Apropos of Nothing review – Woody Allen’s times and misdemeanours | Autobiography and memoir


Although I see what he was saying, I don't agree with Hilaire Belloc, who once wrote that, just as omelets are admirable or intolerable, and nothing in between, the same is true of autobiography. Most memories, unfortunately, struggle for the same things: fame, for example, is usually less interesting (or perhaps just more difficult to describe) than the struggle to achieve it; the central irony of autobiography is that it is much easier to be honest with other people than to be honest with yourself. Such books, then, tend to be irregular: sometimes delicious, but at other times, heavy and in need of spice.


If Woody Allen About nothing it was an omelet, you would make fun of two-thirds of it very smart, I think, after which – satiated, to a certain extent -, you sadly tore what was left on your plate in the trash. Later, you may be bothered by a hint of indigestion; even a little mild nausea. But in the morning, looking at the Alka-Seltzer, I'm not sure that you'll regret it, much less inclined to avoid omelets for life. What I'm trying to say is that Allen's autobiography is a mix. If he can write (obviously, he can), and if he is, at times, surprisingly honest (occasionally), he can also be boring and deceive himself. Of course, if you are one of those who, disgusted with what they consider his moral flaws, have sworn never to watch Annie Hall or Manhattan again, you are unlikely to want to embark About nothing first – and fair enough, it depends on you. But I am not in that field. Nor can I comment on Allen's alleged abuse of his adopted daughter, Dylan, a crime of which he was first accused in 1992 (two police investigations into it came to nothing). What I will say, however, is that I find it shameful and alarming that Hachette, his original publisher, easily dropped his book after a stoppage of some of its employees – and that, although I was sometimes repelled by it, I was also fascinated and even entertained. So, shoot me. Again, the choice is yours.

Like Salinger's Holden Caulfield, Allen "doesn't feel like getting into all of that David Copperfield crap." But still, he's good in his childhood in Brooklyn: smart, round and sometimes funny. Your parents – your father was a gambler; his mother worked at a florist – they were, he tells us, "as incomparable as Hannah Arendt and Nathan Detroit", disagreeing with everything except "Hitler and my newsletters". As a boy, he loved magic, fell in love with jazz, courtesy of the great Sidney Bechet, and found his most adored friend in the form of his cousin, Rita. Most readers will already know about the beginning of their careers: the jokes written for the tabloids, the work for the radio and as a stand-up. What is surprising in this account is the relative ease with which he became a writer and director (Take the money and run, in 1969, it was the first appropriate film). He introduces you here so casually: the equivalent of going from, say, working at a bank to working in a realtor's office.

Woody Allen, 1994. Photo: Jane Bown / The Watcher

He's straightforward about his films. He mainly knows which ones work and which don't (or maybe it's just that he agrees with me) – and he can be sharp when it comes to actors too. Many comments have already been made about, among other things, Scarlett Johansson ("when you meet her, you need to fight pheromones"), and I do not intend to defend you in this regard. Disgusting. The book is dedicated to Soon-Yi, the stepdaughter he seduced when she was 21 and who is now his third wife (she is 35 years younger): “I ate her out of my hand and then I noticed my arm was missing , He writes, a line that couldn't be more deaf if it were Florence Foster Jenkins.


But the reviewers also cited selectively, and while one doesn't cancel out the other, it's great how much he admires the talent of, say, Judy Davis, Barbara Hershey and Dianne Wiest – just the kind of woman Hollywood likes to make invisible. His account of the mental illness suffered by his second wife, Louise Lasser, is unassailable to the point of being cruel. But the warmth he feels for her is obvious; they remained friends. Ditto Diane Keaton, a woman who, as he says, dressed "as if her personal buyer was Buñuel" (sidebar: people tend to forget that Keaton was no longer his girlfriend at the time they did Annie Hall)

OK … I'm getting to that. Allen devotes about 100 pages – extremely energetic and committed pages: sometimes angry and tearful, false and sometimes simply bewildered – to his relationship with Soon-Yi Previn and his discovery in 1992 by his mother, his then partner Mia Farrow, courtesy some "erotic" Polaroids; the subsequent claim, initially made by Farrow, that he had abused their adopted daughter, Dylan; and his later departure from both Dylan and his son Ronan (the latter always supported his sister; however, his brother, Moses, as Allen notes, sided with his father). None of this is edifying, to the point of avoiding repeating the worst, British defamation laws being a little more stringent than in the USA. However, Allen would have been just as condemned if he hadn't said anything about it.


No, he doesn't do well. But neither does Farrow (his distorted bias is one thing, but the facts are another, and it must be said that it took a long time – about 40 years – to call his friend Roman Polanski, who in 1978 pleaded guilty to illegal sexual relations with a minor). To get back to where we started, here's another thing about omelets: you can't make one without breaking the eggs. This is a horrible, painful and, above all, highly opaque story, and it will always be – until, even, the day when it is inevitably mentioned in the first paragraph of a long newspaper obituary.

• About nothing by Woody Allen is published by Arcade (£ 24.71). To order a copy, go to guardianbookshop.com or call 020-3176 3837

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