Darling, are you mad?

Jenny Diski

  • Ghosting by Jennie Erdal
    Canongate, 270 pp, £14.99, November 2004, ISBN 1 84195 562 0

We could, as a homage to Derrida, go deep with this story of an immigrant, a wealthy man, a publisher and ‘cultural tycoon’ (Quartet Books, Women’s Press, the Literary Review, the Wire, the Oldie, chief executive of Asprey’s and, in 1993, voted Retail Personality of the Year), who employed an educated but intellectually insecure Scots woman, a translator with an academic husband and three children, to ghost novels, interviews, newspaper and magazine columns, love letters and ‘the occasional poem’ which he passed off as his own – but we won’t. Shallow, I think, is the proper level. Not that this text isn’t interesting, or even important. On the contrary, it’s interestingly shallow, even importantly shallow. It tells us of shallow things, and we need to pay attention to the entirely superficial, for how else are we going to understand the ways of the contemporary world?

Shallowness, of course, does not exclude the possibility of an irony or two, such as a rich, powerful businessman becoming his own secretary in an empty desire for authorship. ‘I wrote hundreds of letters,’ Jennie Erdal explains,

ranging from perfunctory thank-you notes and expressions of condolence to extensive correspondence with the great and the good . . . The procedure I followed with the more intimate letter was to type it onto my laptop, double spaced in large font, and print it out. My employer – the sender of the letter – would then copy it painstakingly onto embossed notepaper using a Mont Blanc pen and blotting paper, signing it with a flourish at the bottom.

The novels, presumably, did not have the personal touch of the ‘author’s’ hand or blotting paper. Their gist was not dictated, unlike that of the letters, or even set out in note form to be paraphrased, but deduced by Erdal, the employee, via ‘the lightest of intimations, often accompanied by facial contortions and gestures’ from the employer, who thereafter is referred to as ‘Tiger’, for no better reason than coyness as far as I can see, since the acknowledgments at the back of the book refer mostly to reviews of named books by Naim Attallah, Palestinian immigrant, publisher and, um, cultural tycoon.

It can’t come as a huge surprise to the literary bits, bobs and nabobs to discover that all Naim Attallah’s books were written by someone else. For one thing, Private Eye was on to it; and for another each of his two novels (A Timeless Passion and Tara and Claire) carries before the dedication page a tribute to his editor, Jennie Bradshaw/Erdal, ‘who has worked closely with me for many years and whose contribution has been invaluable’ in the case of the first novel, ‘immense’ in the case of the second. Such an odd sort of acknowledgment to find at the front of a work of fiction. Almost, you might say, an admission. But then who would have supposed that Erdal worked quite that close, or that her contribution had been so invaluable and immense that she actually wrote every word, with nothing more than the odd vague sexual fantasy (twin sisters who are so attuned that one receives remote orgasms while the other is having sex) being supplied by her employer?

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[*] LRB, 12 November 1987.

[†] A postscript. A very slim volume, The Old Ladies of Nazareth, has just arrived from Quartet. It claims to be by Naim Attallah, who in a signed preface says he wrote it in three days in August 2004. It is, he tells us, a tale of two wonderful old ladies who lived in the Holy Land. It’s very short. If you want to read it, go ahead.