The funniest man

Soha Hesham , Sunday 3 Mar 2024

A film critic has finally given us Woody Allen in Arabic.



Released during the Cairo Book Fair by by Al-Kotob Khan publishing house, film critic Essam Zakaria’s new book Akthar Al-Regal Dahala (The Shallowest Man) is a beautiful 320-page introduction to the legendary filmmaker Woody Allen. A selection of Allen’s writing, brilliantly translated into Arabic, it covers Allen’s extended career and his many talents, revealing not just the richness of his character but also little known aspects of his life and work.

The Shallowest Man includes 25 short stories from the collections Getting Even (1971), Without Feathers (1975), Side Effects (1980), Mere Anarchy (2007), and Zero Gravity (2022). It also includes selections of Allen’s memoir Apropos of Nothing (2020)  as well as his standup routines, the latter sourced on the internet from both text and video. This is valuable and engaging material, but Zakaria’s introduction is arguably just as crucial.

In it Zakaria addresses the most pressing question: at the age of 88, is Allen still passionate about cinema? Is he the mischievous, prolific and multi-talented artist that he was when his career took off in the early 1960s? The book explores Allen’s rich journey backwards, in fact, starting from the present moment.

Zakaria describes Allen’s beginnings as not having enough potential to suggest that he would become one of the great artists and philosophers of our times. He began in the early 1960s as a stand-up comedian, performing at venues frequented by intellectuals. At the time, he had failed philosophy at university and would later often ridicule philosophers. But in 2010, ironically, he became a member of the American Philosophical Association. For Zakaria, more importantly, he is a model film auteur. He has been nominated for 24 Academy Awards, winning four as a director and screenwriter.

 Allen is of course also famous as a great satirist, using his comedy to mock everything whether it is politics, cultural authorities, social traditions or religion. But Zakaria is fascinated with the range of his achievement. ”Allen,” he writes, “is not just a director, but also a screenwriter, actor, stand-up comedian, short story writer, playwright, and jazz musician.” The most descriptive label attached to him is that he is one of the greatest comedy makers in history.



Having read the book, I was keen to attend the launch the moment it was announced. I didn’t want to miss what Zakaria might have to say about the book and his possible answers to such questions as why this title in particular and what drove him to take on Allen in this way.

Moderated by Cairo University French professor Salma Mobarak, it was actually one of the most delightful discussions I have ever attended. Mobarak opened the discussion with a brief account of falling in love with the book and asking Karam Youssef, the publisher, to moderate the discussion.

Zakaria, for his part, explained that having been a member of what he called the Woody Allen cult, familiar with all his films, he did not start reading Allen’s short stories — a volume of which had been on his book shelves for years — until the Covid quarantine. It was this that gave him the time to explore that side of Allen’s career, and before too long translating parts of that volume became an outlet for his pent-up energy and a way to maintain his sanity under maddening circumstances.

Pleased with the results, Zakaria obtained all four of Allen’s short story collections with a view to putting together a selection, later to be surprised by the release of a fifth, Zero Gravity, which he also incorporated. He took five or six pieces from each. His criteria of selection are variety — no two pieces should be alike — as well as the success of a given piece and its relevance or suitability in Arabic. “And of course there were my own personal preferences.” He is an informed reader if ever there was one.


“Woody Allen’s view of the world,” Zakaria said, “is that it is a big joke, huge nonsense, and his vision for his art too is that it is a kind of escape from confronting major questions like death and illness by asking the existential questions that everybody is scared of. He once said of art that it is our way to distract ourselves from thinking about these big tragic questions. These short stories tackle some of said tragic issues but with a great sense of humor and irony. I personally love this form of satire and sarcasm: the intellectual humor, and the fact that every issue ever can be mocked and transformed into comedy. In the short stories I translated Allen’s sarcasm has a range of targets from the Old Testament to Nietzsche, Kafka and even food menus. He even has an one-act play called Death Knocks, that is a farcical parody of Ingmar Bergman’s most famous film The Seventh Seal.”

According to Zakaria, Allen, “is like a magician who turns even the most serious and tragic works into hilarious satirical comedy, to the extent that one is always wondering whether he is honouring these works, expressing respect for them, or mocking them.”

The influence of other filmmakers is a question Zakaria debates in his introduction: echoes of Bergman’s Wild Strawberries can be found in Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters, Another Woman and Crimes and Misdemeanors. Federico Fellini’s 8 1/2 and La dolce vita are evident in Stardust Memories and Radio Days, respectively. In Rifkin’s Festival (2020), indeed, Allen channels his own memories through the story of an elderly writer who dreams up stories blending reality with 20th-century films.

“Allen started to write for standup comedians when he was a teenager, then he became a standup comedian himself. When he was famous enough in this field he wrote his first film, What’s New, Pussycat?, directed by Charles Friedman in 1965. The film was not well-received, which pushed him to write and direct his own films. Writing was how he started and he never abandoned it. Actually one of his famous short stories, ‘The Kugelmass Episode’, received a prestigious literary award.” This paralleled his film Annie Hall (1977), Zakaria added, which receiving four Oscars — best picture, director, screenplay and lead actress for Diane Keaton — a model of the the romantic comedy set in an urban environment among the educated and the cultured, who suffer from frustration and existential anxiety.

At this point Mobarak made the point that Allen was not simply a filmmaker who occasionally wrote or a filmmaker who wrote his memoirs. All through his career had a non-stop relationship with writing.

“Allen is an exceptional artist,” Zakaria went on, “who cannot be compared to anyone. Now at nearly 90 he is still active. Last year he made a film that premiered at the Venice International Film Festival, Coup de Chance, which revolves around love and betrayal, one of Allen’s favorite themes. And he published his memoir Apropos of Nothing (2020)  and a new collection of short stories.

“’The Kugelmass Episode’ is about a person who enters a novel. This story was written decades before the theory of the author’s death and the multiple interpretations based on the number of readers. It explores the idea of intertextuality and older literary works that can be read completely differently years, decades, or centuries after they are written.Its premise is a magician who can transport anyone into a work of fiction so that readers will find them there where they weren’t before.”

Allen is a keen student of existentialism, Zakaria elaborated, a reader of Dostoyevsky, Schopenhauer as well as Nietzsche, and Kierkegaard as well as Kafka. “In the short story ‘The Whore of Mensa’, from the book Without Feathers (1975), a man is  blackmailed by an ‘intellectual prostitute’, someone who sells his ideas and intellect instead of selling sex for money and in the same context we will find the same theme in his famous film Annie Hall, about the smart intellectual woman. Allen has always been fascinated with the intellectual world and he is one of the best filmmakers to tackle the intellectual community in New York City. In Annie Hall he mocks and regards himself as the weaker party as opposed to the woman and that was the secret behind choosing The Shallowest Man as the title of the book. It is most expressive of the male characters in most of these short stories as Allen presented them.”

For me, “The Whore of Mensa” was the best short story and the most ironic. In it an investigator named Kaiser Lupowitz is approached by a man who is concerned that his wife will find out he’s been having stimulating conversations behind her back: “I’m on the road a lot. You know how it is—lonely. Oh, not what you’re thinking. See, Kaiser, I’m basically an intellectual. Sure, a guy can meet all the bimbos he wants. But the really brainy women—they’re not so easy to find on short notice...”

 Zakaria went on, “His short story ‘A Twenties Memory’ which he wrote in 1971 could be considered as the initial core of his hit film Midnight in Paris (2011), in which he hilariously makes his protagonist Owen Wilson meet with 1920s icons like Salvador Dali, Ernest Hemingway, Pablo Picasso, Man Ray and Zelda Fitzgerald. Nonetheless, through these short stories it is easy to trace the favorite themes and the main concerns and obsessions that Allen is interested in and how they can evolve from a 1971 short story to a 2011 film.”

* A version of this article appears in print in the 29 February, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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