Nearly forty years ago, Nora Ephron drew a bead on Brendan Gill, whose memoir, Here at The New Yorker, had just been published, to considerable praise.*
Nora Ephron was a crack shot.
As we continue our look at examples of exceptional writing, please consider this passage:
Brendan Gill is now sixty and went to work at the magazine in 1938, and someone I know there suggested to me that he arrived too late to understand its early years, and too soon to understand the late ones. That is unfair: the explanation for Gill's insensitivity probably lies more in his character than in bad timing. Gill's character is of the shall-I-compare-me-to-a summer's-day variety; he is a joyous, happy man, he tells us, who has never suffered a day's pain in his life. Compared to other New Yorker writers, whom he describes as unsociable moles, he is uncommonly gregarious and fun-loving. He attends five or six parties a week. "I am acquainted with far more people out in the world than anyone else at The New Yorker," he writes. Life has been a lark. He was born into comparative wealth, went to Yale, made Skull and Bones (an achievement he mentions half a dozen times), had a rich father to aid him in his purchases of his town houses and mansions and country homes, several of which are actually pictured in his book. The smug self-congratulation of all this extends to his professional achievements. "In sheer quantity of output--most trivial of measurements!--I am by now something of a nonpareil," he writes.
Let's look first at some of the individual effects.
Early on, there's a nice parallel balance in "too late to understand its early years, and too early to understand the late ones."
"That is unfair" introduces a venerable rhetorical device. In initially appearing to defend Gill against an unjust charge, she proceeds to level a deadlier one.
The characterization "shall-I-compare-me-to-a-summer's-day" shows how to employ allusion effectively. The pun on the Shakespeare sonnet is only the beginning. Substituting me for thee directly reinforces the sense of smug egotism that Ephron is in the process of establishing, and the "summer's day" allusion points ahead to the description of his sunny life.
Life has been a lark. Five words of mordant irony, punctuating the summary of his self-satisfaction before moving on to concrete details of his egotism.
I draw your attention to "his townhouses and mansions and country homes, several of which are actually pictured in his book." Actually. Don't ever let anyone tell you that adverbs are nothing but a weak device. What is packed into that one word is "This pompous ass, who has been going on about Skull and Bones, even has the cheek to imagine that we are interested in his damned houses."
This paragraph sums up two major points that Ephron develops in the remainder of the article: first, that despite all his years at the magazine, he shows little empathy for or understanding of the people he worked with ("unsociable moles"); and second, that he subjects the reader to the buffetings of his monstrous self-regarding insensitivity.
This day I saw an author flayed, and you will hardly believe how much it altered his person for the worse.
*The article, "Brendan Gill and The New Yorker," is reprinted in Scribble, Scribble.