Ghosting, by Jennie Erdal (2004), is an intriguing, somewhat unsettling glimpse into the lives of a ghostwriter and her employer. It’s a true story – her story – and spans nearly twenty years of her life. During this time she loses love, finds love again and her kids grow up, but all the while her relationship with her employer deepens into something increasingly complex and binding.
She calls her boss “Tiger”, due to the Tiger head he proudly displays on his wall. A prominent member of the British elite and publishing industry, he’s also one of the most interesting people I’ve ever read about. He’s extravagantly wealthy, flamboyant, a romantic extrovert driven by whims and fancies, but he’s also anxious and obsessive to point of being compulsive. A collector of nude art, a gracious host, a cook, a clean-freak, the owner of murderous dogs – I think you could read this book purely as a character study and get a lot out of it.
Erdal, on the other hand, comes across as being an analytic, systematic, studious type. An expert in Russian language and literature, she was first employed (above the table) as a translator and editor of Russian books. I don’t think Tiger ever set out to employ a ghostwriter. It seemed to me that he started finding extra jobs for her to do out of kindness, as her situation had become difficult. But one job led to the next until she was eventually writing novels for him, and the voice the world knew of as his was actually hers and he couldn’t let her go.
Ironically, she probably wasn’t the best fit for him. His tastes were far different from hers. He wanted graphic sex scenes (“poetic” ones). He wanted her to put down on page extraordinary – hell, supernatural – sexual techniques, which she struggled to write about convincingly. She had no prior experience in writing fiction, and no real inclination either.
Despite all that, she’s obviously a good writer, so Ghosting is a good read. It’s reasonably light, yet full of insightful observations about childhood, relationships, and also the act of writing. About divorce she writes:
Yet when a marriage falls apart, every memory is threatened, and the good times can be blackened overnight. There is nothing that cannot be reinterpreted. Divorce violates the present, but it also slithers backwards on its filthy tentacles and desecrates the past.
Nice. And so very true.
I did feel, however, that she often relied on other people’s quotes to make her point (and maybe that’s the academic in her). Many times throughout I wished I could speak French.
The most interesting aspect of the story is the relationship between Tiger and Erdal. Before I began reading this I imagined the life of the ghostwriter to be a secretive, secluded thing. There would be midnight phone calls and code words, the whole affair steeped in dirty guilt. But Erdal played a prominent part in Tiger’s life – she was in and out of his London office, vacationed with him in France, travelled to foreign book fairs with him. By the end, their lives had become so horribly entwined that I felt suffocated just reading about it. Strangely, it was like Tiger never properly admitted to himself that he wasn’t actually writing his own work. It was like he believed that he was the muse, and she simply his pen.
This is a good read. I highly recommend it.