Shortly after finishing Zoran Živković’s most recent novel (printed in English in Novels, , translated by Alice Copple-Tošić—all the usual caveats therefore apply), I read Martin Amis’s 1984 screed against consumerism and capitalism, Money. The story of a hapless director of television commercials addicted to fast food and pornography, Money charts the illusory rise and visceral fall of one John Self. Self, and here his name takes on one of its many punning aspects, is good friends with a writer named Martin Amis, who routinely doles out advice to a character he is writing to oblivion. "Is there a moral philosophy of fiction?" Amis asks at one point. "When I create a character and put him or her through certain ordeals, what am I up to, morally? Am I accountable. I sometimes feel that—" Self interrupts this with a complaint about how much some repairs to his luxury car are costing him (Money, p. 260).
This struck me more than may have been originally intended because The Ghostwriter, a 2009 novella by a Serbian writer long acknowledged a modern master of the fantastic, is also interested in the moral philosophy of fiction. In a sense, it is a less sophisticated question Živković asks: what power, what control or right of authority, does an author have over his text? In another, this is a far more pressing conundrum than that posed by Amis's extemporizing. In the age of the internet, the events of The Ghostwriter are made possible by digital communication. Authorized authorship is trickier than ever: who hides behind the handle? Who writes: the nom or the plume?
The Ghostwriter begins with a scene rather similar to the one I settled into as I sat down to write this review: a writer sits in front of a computer, in the modest study of a comfortable flat, and prepares to type. He makes himself a coffee; he checks his email; he procrastinates. Živković has long written ruminative prose with what at times feels like a surfeit of space between his words—there is an airiness to his work which encourages careful, though rarely exhausting, attention.
Had the email started any other way, I certainly would have deleted it immediately. For a long time I have saved almost every message and replied to most of them, but finally I came to my senses. Now I only save the ones that seem important because there is less and less time. But what writer could resist the flattery of a devotee, even an anonymous one? (Novels, p. 829)
These careful, stately sentences drift by—and yet enclosed within them are the keys to the whole story. So, too, is one of the principle differences between the scene at the start of The Ghostwriter and the one in which I began this review: the respective neatness of the writers' desks. Živković's writer is a self-confessed "neat freak", who procrastinates primarily by strictly ordering his actual and virtual workspace: "I opened a new folder, called it 'Admirer' and saved the email as 'Admirer 001'" (p. 829). This process, dear reader, puts to shame my unsorted, unfathomable inbox.
It soon becomes clear that Živković's writer is an email addict (again, self-diagnosed); he has established the settings on his computer such that the 'bong' of new email reverberates out of his souped-up speakers at such volume that it cannot but fail to interrupt whatever he is doing—even if he’s doing it in the next room. Here is a writer for whom the flattery of a devotee is not a pleasant by-product of writing, but its ultimate purpose: "For want of anything better, even a short exchange with a stranger would be welcome." (p. 831)
This short exchange winds up, of course, defining the writer's day (and ultimately his approach to literature). The Admirer has a business proposal: "What I had in mind was for you to write a novel and then hand over the authorship writes to me." (p. 833) This of course stops our hero short—for so tidy a mind, such an incursion upon the sacrosanct achievements of the singular writer seems impossible to consider. The question of true authorship, of actual ownership, is in the days of the Creative Commons license an increasingly slippery concept; but for Živković's writer the question is primarily one of personal pride—why would he write anything only for it to be branded with the imprimatur of another?
But there is a second difference between this writer's room and my own: there is a cat. The writer has developed an almost symbiotic relationship with this feline, to the extent that only when the pet is present can the writer write. Even the cat's interruptions, his padding across the keyboard, his warbles of alarm when the 'bong' goes boom, or his occasional accidental encounters with open windows, are part of the writer's rituals: they are less distractions and more part of the fabric, the rhythm, of everyday life. When the cat does not walk all across the writer's keyboard, his first thought is not of uninterrupted creativity, but that the animal is ill. In a very real way, then, the cat and its behavior makes the writer's work possible: "One day I will have to find a way to repay him for this almost co-authorship." (p. 834) In a way, he already has: he has taken as his pen name that of his companion, Felix.
Thus Felix, for so he is known to many of his correspondents, has already signed over at least part of the ownership of his texts: they belong to a man with a different name, with someone else's name in fact. Nevertheless, his overly neat mind is as yet unable to make this leap. When the Admirer suggests that, "Authorship is determined more by how one writes than one's name" (p. 837), Felix (the writer, not the cat) is immediately distracted by another email, this one from a fellow writer.
And thus the novella's pattern is set: it is essentially a sort of epistolary novel with monologues, offering a twenty-first century spin on Pamela or Clarissa by delving into the nature of our modern-day correspondence: "There is one bad thing about electronic mail," the writer opines. "It forces people to change their identity." (p. 839)
Felix confers with not a single person who uses their real name: there is Admirer, of course, but also his fellow writer and rival, OpenSea; there is Banana, a would-be writer who sends emails to our writer, with whom she is clearly infatuated, which chronicle her unusual dream-life; there is also P-0, a longstanding correspondent who has suddenly taken to writing elaborate pastiches of Felix's novels, and signing his name as 'Felix'. "At least half the people I am in internet contact with are faceless to me," Felix admits, and this seems to trouble him (although in Banana’s case it is untrue—having at first encouraged her romantic advances, Felix has now rejected them because upon meeting her he considered her ugly) (p. 847). The novel begins to take on a slightly chaotic form, in which we are at times unsure whose emails Felix is reading, and even at times which of them want what from him. All, though, are in their own way looking to appropriate his identity in some way: Banana dreams of Felix, making him a character in her endless, hallucinatory novel; yet another correspondent, the elderly woman who also lives in Felix's apartment building and whom he knows as Pandora, asks him to write a novel about her terminally ill German shepherd, Albert. "As though a novel can be written just like that, just like a sketch, and on order to boot," sniffs Felix dismissively (p. 857).
Thus we return almost to the beginning: with the resistance of the chronically orderly, and yet the corresponding seduction of flattery. At times indeed The Ghostwriter can feel circular—endless emails from almost interchangeable voices, demanding some form of authorly dispensation. Throughout, the most individual and entertaining character is that of the cat, Felix, and we must assume (of course!) that this is deliberate: though the writer and his correspondents each in their own way believe in the importance of their own agency (P-0 with his pastiches, OpenSea with his trenchant insistence upon the freedom and power granted by pseudonyms), they are also each governed by forces and influences beyond their control.
The cat repeatedly distracts the writer when he is about to make a mistake: when OpenSea sends an insulting email, for instance, the feline misbehaves such that our narrator winds up "venting my fury at OpenSea on poor Felix" (p. 874); his distaste for the products of the writer's keyboard motivate and demotivate that work in equal measure. Ultimately, indeed, the demands of Felix's four correspondents are met only because of his cat's behavior: the writer perceives his pet to be happy to star in a new novel, and thus the writer can produce a pseudonymous parody for OpenSea, a final chapter for Banana's confused and incomplete work, a new work for P-0 to pastiche, and a long-form story about animals for Pandora. "We looked at each other up close for a few moments and then he brought his head near and rubbed his nose against me. […] That was his way of telling me that he was no longer angry, that he had forgiven me, that we loved each other again." (p. 892)
Of course, all this is a sort of writerly joke: readers putting demands on writers, writers finding reasons not to get down to work, everyone being precious about their own particular interpretations. Science fiction fandom, too, seems to be full of cat people, those for whom the actions of their pet felines can come to take on a supra-human aspect, representing a conspiracy of cute control by which the mogs will always get their often inscrutable way. And Živković has always been a funny writer—not in the episodic, slapstick fashion of the out-and-out comic novelist, but in a wry, gentle way that quietly tickles the reader throughout. He is also the sort of author whose company is pleasantly, urbanely intelligent—thoughtful, yes, and at times even troubling. But always careful—always with that room to breathe.
OpenSea's annoyance with the critics increased after every novel. There were considerably fewer reviews that he expected and the rare ones lacked not only enthusiasm but insight, to put it mildly. He read out excerpts to me wrathfully, never ceasing to be amazed at the decline in literary criticism. The reviewers seemed to have lost their feel for great works. In the end, he concluded that the best thing would be to start reviewing his own books. This was not unseemly; he knew them better than anyone. (p. 866)
The reviewer approaches a work which includes a paragraph like the above with trepidation (though there, again, is the power of a name—might I not be Zoran himself, operating under a carefully cultivated alias? [My editor insists I declare definitively that I am not]). One of the great joys of a Zoran Živković novella, however, is the great depth it achieves with a little humor and some considerable daring: though almost always (and often willfully) simple on the surface, there roils beneath Živković's prose great streams of meaning. If The Ghostwriter is far from his most fantastical of works, it retains the curious liminality which seems inherent in his prose: there is always a sense of something else, and something other, at work in the Živković's worlds, albeit invisibly. He is a writer of subtlety, and of humanity.
"The distance between author and narrator corresponds to the degree to which the author finds the narrator wicked, deluded, pitiful or ridiculous," Amis tells Self during the course of Money. (p. 246) One might also suggest that the distance is in part defined by the knowledge that character possesses of his own fictionality, his own writtenness (we think, perhaps, of Moorcock's Jerry Cornelius). Amis attempts to separate himself from a grotesque first-person narrator; but Živković knows better: his own moral philosopher of fiction is exceptionally unaware of the forces that drive him, but in this he is not so different from any of us, his own author perhaps included. Writerly pretension and readerly demand aside, the text remains the substantive thing. The Ghostwriter, carefully conceived and entertainingly written, is therefore also rather aptly named.
Dan Hartland blogs at http://thestoryandthetruth.wordpress.com.