||Giving up the Ghosting
by Clara Thomas
Jennie Erdal was the ghostwriter for Naim Attallah, the London publisher and entrepreneur, for almost fifteen years. She wrote letters, newspaper articles, and "about a dozen books, among them two novels." She does not give her employer's name, calling him "Tiger" throughout, but it is easy to identify him from her acknowledgments of quotations, many of which were her own words and, of course, had appeared as his. Strange as the relationship was, it becomes even stranger as she describes the man she worked for, a character of surpassing oddity. "An exotic jungle bird" she calls him: "The plumage is a wonder to behold; a large sapphire in the lapel of a bold striped suit. . . Under his suit he wears one pink sock, one green, two gold watches on his right arm, a platinum watch on his left, and on his fingers a collection of jewels; rubies, emeralds, diamonds. This is the jungle bird in human form."
At St.Andrews University in the 1970s, she had studied Russian and Philosophy, writing an undergraduate thesis on poet and novelist Boris Pasternak. That led her to a study of his father, Leonid, a well-known sculptor and a close friend of Tolstoy. Encouraged by his daughters, she undertook a translation of Leonid's memoirs. When, in 1980, she finished the Tolstoy chapter, she sent it to the London publisher of Quartet Books, who accepted the memoirs for publication and hired her as manager of his Russian Translation list. She had three young children, but this was no obstacle. For one or two days a month she would work in his London office, but the rest of the time she could work from her home in Scotland.
Shortly after she began, her husband, an academic, announced that he had fallen in love and was leaving. This made her employment crucial, both to the family's finances and the rebuilding of her emotional wellbeing. By this time she was increasingly intrigued by her strange job and her even stranger employer. Tiger's methods and whims were unpredictable and totally odd. He veered between extreme mood swings, and was quite capable of having a childish temper tantrum one moment and seguing into sunny ebullience the next. His employees never knew when the next mad idea would erupt, but when it did, he expected, and-in spite of all reason and common sense-achieved complete acquiescence from his staff, mostly beautiful upper class young women all of whom he called "Beloved".
Erdal describes the entire business and Tiger's handling of it in terms of an oriental potentate and his court. There were many benefits to staying there however: he paid her remarkably well, his projects were invariably interesting and challenging, and he was impeccable in respecting her working conditions and herself. Even so, I cannot imagine anyone who did not grow up in an acutely class-conscious society tolerating Tiger's extreme peculiarities. When Jennie Erdal was five years old her mother made her begin elocution lessons so that she would learn to "talk proper". Her mother's only explanation was that it would help her "get ahead". The lessons were a perfect misery for her, much as the compulsory piano lessons were for a child of my vintage. She was obviously a clever child-otherwise getting to university at all would have been impossible for one of her working class background. She was also, obviously, an independent thinker; her early enthusiasm for French, Latin and German was looked upon with grave doubts by her family, and majoring in Russian would not have been a common choice. Tiger was obviously quick to recognize talent and just as quick to exploit it, but always with an endearing generosity that somewhat compensated for his less attractive characteristics. These basic factors, added to the constant interest of her unique position as Tiger's amanuensis, all contributed to a long relationship during which two people of very different backgrounds "came to live off one another, and in a sense to inhabit each other's minds."
She was called "Commissioning Editor" and at first her duties were a total mystery to her, though she became finally an expert copy editor. After attending the Frankfurt Book Fair with Tiger she became more confident of her ground and, having made a number of connections there, began to acquire books and assign them to various translators. Her great coup for the firm was the acquisition of a Russian novel, Red Square, and the successful achievement of a very speedy team translation so that its publication in English could take advantage of Brezhnev's death and the publicity around it. Her description of the Book Fair is an excellent introduction to that phenomenon, especially as seen through the eyes of Tiger's bemused companion.
Their professional relationship changed when he decided to write a book on women. Ultimately, it was based on his own interviews with nearly four hundred of them, but written up by Jennie. She also devised the questions for the interviews. With that assignment she moved permanently out of the translation department and into a far more daunting arena. Her book also moves-becoming more of a study of writing, the qualities it demands from writers and in particular the qualities that Jennie had to find in herself and develop in order to satisfy her own standards and Tiger's. Every interview was taped, and the tapes were sent to her in Scotland where she edited them and finally produced a book from them. An impossible task one would think, but not only did she achieve a 1200-page text that satisfied Tiger, on publication it satisfied both the critics and the reading public.
Tiger had travelled 35,000 miles doing the interviews and Jennie had divided the results into various sections: Early Influences, Creativity, Motherhood, Relationships and Sexuality. Even Germaine Greer, who damned the project as sheer vanity publishing, admitted that "[the author's] effrontery is balanced only by his charm. . . the dog-like gaze of the brown eyes gave no hint that I looked anything but adorable." Jennie received an 8,500-pound bonus, which considerably relieved her situation as a single mother, and Tiger, with predicable gusto, went on to a series of book of interviews with prominent men. Once again, Jennie devised the questions and briefed Tiger on his subjects. She always wanted more discussion time: "I wanted him to do well and hoped he wouldn't fluff his lines. But I needn't have worried-he was always supremely confident. He gave the impression of having done his homework, and most people, flattered by his knowledge and interest, opened up to an astonishing degree."
"We really are a fantastic team," said Tiger, and soon he announced his next big goal-"they" were to write a novel. He provided the sketchiest of outlines- one man and two women- and expected Jennie to do the rest. During the resulting ordeal she found herself constantly musing over the art and craft of writing. Increasingly, the record of her musings becomes the major theme of her book. Gradually Ghosting becomes a valuable treatise on writing, and Tiger with his outlandish "authorship" grows less important than Erdal's account of her reflections and her findings: "How to proceed? Write what you know, they always say, but what did I know? Suddenly I knew nothing. In a bid to avert panic I decided to make a list of things in my favour. The list was not long but it was a start: I have written a lot already (just not a novel). I have read lots of novels." For the first of these to count as an advantage you have to believe that all writing comes from the same place. I'm not sure that I believe that. Writing prose is not writing fiction." She was about to accompany Tiger to his estate in the Dordogne, which he visited often as a relaxing getaway. She took with her a number of her favourite novels, approaching her reading of them as a technical exercise: "How is the passing of time conveyed, for example? How to get to the flashback, how to jump forward in time? Is it merely to do with verb tenses? Is it merely to do with verb tenses? Or is there something more ingenious at work?"
This attempt at systematic fact-finding, she says, speedily revealed itself as useless. "A novel is much more than the sum of its parts. It is a kind of commitment of oneself-an investment of something very personal." Her difficult initiation into novel writing coincided with two major events in her life, remarriage and the death of her father. Though she gradually solved technical writing problems the question of sincerity was a central difficulty, and "it never completely went away. . .I like to believe that the author is sincere, and that the reader can sense if he (or she) is not. Words matter, the novel matters. That has been, and remains, my passionate belief. Writers are judged by the distinctive way in which words and the effect of these words on the reader combine." Her novel, she decided, would have to be an exercise in technique. Amazingly, she was finally able to finish, not one, but two novels to Tiger's specifications, and even more amazingly, they garnered many good reviews. The lengthy effort involved , however, finally wore out their strange relationship; her gradual decision to give it up coincided with the financial downfall of Tiger's hitherto impregnable "empire". When he announced plans for a third novel she began to search for a way to "give up the ghost."
Alice Thomas Ellis, herself a novelist, had written a review of the second novel which Erdal treasured for its insight: "[The author] has a sensitivity and an insight into human nature unusual in a man, and he writes quite beautifully. This is not the first book he has written in which I find the character of the author, his invisible presence, as interesting as any of the people on the page." After much self-examination, Erdal found the writer within herself: Ghosting is at once a manifesto of the freedom gained from her strange thraldom and a valuable account of the process by which she found her own pathway and confidence: "In fact what I came to understand-and this was a startling revelation-is that in some sense you also write in advance of what you know and that as you write you create the shapes and patterns that emerge later in your life. 'What you know' may be in fact what you know at a subliminal level, and it might not be 'known' in the normal sense for a long time."
The story of Tiger has a happy ending for both of them. Tiger "rose from the ashes, wearing his brightest colours and finest jewels"-irrepressible as always. But when he announced that the next project was to be a "big book on God", she knew definitely that it was time to go. "'We made a great team, you and I,' he said as we hugged each other goodbye. In Regent Street I caught a no.12 bus and tears fell all the way to Waterloo. Things would never be different again."
Tiger is an unforgettable Arabian Nights character and Ghosting is memorable for Erdals' portrait of him, but even more for her hard-won wisdom about writing.