Ghosting: why the novel is so very good

Posted by HC in Books / People / UK politics on 27 August 2008

Robert Harris seems to understand what it is to become the shadow of a person. The ghost-writer in The Ghost is wonderfully aware that he is of less significance than those he writes-up, even if they are phoneys, or stupid or second-rate. He’s not a negligible person, but he knows his secondary place in the order of things. Journalists should all know that, and seldom do. As he passes into the world of his subject, he knows that he’s there on sufferance and briefly. He doesn’t for more than a few seconds and occasionally even bother to fantasise that this is really his world.

There’s more to the Harris trick. The Ghost takes the business of research and makes the plot hinge on several bits of information as they become available. The Blair/Lang world turns out to be as layered as an onion, so the ghost-writer is peeling away stuff which matters to the story. All marvellous. It came as something of a disappointment that Mr Harris actually holds rather pedestrian views on Blair (at least as revealed in newspaper interviews).

The ghost-writer is himself a fascinating character. I see a sort of Piers Morgan: university-educated, but determined not to rise above the low-brow.

I think what made the book so intensely pleasurable to me is that I have spent many, many hours with powerful people – mostly men – and many of them have been dubious, peculiar and perhaps even wicked. I have written speeches for all sorts, and have sometimes counselled people I suspect of wrong-doing. This is always interesting work, and it is almost always exciting to speculate on how strong people accumulatre influence. The point is that it is always mysterious because it is always about the business of accumulating trust. And there is always the great oddity of really getting to grips with the longing of certain people to make a really big mark in the world. Mr Harris’s ghostwriter wrestles with his thoughts about Lang much as I often have done as I deal with corporate leaders and plenty of others.

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