Thursday, August 26, 2010

Book Review: Ghosting

Jenny Erdal: Ghosting. A Double Life. Canongate Books, Edinburgh. 2005. German translation: Die Ghostwriterin - Ich war sein Verstand und seine Stimme. Kiepenheuer, Berlin. 2008.

I was given this book a while ago, but have only now gotten around to reading it. It is the biography of Jennie Erdal, a Scottish writer who began translating Russian novels for Naim Attallah, the publisher of
Quartet Books. Over the years she began writing more and more for him, first preparing and then transcribing and editing interviews that he conducted, but finally also writing two novels that were published in his name only.

She describes the slow process by which her boss asks for just a little bit more, he himself still completely convinced that it is all his own work. She begins thinking of quitting after 15-16 years, but she has 3 kids, 2 in college, and a mortgage to pay. The job pays well, and she can work from home, so she continues to write for him, and puts up with his control-freak nature, at times calling her over 40 times a day.

She begins reflecting over what it is that she is doing and I find this paragraph about fraud to be extremely thoughtful. I quote the German version, as that is the one I have before me. A re-translation follows.
"Über den Betrug wird hingegen [im Gegensatz zu Selbstbetrug] sehr viel strenger geurteilt, was angesichts seiner Alltäglichkeit und Allgegenwart fast ebenso merkwürdig ist. Täuschung ist ein fester Bestandteil unseren Alltagslebens, angefangen bei dem höflichen Dank für etwas, das wir lieber von uns weisen würden, bis zur kalkuliertern Lüge, um eine Freundschaft zu erhalten. Sie ist eines unserer Mittel, sich in die Welt einzubringen, und es scheint fast, als hätten die Menschen eine besondere Begabung dafür. Wir betrügen einander, um unsere emotionalen Bindungen zu schützen, gleichzeitig binden wir uns emotional an abstrakte Ideen wie Ruhm oder Macht. Jene, die lügen oder betrügen, haben keine besonderen Kennzeichen; man kann es von außen nicht erkennen, sie sehen aus wie du und ich. Wir alle tragen Masken, einige Masken jedoch wiegen so schwer und werden so lange getragen, dass sie das Gesicht dahinter zu zerstören beginnen." (pp. 253-254)

On the other hand, fraud is judged much more strictly, which, given its ordinariness and ubiquity is almost as remarkable. Deception is an integral component of our everyday life, from the polite gratitude for something we would rather not have, to the calculated lie to keep a friendship. It is one of our resources for participating in the world, and it almost seems as if  people have a special talent for it. We betray each other to protect our emotional bonds, while we bind ourselves emotionally to abstract ideas such as fame or power. Those who lie or cheat bear no special marks, you can not see it from outside, they look like you and me. We all wear masks, but some masks weigh so hard and are borne for so long that they begin to destroy the face behind it. (Re-translation Google Translate and dww)
It is hard to quit, hard to say that a line has been crossed, that one cannot continue with this fraud. I'm sure that many researchers have experienced this same thing. First an assistant prepares some material. Then something is written by an assistant and rewritten by the researcher before publishing. Then under the pressure to publish more and more and more a text gets passed through without change, but the true author is kept hidden, and the researcher does not even find anything wrong with this.

Reading through the reviews there is an often mentioned aspect: here she is, taking his money for 20 years, and now she is betraying him! She is seen as somehow morally deficient for describing him in such intimate detail. She sees herself, however, as a sort of prostitute: From The Guardian, October 23, 2004:   
"Ghost-writing is not new. It might almost qualify as the oldest profession if prostitution had not laid prior claim. And there is more than a random connection between the two: they both operate in rather murky worlds, a fee is agreed in advance and given "for services rendered", and those who admit to being involved, either as client or service-provider, can expect negative reactions - anything from mild shock and disapproval to outright revulsion. A professor at my old university, a distinguished classicist with feminist leanings, was appalled when she heard what I did for a living and pronounced me "no better than a common whore". This - the whiff of whoredom - is perhaps the main reason why people opt for absolute discretion!
I found the book quite interesting, although I still do not understand why an intelligent woman would put up with him, much less with ghostwriting, for so long.

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