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The Late Review: The Ghostwriter

9th Feb, 2023

Author: Peter Tennant

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Zoran Živković's The Ghostwriter was released by PS Publishing in 2012, making it probably the oldest of the novellas I'm reviewing for this post-Advent Calendar. Hardcovers are currently going for upward of £80 on Amazon, so congratulations to anyone who bought a copy at the time. Alternatively, if you don't like that price tag, there's an omnibus volume of The Writer & The Ghostwriter going for £14/hc and £9.64/pb (prices correct at time of going to blog).

A never named writer is struggling with writers' block, unable to start on a new book for lack of ideas. He spends his day dealing with the antics of Felix, his elderly cat, who has a knack for getting into scrapes and overturning the writer's apple cart along with everything else. In between damage limitation he deals with email correspondence from various friends and fellow writers, each with their own agenda. Most intriguing though is a new correspondent who styles himself simply Admirer, refusing to reveal his identity, and who wants the writer to produce a pseudonymous work to be published without acknowledgement. There are clues in the text that enable both the writer and the canny reader to unravel what is going on.

After the text we have an appreciation of the work by Michael Morrison entitled "A Writer, A Cat and Five email Correspondents from Hell", which is a fair one line synopsis of what the novella is all about. However, not content with such pithiness, Morrison goes on to explain the story for anyone who didn't get it and, more usefully, ties the book into Živković's oeuvre, demonstrating how such themes and concerns are recurring in his work.

I have mixed feelings about all this. Morrison is certainly right that it is, ultimately, a very clever book, but the various routes by which it reached the end point didn't strike me as particularly engaging. I was, at the risk of sounding like a grouchy animal hater, bored by the antics of Felix the cat, which were a little bit overdone. And I felt that if he spends this much time on replying to correspondence then it's little wonder the writer isn't producing any work of his own, a thought followed by the question of why he simply doesn't tell all these people to bugger off with their unreasonable demands on his time and creative energy. Of course, Živković is at pains to make his writer the sort of overly polite and punctilious person who would respond in just this way and who has to be pushed into a corner before he can say no to anybody.

The actual strands of correspondence were fascinating, with the idea of pastiches and parodies, ghostwriters and dream texts seeming to offer all sorts of potential for literary (mis)adventures, and some interesting thoughts on subjects such as using pseudonyms, writing for hire, and who ultimately owns a piece of work. And even though we only have their emails to tell by, each of the correspondents is insightfully characterised, with their own idiosyncrasies - Banana, who thinks collaboration is akin to having a child; the needy and guilt tripping Pandora; the wonderfully arrogant OpenSea, a fellow writer who believes in his own genius despite evidence to the contrary and is constantly belittling our protagonist; and overly dependent P-O, who needs the writer's validation if he is to produce work of his own. And the way in which it all pulls together at the end with the revelation of Admirer's identity (and the writer's identity also implied), was indeed a masterly stroke, a very neat way to wrap up all the diverse strands. I guess on balance I did enjoy The Ghostwriter, and it has left me with an appetite for more books by Zoran Živković, but all the same, for all that I consider myself a cat person, I could have done with less of Felix.





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