One day in 1981 a young woman found herself travelling from her Scottish home to London to meet a publisher. So far so predictable perhaps. She had read Russian at university and had recently translated the memoirs of the painter Leonid Pasternak, father of the more famous Boris. There was nothing predictable about this meeting, however, and the man waiting for her at the door of his Mayfair flat was no ordinary publisher. This is how she describes him.
So strange and exotic is he that he could be a rare tropical bird that you might never come face to face with, even in a lifetime spent in the rain forest. The plumage is a wonder to behold: a large sapphire in the lapel of a bold striped suit, a vivid silk tie so bright that it dazzles, and when he flaps his wings the lining of his jacket glints and glistens like a prism. He takes my hand and lays it on the silk lining. You want to touch? Go on, touch! It’s best Chinese silk. I have only the best.
Over the next twenty years, she and ‘Tiger’, as she calls this unnamed (but easily identifiable) publisher, would become inextricably intertwined. He would become her financial saviour and she would become his voice, expressing on paper the fantasies he was unable to express for himself, massaging his ego and turning him into the literary lion he longed to be. This is the story she tells in Ghosting. For a while I inhabited the strange, liminal world of the ghost-writer myself and a friend gave a copy to me as a present when it was first published in 2004. I thought it one of the cleverest, most original and entertaining memoirs I’d ever read. Reading it again years later I still do.
It all started like this. Leonid Pasternak had done paintings of Tiger’s Palestinian homeland and Tiger was desperate to buy them. When he made contact with Jennie Erdal, translator of the painter’s memoirs, she told him she knew they were not for sale, but Tiger persuaded her to accompany him on this apparently hopeless mission. In Oxford, he was confronted by Pasternak’s high-minded daughter Josephine, determined not to sell. Tiger went to work:
In the presence of the publisher’s fine plumage and splendid colours, this sensible woman became girlish and coquettish . . . He eulogised the artist, he emoted over the lost land of Palestine, he flattered and fawned, buttered and oiled. It was a spectacular show, fascinating to watch. After a feeble fight Josephine Pasternak succumbed to the seductive display. She sold him the paintings.
It was Erdal’s first experience of Tiger’s formidable powers of persuasion. Before she left that day he had also signed her up as a commissioning editor in charge of a new Russian list. It seemed a perfect arrangement. She could work from home – she was married with three young children – making only occasional forays to London to meet Tiger and attend meetings.
What she saw when she did astonished her. These were the colourful days of independent publishing, before the grey suits and conglomerates took over. Tiger’s was a small firm with a bold reputation, run entirely according to its owner’s likes and dislikes. Surrounding him was a harem of beautiful, well-connected girls, Cosimas, Selinas, Lucindas, Candidas, all employed in vague capacities and competing for his attention while pursuing their own busy social lives. Their presence seemed to dominate the office. Expensive changes of clothing hung in doorways and over the backs of chairs, telephones rang, kettles boiled, hairdryers hummed, and there was ‘a lot of shrieking and embracing’.
Tiger adored the attention. ‘Do you like my girls?’ he asked Erdal.
‘They are amazing, isn’t it?’ To Erdal, with her austere Scottish upbringing, this world was strange and bewildering. But, while observing it all with a cool, appraising eye, she buckled down and taught herself to edit.
This arrangement might have continued indefinitely but for a sudden turn of events. Her husband announced he had fallen in love with someone else and would be leaving. She was devastated. Eventually she told Tiger, who reacted with kindness and concern and next day phoned with a proposition. He had had a ‘brilliant idea’: a book that would be ‘unprecedented’ in the world of publishing. He would conduct a series of interviews with high-profile women: Erdal’s job would be to devise interview questions, edit the results and put the volume together. ‘This book will be sensational,’ said Tiger. ‘I guarantee it.’ She would make some money and, he said, it would take her mind off things.
What could she do but agree? It was the thin end of the wedge. Amazingly, warmed by the sun of Tiger’s attention, women as serious as Doris Lessing began to spill the beans. He was over the moon. The original target of twenty-five interviews increased to a hundred, then two, then three. He was so excited he couldn’t stop. Meantime, up in Fife, Erdal, with the help of co-opted friends, was labouring literally day and night to edit the transcripts and get the work done in time for that year’s Frankfurt Book Fair, with Tiger constantly, melodramatically, disturbingly on the phone, transmitting a high level of anxiety.
The book, when published, was of biblical proportions, but it was surprisingly well-received. Tiger’s interview with the French politician Edith Cresson, in which she claimed that one in four Anglo-Saxon men was gay, even gave rise to a question in Parliament. Foreign rights were sold and Tiger was ecstatic. Erdal was grateful for the money, but the unrelenting work had taken its toll: within months she was in hospital with severe psoriasis. At the same time her house was threatened with repossession. Again Tiger came to the rescue, loaning her enough money to buy out her husband and secure the children’s home.
By now Tiger was not merely a publisher but something of a literary figure, regularly commissioned by newspapers to write articles and reviews – all of them in fact written by Erdal. Sometimes they travelled together to Tiger’s plush retreat in the Dordogne, France being ‘the best place in the world to create’. She did the creating while he did the phoning to London with progress reports on his creativity. It was on one of these trips that he broke the bad news. He wanted to write a novel. It was to be a love story.
‘What sort of love story do we have in mind?’ I ask, as if we are discussing wallpaper or home furnishing and he has to pick one from a limited range. ‘Is the love requited or unrequited?’
‘Definitely requited. Oh yes, very requited . . . There will be lots of sex, but very distinguished. We will do the sex beautifully. Isn’t it?’
So that is what they did. In fact, over the course of the next few years Erdal wrote two novels under Tiger’s name, somehow managing to translate his sexual fantasies and ludicrous plot ideas into something that would satisfy his literary ambitions. And she did manage to do the sex beautifully. It was never extravagant enough for Tiger – though perhaps I should say here that some sensitive readers may find the extracts she quotes, though essential to the progress of the story as she chronicles her hilarious word-by-word negotiations with him, rather too explicit for comfort.
But both novels were respectfully reviewed. By now Tiger had a reputation as a sophisticated Levantine with an almost mystical understanding of women. ‘Themes of love, death, sex and time are dealt with here in a fashion that is essentially the product of a Mediterranean Catholic mind, the same climate that shaped the stance of Lorca and Pasolini,’ declared the Oldie reviewer – though
it’s true that another review was simply headlined ‘Less Sex Please’. Altogether it was an astonishing achievement, and nobody knew whose achievement it really was – although suspicions were aired more than once in the columns of Private Eye.
By this time Erdal herself had married again and it was becoming increasingly difficult to fit her two – or should I say three – lives together. Tiger now had a weekly column in a tabloid newspaper – high-profile women again! – and had installed a dedicated phone line on which he could contact her day or night. Though she was reliant on the work financially, the honesty of her new relationship forced her to take a hard look at what she was doing and what it was doing to her: ‘Something I learned as a ghost was that there is an interesting connection between deception and self-deception,’ she writes. ‘Lying to others plays a vital role in lying to yourself.’
Tiger was in trouble too. It had never been clear where all the money came from and suddenly it seemed it had run out. Backers were sought, and Tiger’s extravagant lifestyle was dramatically reduced. There was one grim final journey to the Frankfurt Book Fair and it was there in the hotel, before they parted, that Erdal had an unexpected, poignant glimpse of another Tiger, the one behind the elaborate mask that he habitually wore.
Ghosting is a very funny book. It is also subtle and many-layered, not just the story of the years Erdal spent in a form of slavery to the outrageous, impossible, yet in many ways admirable Tiger, but an account too of a chilly childhood in which she was taught to suppress her own natural voice. It speaks of memory and loss and the masks that most of us wear, and it tells you a lot about the process of writing. The threads are lightly and skilfully drawn together, and it’s easy to see why Tiger’s literary career was such a success.
Why did she write it? Other ghosts have written books, but by convention it is generally a secret occupation. And what about Tiger? Though Erdal’s portrayal of him is unsparing, it’s not without affection. In the end the temptation to speak in her own voice and give her own account of events must have been overwhelming. By the time she decided to break with Tiger, Erdal says, ‘I was building up a quiet fury at every new demand . . . Psychologists call this emotional dissonance, pretending to feel one thing when you experience another – and it is bad for you, so they say.’ Perhaps it is this that gives the book its tremendous force, but whatever the reasons, Ghosting is an extraordinary story brilliantly told and one you’re not likely to forget.
© Hazel Wood 2018, Slightly Foxed Issue 59
This article also appeared as a preface to Slightly Foxed Edition No. 43: Jennie Erdal, Ghosting