National Post (National Edition)



The fastidious Mr. Perelman.

I could recommend one of his books, but there is no need. They are all superb. S.J. Perelman was among the most gifted masters of English prose, and with Flann O'Brien, the finest short-piece writer of the past century. He wrote mainly for magazines, mostly for The New Yorker in the days when it might have claimed to have been a venue for stuff really worth reading, and in an era that had time for craft and style even in venues presumed to be “evanescent.”

S.J. Perelman was a writer for a class of writing which I will call high-prose comedy. He sought the perfection of phrase as musicians seek absolute melody, parody his chosen field of operations, and perfection of the sentence, in diction, flow and ornament, his always attendant ambition. He owned an instinct for perfect cadence, and had in his lexical quiver the most brilliant, far-reaching, and inventive vocabulary of any man or woman who ever wrote for a magazine. His gift for mockery of the pedestrian, the bloated, the pretentiou­s, was nonpareil.

He took the word “writer” seriously, which has to be an emergency call for our times, when it has drifted away to inconseque­nce. To be of writer status requires diligence, labour, honesty, and severe applicatio­n, and most of all, an attempt to reach mastery of the medium being worked in: words and language. Writing is more than a display of wounds in sad prose.

Perelman's other virtue — and it is a great one: he despised Hollywood.

If you wish to seek his work, and have it mailed to you, there are book sites that allow you to do so. You will not find Mr. Perelman in Chapters or other mall book dumps.

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