Saturday 24 March 2018

Review: I Remember Nothing by Nora Ephron

Knopf, €15.49

Nora Ephron is 70 and therefore entitled to have a memoir called I Remember Nothing in which she laments, among other things, that she no longer recognises anyone in People magazine. Why would she care about the dross of modern culture when, as she says, herself, she came from a time when people "really cared about magazines"?

And yet in many ways Ephron was the one of the first purveyors of disposable, observational whimsy, the original blogger if you will. In the Seventies she rose from being a lowly researcher at Newsweek to become a rom-com screenwriter par excellence and one of the most-read essayists on either side of the Atlantic, complaining good-naturedly about everything (describing in Heartburn a man who "would have sex with a Venetian blind") and writing with wit and warmth, mostly about herself. In the intervening years humorists such as David Sedaris have created a vogue for outlandish revelation, but Ephron's quietly hilarious observations about herself have always been better (mainly because they don't sound made up). She can riff entertainingly on the smallest subjects and has lately found a natural home for her musings at The Huffington Post, where she provides a welcome relief from so much liberal boilerplate. In some ways, you could say the brevity of the website suits her style to perfection.

And yet perhaps almost too well to then transplant it back into the world of books. In this collection, the wit is still sporadically there, but the pieces don't quite live up to the reputation of their author. As blog entries, they worked fine, but in a 'collection' with an author photo and a press release the expectations are raised, and suddenly the same works feel a little glib and unfinished. Rather than listening to a collection of greatest hits there is a slight sense of consuming soup made from leftovers. Take The Six Stages of Email, in which she observes that the phone requires you to "pretend to some semblance of interest in the person on the other end of the line" whereas email allows you to cut to the chase. It's "communicative but not, in short, friends but not". Nora, is that it? Maybe it was because I had just read Malcolm Gladwell, who put this idea much better ("the internet provides the comfort of closeness with the relief of distance") but this essay felt like one of a few flimsy pieces in this book.

And yet Ephron is perhaps one of the few living writers who can make even leftovers appetising. As she did a few years back in her last collection, I Feel Bad About My Neck, Ephron occasionally scales her old heights. In the heartfelt essay The Legend, Ephron eloquently recounts the pain of being the child of an alcoholic -- and the power of storytelling, as she learns that a family fable about her mother turns out to be true. A more blithe piece has Ephron musing on a heady period in her life in which she thought she might inherit a large sum of money (she didn't, and that's why she wrote When Harry Met Sally); another vividly recalls her salad days at Newsweek and The New York Post in Journalism: A Love Story. The book is deliciously name-droppy about Old Hollywood and Old New York, and yet she always manages her old trick of letting you know she is one of us. The things she cannot remember are also occasionally hilarious: Eleanor Roosevelt, Ethel Merman, Cary Grant, the March on Washington, the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show. "I was not at Woodstock," she writes. "But I may as well have been because I can't remember it anyway." And yet perhaps this book will be one of the things she would sooner forget.

There are those who will say that this collection is a testament to what happens to a writer when they turn into an institution. Ephron is so respected and sought after there are many editors who would publish her shopping list. But that isn't the best condition for ensuring rigorous quality control in terms of her output. There are essays here that any blogger would be proud of but that's just the point. She isn't any blogger, she's a legend. And we expect more from legends.

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