the sorts of yiddishisms which would be familiar to any Jewish child brought up in the secret world of immigrant parents from Eastern Europe. His writings keyed me in to the joys of satire, incongruity and sheer nonsense. Woody Allen, who acknowledged his indebtedness to Perelman, came later, as did Mel Brooks, Gene Wilder and the many other talented Jewish actors and writers who made life bearable for me.

I discovered Perelman through ‘Westward Ha!’, an account of his travels to exotic places with his friend Al Hirschfield, the equally brilliant caricaturist. I was an unripe adolescent, ready for my imagination and vocabulary to be stretched by his manic prose. Now that I have re-visited him in old age I can confidently add my signature to the list of names calling for him to be pronounced one of the greatest English language humorists of the twentieth century.

One example is worth more than a thousand adjectives. Here he is in ‘Westward Ha!’, recording his impressions as he wanders through a busy marketplace somewhere in China:

“A veritable fusillade of smells, compounded of the pungent odors of deep fat, shark’s fin, sandalwood, and open drains, now bombarded our nostrils and we found ourselves in the thriving hamlet of Chinnwangtao. Every sort of object imaginable was being offered by street hawkers – basketwork, noodles, poodles, hardware, leeches, breeches, peaches, watermelon seeds, roots, boots, flutes, coats, shorts, stoats, even early vintage phonograph records. In a pile of the latter I found a fairly........

© The Times of Israel (Blogs)


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