Can Emma win an Oscar?

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The Independent Online
Here is a quiz question. In which work of fiction does the character of Madame Bovary raise the subject of OJ Simpson?

Give up?

It's a short story by Woody Allen called The Kugelmass Episode, in which a middle-aged angst-ridden New York Jew called Kugelmass is transported by magic into Flaubert's novel Madame Bovary and has an affair with silly, empty-headed Emma Bovary, who is entranced by his account of America, as in this passage....

Emma, to be sure, was just as happy as Kugelmass. She had been starved for excitement, and his tales of Broadway life, of fast cars and Hollywood and TV stars, enthralled the young French beauty.

"Tell me again about OJ Simpson," she implored that evening, as she and Kugelmass strolled past Abbe Bournisien's church.

"What can I say? The man is great. He sets all kinds of rushing records. Such moves. They can't touch him."

"And the Academy Awards?" Emma said wistfully. "I'd give anything to win one."

Is that post-modernist or what? Well, I wouldn't know, because although I sent off my money for a brochure entitled "Men! Are you afraid to go out in society because you don't know what post-modernism is and think it may come up in conversation? Send for this booklet and all your fears about your manhood will be over!", it still hasn't arrived. But what I do know is that I have read that Woody Allen story at least a dozen times, and it wasn't until I picked the book up the other day and reread the story that I even noticed that OJ Simpson was mentioned in it.

How could I so often have passed over the reference to the most famous alleged murderer of our times? Well, easily, I suppose, because on all the previous occasions I had read the story he wasn't an alleged murderer, he was an American football star, and as a non-convert to American football I wasn't likely to have heard of him or to react to the name.

(The nearest I ever got to understanding American football was by seeing it as a branch of military studies, re-enacting various fierce battles from American history with all the muddle and messed opportunities of real warfare, and this seemed to make a certain sense. But enlightenment didn't really dawn until my son Tom, who has lived in the US, explained to me that American football is actually just a branch of statistics. The games are played merely to allow elderly sports commentators to compare the figures of the current game with the statistics of previous games, and there is no other point involved. Pending the appearance of a booklet entitled "Men! Are you ashamed of your persistent failure to perform satisfactorily during conversations about American football? Then send $50 to this address!" I think that seems a highly satisfactory explanation.)

Of course, Woody Allen was running a risk in mentioning OJ Simpson, a reference which was bound to become out of date soon, but I suppose he was running a greater risk in mentioning Madame Bovary, a work written in French by a Frenchman and therefore not likely to be familiar to the Americans, who see France's only cultural role as provider of comedies which can later be remade in inferior Hollywood versions starring Burt Reynolds or Richard Gere. The only way you can write for the popular prints and still be relevant many years later is to write about something which is never going to go out of fashion.

By pure chance, the book I picked up after putting down Woody Allen was a volume of pieces by AP Herbert called Look Back and Laugh, and the first one I came to was a fierce attack on the imbecility of Homo sapiens in inventing the motor car and not knowing how to control it. There's a perennial theme for you. APH points out that on 11 November 1929, Armistice Day, the Times printed the details of the weekend's road deaths in very small type, and then went on to thunder in a leader that measles had to be dealt with now. "Public money could not be devoted to a better object, for this disease is the greatest of all the dangers to child life in this country."

"I am sorry to have to say this," says APH, with no trace of sorrow, "but this statement is fantastically erroneous. The greatest of all the dangers to child life in this country is the motor car and nothing else. Ask any village mother which she fears most - measles or motors."

Nothing has changed. Except that today the enemy beloved of the press is not measles. It is contaminated Ecstasy. But what is the death rate from adulterated Ecstasy compared with the death rate on the roads? And which gets the more publicity? Come back, APH - we still need you.

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