99. The Ghostwriter

IT WAS WHILE HOLIDAYING in the Lakes District that we met a novelist who had previously been a ghostwriter. She told us she had made a handsome living as a ghostwriter until she had been commissioned to ghostwrite the memoirs of a famous Australian cricketer. This cricketer had been something of a playboy in his youth, a household name not only in Australia but in every country in which cricket is widely played, although he had since been largely forgotten except by lovers of the game (cricket, as cricket lovers know, is one of those games whose history and arcana is cherished by its fans). Still, our acquaintance the novelist had never heard of this cricketer because as it happened she had no personal interest in cricket whatsoever. In fact, she had no idea why she'd been commissioned, and could only presume it had something to do with other memoirs she'd ghostwritten for personalities (as they are called) about whose professional fields she had known very little – a racing car driver, a celebrity chef and a jockey, among others. She had become known as a ghostwriter who could write authoritatively about a field she knew nothing about through diligent research. Her principal quality as a ghostwriter, she told us, had been her ability to be realistically sympathetic, or sympathetically realistic, which amounts to the same thing, about her subjects. At the time she was commissioned to write the cricketer's memoirs she considered cricket to be a monumental waste of time - these were her very words, a monumental waste of time - although she had since developed an affection for the game. However, as for her subject, she told us that over the course of the first round of interviews with him, conducted at his home on Adelaide, she began to have some doubts about his responses to her questions. At first, she had had taken everything he told her at face value, as they say, but in their second week of conversation (she called it conversation, although it largely consisted, she said, of him rambling to her, more or less ignoring her questions) it dawned on her – she told us the realisation itself was slow, almost imperceptibly so, and in its own way quite horrifying, not just because of what it said about him, but especially because of what it said about her – that his entire life, everything at least that could not be measured, quantified or held down by statistics (she said he had a good head for figures) was a tissue of lies and fabrications woven, she said, not just for the benefit of others, she said, his friends or team mates or fans or some mysterious public, but - and this, she said, was what had horrified her - it was as if he had built the whole Potemkin village of the unquantifiable, in her words, in order to deceive himself, in order to protect himself from some indefinable fact or truth which he could not bear to confront. This cricketer had not by any means fallen into the special state of disgrace often reserved for retired sportspeople. After his retirement, he had enjoyed an undemanding and well paid job as a spokesperson for several companies, including a car company and an insurance agency. He had remained involved in the administration of the sport and earned a handsome supplementary living giving speeches at what are called 'sportsmen's nights'. And he and his wife, to whom he had been married 36 years, had brought up three children. The cricketer's ramblings, the novelist told us, were a more or less factual account of everything that had transpired before, during and after his career at the highest level of the game, and yet, she said, she became increasingly sure that everything he was telling her was a lie, every single word - such an awesome, frighteningly unending lie that not she nor any ghostwriter could possibly be expected to untangle it. She would question him, she would try to second guess him, she did everything she could, but he ignored her, he played her a straight bat, to use cricketer's parlance, he simply continued, in his good-natured, rambling way, his exposition of all that was measurable and quantifiable about his life, until our novelist acquaintance realised that she was the only one who had guessed his secret, she was the only one who knew he was lying, that he himself had no idea that he was lying, that he was blind to the fire that burned within him, the fire he breathed, the fire that had reduced him and everyone he had ever loved to ashes, to cinders, and the novelist told us that it was at the very moment she realised this that she decided to resign her commission, to return her advance to her publisher, and to become a novelist.