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Harpo Marx, the wigged, non-speaking member of the Marx Brothers (AP)
Harpo Marx, the wigged, non-speaking member of the Marx Brothers (AP)

Review: Non-fiction

Harpo, Marx and Wagner Add to ...

There comes a moment in every book-lover’s life when he stumbles upon a passage so strange or troubling or preposterous that it compels him to say: “I’m sorry; I’ve given it my all, but now I’m throwing in the towel. The rest of you will have to go ahead without me.” In the case of Wayne Koestenbaum’s very strange, very original, but mostly very strange book The Anatomy of Harpo Marx, the passage in question appears on Page 68, where the author writes:

“This point may not be popular. It may not win me friends. But I must make it. Harpo, like most men, has a symbolic vagina, somewhere on his person. Harpo, a starry man, has many vaginas. One is his wig. Another is his silence.”

It is, to be sure, an unconventional, and perhaps indefensible theory. Especially the part about the wig. But it is by no means the only offbeat theory in this book. No siree Bob. Indeed, given that the passage occurs a scant one-fifth of the way through the book, this is a clear-cut case of hold on to your hats, loopy metaphor buffs, because it’s gonna be a bumpy ride. In The Anatomy of Harpo Marx, Koestenbaum, who teaches English at the City University of New York Graduate Center, attempts a deeply personal, highly idiosyncratic, shot-by-shot exegesis of the work of the one member of the famous comedy team the Marx Brothers who never spoke. He certainly never spoke about his vagina.

The book is not really about Harpo Marx; it’s about Koestenbaum’s own emotional and ethnic and cultural and even sexual response to the comic over the course of his own lifetime, but most particularly over the many months he devoted to watching and rewatching every Marx Brothers movie, several of which are not very good.

The undertaking involved slowing down the action, analyzing each of the comic’s gesture or facial expressions onscreen, and freezing individual frames, always on the prowl for phantom vaginas. “I want to commit media-heist,” the author explains, “to steal a man from silence and transplant him into words, if only for the pleasure of taking illusory possession of a physical self-sureness that can never be mine.” I, for one, have no idea what this means.

In 299 sometimes illuminating, sometimes screwy, but always self-referential pages, Koestenbaum the Deconstructor attempts to link Harpo’s work with Adolf Hitler, Charles Dickens, Marcel Duchamp, John Milton, Richard Strauss, Gilbert and Sullivan, André Breton, Frederic Chopin, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Frank O’Hara, Henri Bergson, Gérard de Nerval, Richard Wagner, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Walter Benjamin, Charles Baudelaire, Arnold Schoenberg and John Kennedy Jr. Inexplicably, both LeBron James and Rocket Richard are absent from the narrative.

All of the people Koestenbaum cites have one thing in common with Harpo Marx: They are all dead, and with the exception of Arnold Schoenberg, none of them ever traded volleys with him at a fancy Los Angeles tennis club. Koestenbaum also posits a connection between Harpo’s highly physical art and the work of Emily Dickinson, Amelia Earhart and Gertrude Stein, all of whom, presumably, had more obvious, more functional vaginas than he did.

There are 13 chapters in the book, one dedicated to each of Harpo’s movies. Which began with The Cocoanuts in 1929, and ended with Love Happy 20 years later. The films are not discussed in chronological order. In chapters with titles like Fake Dead Jew as Cute Zoo-Idiot: Room Service, and Freeze Rusty’s Anal Rage in a Cozy World: Go West, Koestenbaum portrays his subject as an insurgent, a subversive, an inventor of an entirely new language, and a man whose humour often involved buttocks, be they human or equine. Typical is the micro-section Master and Slave: Harpo and Hegel, where Koestenbaum writes:

“Important, no doubt, to Hegel, and to those under his domination, was the notion that a master and slave dialectic drives Western history. Harpo’s body dramatizes these swerves. His up-and-down movement between slave and master acts out a reading of history; the Marx Brothers – conspicuously Jewish, and nominally Marxist – enjoy cinematic fame at a moment when the Jews were being thrust tragically downward. Gruesome report: Hitler loved the Marx Brothers. Can one say Hitler loved? Hitler, with his eye of toad, watched Marx Brothers movies.”

That is Koestenbaum’s shtick at its best: He writes at fever pitch, with fireworks going off everywhere, and peppers his story with just enough tidbits of fascinating information that readers may fleetingly overlook the fact that his theories are barmy.

Koestenbaum, an ingenious show-off, is a master at drawing parallels between things no one else has ever thought of connecting – say, Harpo Marx and Caravaggio – because there is no reason, or justification, for connecting them. This is like starting out to re-interpret Napoleon Bonaparte’s epic 1815 defeat at Waterloo in the context of ABBA’s 1973 hit of the same name, and then saying: “Hold on a second. Let’s see if we can get Led Zeppelin into this analogy instead.”

I like nutty, extraneous aperçus as much as the next guy, but when you get right down to it, Harpo Marx doesn’t really have all that much to do with Jean-Paul Sartre or Susan Sontag or Stéphane Mallarmé or Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo or Pierre Boulez’s 1965-1970 composition Éclat or the piano music of Francis Poulenc or the Nuremburg Laws or Parsifal or Friedrich Nietzsche. A famous New Yorker cartoon of a bygone era depicts a drunk buttonholing a world-weary bartender and rasping, “The first time I mention Nietzsche, stop serving me.” If only book editors felt the same way.

Joe Queenan’s most recent book is a memoir, Closing Time.

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