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the Complete Review
the complete review - memoir


Jennie Erdal

general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase Ghosting

Title: Ghosting
Author: Jennie Erdal
Genre: Memoir
Written: 2004
Length: 268 pages
Availability: Ghosting - US
Ghosting - UK
Ghosting - Canada
  • UK subtitle: A Memoir
  • US subtitle: A Double Life

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Our Assessment:

A- : a bizarre and fascinating story

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Daily Telegraph . 2/11/2004 Lloyd Evans
The Economist . 11/11/2004 .
The Guardian . 18/12/2004 Blake Morrison
London Review of Books . 4/11/2004 Jenny Diski
New Statesman . 1/11/2004 Celia Brayfield
The New Yorker . 9/5/2005 .
San Francisco Chronicle . 10/4/2005 Carlo Wolf
The Spectator A+ 23/10/2004 Caroline Moorehead
Sunday Telegraph . 17/11/2004 Anne Chisholm
TLS A 5/11/2004 Sarah Curtis

  Review Consensus:

  Most think it very fine

  From the Reviews:
  • "Her fluency with the pen is apparent from the first page of this enormously readable memoir. (...) Erdal is gossipy but good-natured, and maintains a stalwart fondness for her boss without descending into the gushing adoration affected by many of his female assistants." - Lloyd Evans, Daily Telegraph

  • "The book is not, in fact, chiefly about ghostwriting, but rather an extraordinary character whose presence almost wholly overwhelms the subtext of self-deception and of the blurring of truth and reality.(...) A rich vein of humour runs through the book." - The Economist

  • "Erdal's account of their novelistic collaboration is the best (and funniest) part of Ghosting (.....) If Erdal refrains from using his name, it's not from fear of litigation, but because she intends something rich and archetypal - not the portrait of a minor London literary figure but a character study in the tradition of the realist novel. She succeeds by being merciless but also forgiving." - Blake Morrison, The Guardian

  • "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." - Jenny Diski, London Review of Books

  • "Up against the shrieks of the posh totty and chaps in tweeds, many small-town kids with big-time talents failed to get their voices heard, to the ultimate impoverishment of British culture. This writer survived to tell the tale, wittily and well. Perhaps now she will go back to writing her own books." - Celia Brayfield, New Statesman

  • "The delight of this memoir is in Erdalís eye for the comic details of her partnership (.....) Erdal resorts to clichés when she muses on the nature of artistic creation, but she is discerning about her motives for ghosting" - The New Yorker

  • "This book is the result of, and of a piece with, a life Erdal sketches with great economy and vividness, from her repressed childhood to her happy second marriage." - Carlo Wolf, San Francisco Chronicle

  • "What must have been an extremely difficult task at the time -- how, as she asks, can you write from anotherís heart? -- makes excellent and comic copy now. (...) Jennie Erdal has written a book that is hugely enjoyable to read, touches on profound questions about language and writing, and provides a vivid and often affectionate, but fairly merciless, portrait of an exasperating, despotic, self-deluding but in the end likable figure, with the tantrums of a small child and the plumage of a peacock." - Caroline Moorehead, The Spectator

  • "She too shows that she can write; her book is original, thoughtful, and often very funny. She exposes Attallah unmercifully, but in the process she also exposes herself. (...) Erdal sprinkles her text with speculation about language and truth, but dodges the awkward ethical question: was it right to break the silence and discretion for which she was paid ?" - Anne Chisholm, Sunday Telegraph

  • "In this book, Erdal exposes a publishing trick as well as her own exploitation but her affection for Tiger permeates her account: Ghosting does not appear to be an act of revenge. She gives convincing reasons for her compliance over the years and we learn a great deal about her personality. She never broaches Tiger's life, however, except in relation to herself, a tantalizing lacuna in an otherwise illuminating expose of quixotic natures and the credulity of the literary world." - Sarah Curtis, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Ghosting focusses mainly on the nearly two decades Jennie Erdal worked for a London publisher. Her larger-than-life boss is referred to only as 'Tiger' in the book, but there is little attempt to veil identities here: she is writing about Naim Attallah and Quartet Books.
       Attallah -- by Erdal's account -- ran an odd shop (to say the least), dominated entirely by his demanding yet apparently charming personality. Extravagant, spur of the moment (but scheduling all of his activities very precisely), it's a wonder he had any success at all (much less was able to produce so many fine books, as Quartet did). It didn't last -- the end of this memoir describes the painful demise of the enterprise -- but part of what sustained it for so long was certainly the sheer force of Attallah's personality. And part of what made him a success -- specifically in creating the myth of the man in the public eye -- was, behind the scenes, Jennie Erdal.
       Erdal came aboard as a translator and editor, a mother of several young children, living in Scotland, who was given a marvellous opportunity to develop a Russian list for Quartet. Soon enough her job encompassed other duties, most notably in ghostwriting much of what Attallah needed written. When he decided to become an author, Erdal had to help. The first efforts were interview-collections, where he at least conducted the actual interviews. But eventually he also decided to become a novelist, and Erdal wound up writing two novels -- following his very, very general outline -- published under his name. And then he became a newspaper columnist, throwing out the topics to Erdal (at least at first) but contributing little else.
       The sections dealing with the increasingly outrageous demands, especially the production of the novels, are particularly enjoyable. They were an odd but highly successful team. Attallah gave Erdal a lot of leeway as to what exactly to write -- a mixed blessing, she found -- but had no difficulty in appropriating the finished products entirely, presenting them as his. In this day and age, many public personalities offer a great deal presented as their own but actually written by others -- politicians, in particular, often build entire careers on campaign and public speeches which they didn't write a word of -- but this ghostwriting-relationship surely counts as among the more grandiose (and successful) such scams in recent memory.
       Erdal also describes other aspects of their working relationship, in particular how Attallah conducted business, at the Frankfurt Book Fair and elsewhere. A very demanding boss -- she had to get a dedicated phone-line installed at her Scottish home, and Attallah would ring her (and everyone else he knew, apparently) truly incessantly -- his extravagance was apparently also seductive. Erdal notes many of the comments from those interviewed by him, all of whom seem to have fallen for his charm.
       In addition, Erdal also offers a bit of family memoir, looking back to her childhood and discussing early insecurities, language, social standing, and so on. While of some interest, most of this fits awkwardly with the rest of the book, as though she had begun a different and more personal memoir and then stuffed the bits she had of that in this one.
       Her personal life over the Quartet-years gets some mention -- raising three kids, a very unexpected parting and divorce, a second marriage, etc. -- but she doesn't seem to be sure how much she wants to let on, opening up on occasion, but leaving much else strictly behind the scenes, trying perhaps to keep her private life apart from her ghosting-professional one. And one of the problems of the book is of perspective: whose memoir is she actually writing ? hers or Attallah's ? She plumps for neither: the stab at her own (starting with the look back at her childhood) peters out, while almost everything about Attallah beyond her personal relationship with him remains entirely a mystery. The book is at its best when it is a memoir of that odd creation, Attallah and his ghosting-shadow, Erdal; that is for most of the book, but not all of it, and it doesn't feel like quite enough.
       What makes the book so engaging is Attallah, a figure so much larger than life that he would be entirely unbelievable in a work of fiction. Their relationship, and the question of literary appropriation and authenticity (which Erdal does discuss) is fascinating. Helpfully, she also discusses how the books (especially the novels) were greeted by the critics, though there could have been much more on the public reception of these texts. (There is often a sense of vagueness to the book, Erdal not offering specifics about many projects and yet going into detail about a select few other things. As with mentions of her children, who pop up irregularly, generally startlingly transformed -- one moment they're babies, the next the last one is off to college -- Erdal offers little sense of progression or time passing for much of the book (with a few -- generally deadline imposed -- exceptions).)
       Ghosting is jolly good fun. Erdal writes well and it's a great story. Some of the presentation of the material leaves something to be desired -- Erdal doesn't always seem sure where she's going with some of it -- but overall it's quite an accomplishment, and certainly worth reading.

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Ghosting: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:
  • Diana Athill's publishing memoir, Stet

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About the Author:

       Jennie Erdal worked at Quartet Books for nearly two decades.

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© 2005-2009 the complete review

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