Gilbey on Film: Nora Ephron, 1941-2012

A genius for intimacy.

Until a few years ago, I had foolishly put the late writer-director Nora Ephron  in the same pile as various purveyors of apparently soft-hearted, soft-headed and - okay I’ll come clean - female-oriented romantic comedy such as Nancy Meyers, Penny Marshall and the screenwriter Ron Bass. Why? After all, I had loved Ephron’s screenplay for When Harry Met Sally and I have to come to see over the years that the buoyancy and the canny modifications of You’ve Got Mail, which she also directed, exempt that film from being tarred with the bad-remake brush (it’s based on Ernst Lubitsch’s The Shop Around the Corner). But there is so much information out there that we are all guilty of such filing oversights. You put the bailiffs’ letters with the school reports and then where are you? As for the cupboard under the sink, let’s not go there. (Really, let’s not.) Personally, I have a blind spot for Tobys. With all respect to the excellent Toby Litt, I’ll sometimes see his name in the NS and wince slightly, when in fact the cause of my discomfort is (you’re ahead of me here, aren’t you?) Toby Young.

Fortunately, a friend put me right on Nora Ephron. There I was blabbing about her fantastically precise parody of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (I’ve linked to “The Girl Who Fixed the Umlaut” before on here, but it bears any amount of re-reading) and opining loudly and without the necessary evidence that her other work hadn’t shown such vim, when his face became fixed in a sorrowful expression which screamed “How little you know.” A copy of Heartburn was soon pressed into my hands, which forced me to let go of my preconceptions. This is a roman-à-clef based on Ephron dealing with her distressing divorce from her unfaithful second husband, the journalist Carl Bernstein. It’s acidic without losing its sweetness, light but necessarily angry, the words perfectly weighted - like all her best screenwriting and journalism. There was also a film of Heartburn, directed in 1986 by Mike Nichols, scripted by Ephron (who had written Silkwood for Nichols), starring Meryl Streep and Jack Nicholson and with songs by Carly Simon. My advice is stick with the book.

Her other films include Mixed Nuts (a listless remake of the popular French comedy Le père Noël est une ordure), Sleepless in Seattle, a big-screen version of Bewitched starring Nicole Kidman and the recent Julie and Julia, which plaited together the stories of the cookery guru Julia Childs (Streep again) and a fictional Manhattanite (Amy Adams) taking on Childs’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking. For me, her best work remains When Harry Met Sally and the essay collection I Feel Bad About My Neck: And Other Reflections on Being a Woman. Here she is speaking to DGA magazine in 2009 about the challenges of the rom-com:

Romantic comedies are very hard. They look as if they should be easy, but they’re hard because there’s nothing you can depend on. I mean, you don’t have car chases or anything like that and, really, you don’t have plot in the way we understand that term—we all know pretty much from the start what the end of the movie is going to be. Romantic comedies are hard to do, but so are all movies. Movies are so hard, and they’re harder than ever because it’s so hard to get them made now, and so hard to do anything remotely unconventional, because that scares people to death.

Her preference, she said, “would be to do a movie with a small number of people sitting in rooms and talking. This is my dream.” I think she captured precisely that intimacy, strongly felt even among a packed and giggling cinema audience.

Making it look easy: Nora Ephron. Photograph: Getty Images

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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Paul Auster's 4 3 2 1 is by turns rewarding and maddening – just like life

Auster’s epic new novel of immigration, politics and consciousness is rich but imperfect.

It’s a cliché, or a joke: the immigrant who arrives in the New World from the Old Country, to be greeted by an official who promptly renames him, mishearing the strange tongue that the arrival speaks. Paul Auster’s new novel begins: “According to family legend, Ferguson’s grandfather departed on foot from his native city of Minsk with one hundred rubles sewn into the lining of his jacket, travelled west to Hamburg through Warsaw and Berlin, and then booked passage on a ship called the Empress of China, which crossed the Atlantic in rough winter storms and sailed into New York Harbor on the first day of the twentieth century.”

Ferguson’s grandfather is called Isaac Reznikoff. Another Russian Jew advises him that it will be wiser to give his name as “Rockefeller” to the official. “You can’t go wrong with that.” But when it is his turn, “the weary immigrant blurted out in Yiddish, Ikh hob fargessen (I’ve forgotten)! And so it was that Isaac Reznikoff began his new life in America as Ichabod Ferguson.”

A joke or a fable: the way that so many stories begin in America, the stories of those who sailed past the Statue of Liberty and the words inscribed on its base, words to welcome the tired, the poor, those masses yearning to breathe free. And so Auster, in his first novel in seven years, presents the reader with an Everyman, Ferguson-who-is-not-Ferguson, not the man who stepped off the Empress of China but his grandson, Archibald Isaac Ferguson, the cranky protagonist and hero of this tale.

Ichabod begat Stanley and Stanley begat Archie, who was born, like his creator, in Newark, New Jersey, in 1947. This nearly 900-page epic is a Bildungsroman, though it would be more accurate to call it a Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungsroman, because Archie’s story is told not once but four times. There are that many versions of the protagonist: in each version, his life takes a different turn, and so everything that follows is altered.

Auster is something of a prophet in exile in his own land. His brand of existentialist postmodernism – in which characters with the author’s name might appear, in which texts loop back on themselves to question the act of writing, in which the music of chance can be heard loud and clear – has sometimes found greater favour in Europe than it has in his native United States. For example, City of Glass, the 1985 meta-detective novel that forms part of The New York Trilogy, will be adapted for the stage here this year.

But City of Glass, like all of Auster’s previous books, is a slender novel. The New York Trilogy as a whole comes in at just over 300 pages. Where much of Auster’s work is elliptical, 4 3 2 1 can be overwhelming, but that is precisely the point. The author creates a vast portrait of the turbulent mid-20th century by giving his protagonist this series of lives. The book is divided into sections that clearly mark which Ferguson we are getting: 1.1, 1.2, 1.3 or 1.4.

Yet there is nothing supernatural about this journey lived and relived, as there was in Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. The only magic involved is the magic of the novelist’s imagination, which allows both writer and reader to juggle realities as if they were balls in the air.

However, it is not as if one Ferguson is midshipman and another a circus performer, or one a loudmouth and another shy and retiring. The strength of this novel is that Ferguson remains himself while events shift around him, changing the course of his life. Ferguson’s father dies, or Ferguson’s father lives but divorces his mother, Rose. What happens then? Rose is a talented photographer; does she continue her work when Stanley prospers and they move to the suburbs, or does she take up golf and bridge? Ferguson is a good student, always a writer: does he go to Princeton or Columbia? What’s the difference between translating poetry in a Paris attic and working as a journalist for the Rochester Times-Union?

At its best, 4 3 2 1 is a full immersion in Ferguson’s consciousness, which, perhaps, is a consciousness not too far removed from Auster’s. His protagonist’s youth is wonderfully, vividly conveyed. Even if you don’t care about baseball, you’ll come to care about it because Ferguson does. The details of the young Ferguson’s life are carefully and lovingly created: the powder-blue Pontiac that his mother drives, the pot roast and cheese blintzes served at the Claremont Diner in Montclair, New Jersey – and  the floorboards in an old house that creak when two young lovers make their way between their separate rooms in the middle of the night. Auster builds a world of heartfelt, lived-in detail.

But this is a novel of politics, too. Ferguson is a young man during the tumult of the late 1960s, when dozens were killed and hundreds injured during riots in Newark in 1967; when students at Columbia occupied the campus in protest over the war in Vietnam; when young men such as Ferguson could be drafted to fight in that war.

It is in this last third of the novel that the book flags a little, as lists of events tumble on to the page: one paragraph contains the My Lai massacre, the killing of the Black Panther Fred Hampton and the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont. At times, history lessons threaten to overwhelm the narrative, and Ferguson’s story/stories lose the texture and particularity that have made them so compelling. And its ending is abrupt, a tying-up of loose ends that fragments on the final page.

But then lives – real lives – have strange, abrupt endings, too. This is a rich, imperfect book, often rewarding, occasionally maddening. Again, like life, or at least if we’re lucky.

4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster is published by Faber & Faber (880pp, £20)

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era