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?

However, no matter how much I might wish for crass superficiality, Erdal does make a pitch for the psychological, social and philosophical complexity of her story. She doesn’t want to have written a plain exposé about her part in a literary coveg-up, partly because she is an educated woman (Russian and philosophy at St Andrews) who fears she might not have done herself justice during the last twenty years of her professional life, but also because a professor from Erdal’s former university (‘a distinguished classicist with feminist leanings’) declared on learning what she did for a living that she was ‘no better than a common whore’. So, right at the beginning there is a meditation on interaction and mutual dependence between species, and the possibly false good/bad dichotomy between symbiosis and parasitism. Apparently, ‘what can appear to be a parasitic invasion can sometimes result in harmony and felicity . . . As in nature, so in life.’ Like supermodels dining on tapeworms to make themselves thin, perhaps? Oppositions and paradoxes run rampant as she describes the convoluted nature of her tale: ‘deception and self-deception . . . blurring of truth and reality . . . secrets and lies. Yet it also contains generosity, goodwill, absurdity, laughter, tenderness and a good measure of love.’ At which point, overloaded by the blinding chiaroscuro of it all, I think: dear god, couldn’t we just settle for common whoredom? Doubtless, ghost-writers can be seen as the shadow selves of those they write instead of, just as common whores might romantically be glossed as the shades of the unachievable beloved, but I would guess that common (even classy) whores and the majority of ghost-writers are most likely to see themselves as providing a service or, even more simply, just trying to earn a living. It was only after Erdal’s first husband fell in love on a whim and left her with the children that the literary ghosting began. She needed the money and it was a chance to work at home in Fife.

Erdal wants her first book under her own name to be more than a witty account of a funny situation. The need for intellectual recognition shows in the alarming number of cultural name-checks which clutter her text. In no particular order, and often for no very good reason, Wittgenstein, Auster, Nabokov, Barnes, McEwan, Spinoza, Amis, Aristotle, Zeno, Shakespeare, Pasternak, Banville, Dostoevsky, Frost, Cervantes, Updike, Beckett, Chekhov (and others) make guest appearances with paraphrased words of wisdom, or just words. Erdal does not wear her reading lightly. She has a penchant for the altered cliché (‘In Tiger’s publishing house there were many passions’, ‘The tiger is not for turning’); the carefully polished witticism (‘Like fine wine, and cats in baskets, he did not travel well’); and deathless truths: ‘There are moments of terrible bleakness with the creative process, when you question what you are doing and why you are doing it,’ ‘To be a writer you have to have something to say,’ ‘Translation is perhaps a metaphor for what is a basic human need: conveying our experience of the world . . . In that sense we are all translators.’

Things improve greatly when she etches acid descriptions of her employer and his employees. The Soho headquarters of Quartet Books was a small sultanate. When summoned by Attallah, a maid ‘on stiletto heels’ arrived with a ‘tiny gold-encrusted cup containing black coffee to which, under her master’s gaze, she added two drops of rose-water in the manner of a holy rite.’ Lovely young things rush about London when Attallah cries: ‘Find me an orchid, darling. I need an orchid – the best in town.’ The entourage at Attallah’s publishing house were girls with names, double and triple barrelled: Heathcote-Amery, Bonham-Carter, Sackville-West, Vane-Tempest-Stewart. And mostly their forenames ended, as well-bred girls’ forenames must, in ‘a’: Nigella, Cosima, Candida, Sophia, Samantha, Sabrina, Lucinda. ‘Famous Englishmen write to me about their daughters,’ Attallah shrugs. ‘What else can I do? I have to find a job for them.’ Erdal was brought up in Fife, the daughter of a woman who sold Spirella corsets from her bedroom and who had a hankering for elocution and respectability, preferring, her daughter mocks, to have a vestibule rather than a lobby (though I don’t know what’s wrong with ‘hall’). Erdal’s take on Attallah’s high-stepping girls is cold-eyed and precise. They spoke, she says, in italics. They used words and phrases like grotty, golly, frightful pong, a total darling, complete noodle, and were always absolutely livid rather than just angry. They squawked, shrieked and whooped over the phone much of the day, making their social arrangements and endlessly discussing menus, venues and what to wear. To Erdal, her mother’s daughter in some respects,

there seemed no way in for those not born to it . . . The vowels . . . springing from a place way down the larynx and travelling up fine, swan-like necks before emerging in beautifully modulated tone patterns. The Scots have short, stunted vowels, cut off in their prime, strangled humanely before they get too long and above themselves. They sprout from pinched throats and squat necks.

The boss, too, was rich and rare, and also, it would seem, on the gaudier side of taste. His collapsible spectacles were made, he said, from Inca gold with diamond hinges, and he attended the Frankfurt Book Fair wearing a long wild-mink overcoat over his scarlet-silk-lined suit. He loved his girls passionately, adored them, pinched and caressed them, but he would not allow them to defecate in the office lavatory. ‘Listen carefully, one of my girls has done a poo in the loo. Find out the culprit and report back to me . . . I will not tolerate it. The smell is appalling. How dare they behave like that!’ (Who better than a ghost to make stealthy enquiries and sniff out wrongdoers?) He did not mind one bit if his girls cried when they fell out of favour. ‘Did she weep? You are sure? You saw her tears?’ A nasty, power-hungry piece of work? Well no, not if you really knew him, Erdal says. ‘There was no harm intended. It was simply an entertainment for him.’ Quite. Squat-necked Scot Erdal may have been, but she was not, she makes it clear, one of his girls. She was outside the gaggle of squealing debutantes, an amanuensis not part of an entourage, employed for her skills and brains as a copy editor and to commission Russian books for Quartet. Until, that is, Naim Attallah conceived his great idea, and found that she was willing and able to be his ghost.

The first book was Women. ‘I love women – I glow in their company!’ He would interview 50 high-achievers. He had the connections, she had the know-how. It was Erdal’s job to ‘help devise the interview questions, to sort out the transcripts, collate the material into different sections and finally put the book together. And to give it some weight, there would be a long introductory section on women throughout the centuries – this also would be my responsibility.’

Linda Colley, reviewing the book in this paper, thought the book ‘marred by Attallah’s masculine priorities . . . we get page after page devoted to stale questions such as whether women can go to bed with men for lust alone, and whether they are invariably attracted to masculine brilliance and power.’[*] What else can a ghost do but represent the mind of her employer? The historical introduction is, Colley says, pleasantly written and full of good quotes, but lacks analysis or any mention of the role of women in the 20th century. The book was published by Quartet (a class example of vanity publishing) in 1987 in the midst of Thatcher’s premiership. It is, precisely, pointless, except for the named author who enjoyed hundreds of lunches with interesting women and learned such a lot about the gender (‘So much mystique. You know, even their sexual organs are on the inside’), and for the actual author, who received an £8500 bonus.

Women was followed, excitingly enough, by a book of conversations with men, and on and on with further compilations. But Attallah’s non-interventionist listening technique (either devilishly cunning or simperingly sycophantic) produced a few interviews, published in 1992 as Of a Certain Age, where the subjects talked themselves into a corner not far from the truth. Diana Mosley felt cosseted enough by Attallah to explain about the Jews that ‘collectively, so to speak, they may be deprecated by certain people but individually they’re considered brilliant, charming, clever.’ Though ‘they were anti-Mosley long before he was anti-them . . . they practically made him into an anti-semite. He never was one, it just wasn’t in his nature, but he did think they were a perfect pest.’ That would be collectively, so to speak. And HM’s couturier, Hardy Amies, outlined his attitude to women: ‘I like them as artistic figures, as a sculptor likes his clay, but on the whole I despise their minds.’ And to class: ‘I am a staunch supporter of the class system. I uphold it out of conviction; it’s the best of England, no question about it.’

It wasn’t enough, though. Attallah wanted creative kudos. By 1994 Erdal had developed psoriasis (and doesn’t omit a mention of the disease’s literary credentials through Dennis Potter), her mother had died, and she had found a new love, soon to become a new husband. The Attallah house in the Dordogne was designated the place to write fiction. The novel was to be very beautiful, she was instructed, and romantic: ‘It has to be a love story. People associate me with love. I am famous for love. Isn’t it?’ Erdal worried, realising that his being famous for love won’t help her write her first novel – or his first novel. This part of Ghosting will be quite illuminating for anyone thinking about writing a novel, daunted by the idea that so many have been written already and wondering how they are to come up with something original.

It has to be the love between a man and a woman. Do you think I could write about poofters? . . . There will be lots of sex, but very distinguished . . . There is a man . . . he is like me somewhat . . . he is married . . . he falls in love with a woman . . . there is a huge passion . . . and then . . . well, we will see what happens after that, isn’t it?

Erdal enquired whether the man tells his wife about his huge new passion. ‘Darling, are you mad? Why would he tell her? Why would he hurt her?’ Every few days he demanded: ‘Have we done the fucky-fucky yet?’ and ‘Beloved, we need the jig-jig! Don’t you see.’ She didn’t. The fucky-fucky writing was an area about which she was unhappy. Not squeamishness, she insists, but aesthetics. The sex act she believes has little to do with words. Depends, I suppose, who you do it with.

She spent a few days dipping into novels – Penelope Fitzgerald, Anne Tyler, Carol Shields, Beryl Bainbridge, William Trevor, Tim Parks among others – to limber up. Then she rolled up her sleeves and having extracted the technical nuts and bolts (beginning, middle, end; main and subsidiary plot and characters), wrote Naim Attallah’s novel in six weeks. Middle-aged, suave, married Italian advertising mogul living in London, Carlo goes home to bury his mother (yes, he does) and while breaking down and sobbing alone in church (strong men always crack) meets Petra and well, you can imagine. Terrible Catholic guilt, the poor man is horribly torn (love of wife or love of lover?), but Petra is a good Catholic girl and does the right thing, walking away, making a sacrifice (beautiful), and allowing Carlo to return to his wife. The novel ends: ‘Deep inside her, there is the first flutter of life, like a crocus pushing through snow.’ A Timeless Passion is awful. It is written entirely in the present tense. Erdal decided on the Stations of the Cross as the structural plan of the novel. She thinks now that might have been a mistake: a bit much. She was brought up a Presbyterian, and has grown into an antipathy to religion in general. The book is all the more a triumph of kitsch. It pullulates with religious iconography (a wet dream of misconstrued virgin holding a drippy candle over the weeping grief-stricken hero – Pietà, already) and overwrought prose. ‘Carlo feels he is at the crossroads where time and eternity meet.’ Graham Greene is writhing in his grave. ‘He contemplates the nature of truth, but a definition eludes him.’ The reader is writhing in her armchair.

The question is: is the book dreadful because Jennie Erdal wrote it as Naim Attallah, or because Jennie Erdal wrote an awful book? Whose bad book was it, actually? The great thing about not writing a bad book you have put your name to, and writing a bad book for someone else to put their name to, is that both parties can excuse themselves. And the bloody awful thing about writing novels yourself under your own name is that you have to take responsibility for them. But what if we all wrote each other’s novels? What a lot of heartache that would save. Martin writes Michele’s, Rose writes Irvine’s, Colm writes Antonia’s, Ian writes Iain’s, Henry writes George’s (no, they’re dead). Or perhaps they did. And maybe Naim Attallah wrote Ghosting by Jennie Erdal. And perhaps we don’t need to know, or want to care.

The great service that both Attallah and Erdal have done us, though, is to have published A Timeless Passion and received glowing reviews. The Telegraph ran ‘Murder, metaphor and memory’; the Catholic Herald, ‘A lusty Beatrice leads her Dante’; the Literary Review, ‘A sensitivity . . . unusual in a man’ (or was that code for Alice Thomas Ellis having cottoned on?); the Oldie didn’t go for the sex much but spoke of Lorca and Pasolini sharing the same Mediterranean Catholic mind as Attallah.

So another novel was called for. One novel, we know, just won’t do. Anyone can write one novel, they say. Erdal writes that she was becoming increasingly uneasy about the morality of her job, and anyway her new husband was less than delighted to have Attallah phoning on the dedicated Attallah-line more than forty times a day. Still, the next book got written, and the hero makes his two women orgasm simultaneously though continents apart. Erdal’s own contribution is a storyline fallen on after reading McEwan’s A Child in Time: the death of a child. So that’s the answer when the public ask where you get your stories from. This is her theme, what will make writing the book possible, a distillation of her distress at her first marriage breaking up, she says. Loss, a great theme, but you have to do something with it beyond stating the obvious. The rest of the book is Attallah: those hypersensitive girls, Tara and Claire, who don’t just come together, they think together, though this is no help to the novel because they are inclined to think only the most banal of thoughts. ‘Tara thought that "love” was perhaps the most debased of words. It meant what anyone wanted it to mean: it had no intrinsic value. It was such a precarious and uncertain thing,’ begins the last paragraph of the book. That’s words for you. No intrinsic value. Novels too, sometimes.

It took a long time, several more years, before Erdal finally resigned and Attallah announced to the world that he would not be writing any more books. She had liked the money and, she says, being an éminence grise. Perhaps this book is a necessary clearing of the decks. Ghosting by Jennie Erdal is still a book that depends on Attallah. It must be quite alarming to confront the next book, the one that is neither for him nor about him. Her own book. She enjoyed being the secret power behind the man who took all the praise for his books. But, of course, she wasn’t. Attallah got the praise because he was powerful, rich and connected, not because of the books. He sprinkled money around in the literary world and the money-glow stuck to whatever was done in his name.[†] Interviewed recently about her book, Erdal says that she is sure Attallah will not make legal objections to her telling the story, even though he wanted to have some editorial input in the first few chapters when he was shown them. ‘In his publishing hat, he has often defended the freedom of authors to say what they want to say.’ Attallah is a bit hamstrung, it seems. In a telephone interview with him in France he agrees that he is a firm believer in editorial freedom. ‘So I’m not going to stop people writing what they want. I would say, though, that the lady I knew has changed.’ You would think he had learned by now that women can’t be trusted simply to be beloved without spoiling everything by pooing in the loo.

[*] 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.