Interview: Jennie Erdal, author of The Missing Shade of Blue

Jennie Erdal at the David Hume statue in Edinburgh. Picture: Ian Rutherford
Jennie Erdal at the David Hume statue in Edinburgh. Picture: Ian Rutherford
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FORMER ghostwriter Jennie Erdal tells David Robinson how her love of translation and passion for David Hume come together in her first novel

JENNIE Erdal is the reticent type, not the kind of woman who trumpets her triumph or polishes her ego in public. So you have to know her reasonably well, over a good number of years, before she’ll take down a book from the shelves at her St Andrews house and show you something Leni Riefenstahl once wrote to her.

“Liebe Jennie,” begins the inscription in the front of the Riefenstahl’s memoirs thanking Erdal for translating them into English, and Hitler’s favourite film director goes on to single out her Verständnis, or sympathetic understanding. And she’s right. Verständnis is just what a translator needs: the ability to get inside the head of an author, to work out what precisely is being expressed in the original and transfer it to a different language while keeping as much of the sense and spirit as possible.

That’s how Erdal first started out, as a translator: Russian novels mainly, because that, along with philosophy, was what she had studied at St Andrews, where she was the first student to do joint honours in both subjects. Most of the novels she translated were published by Quartet Books, whose publisher was Naim Attallah. And she certainly needed quite a bit of Verständnis to work for him.

She made clear how much in her bestselling memoir, Ghosting. In it, she painted a vivid and fundamentally affectionate portrait of the ebullient Attallah (“think Donald Trump, but with charm and literary savvy” the New York Times advised its readers) for whom she worked as a ghost-writer. First, she provided him with the questions he asked his illustrious subjects in his 1987 breakthrough book Women, as well as transcribing and editing their answers. But then he got more ambitious. Erdal would, he decided, write his novels too. He’d come up with a rough idea about what the novel would be about: Erdal, 500 miles to the north in St Andrews, would do the actual writing.

When Ghosting was published, it was the oddity of this professional relationship and the sparkle of Erdal’s portrait of her bustling, charismatic, tantrum-throwing, generous and vain boss that dominated the critical response to her memoir. For all the praise, though, to Erdal the critics, in the UK at least, largely missed the point of the book. “Everyone was interested in the who. To me, the why and the how were much more important.” How, in other words, does one actually go about go about the business of getting inside somebody else’s head? How can we ever translate another person’s thoughts into our own? Why write novels in the first place?

Even though her publicists call her latest book her first novel, they’re only partly right: she has already written two for Attallah. “The difference between ghosting a novel and writing one that is actually yours,” says Erdal, “is that ghostwriting always seemed to me a bit like a contract killing. You turn up, do the job, blood is spilled, but there is no great commitment, no great passion.” (This is even easier to understand when you remember that her last novel had the Attallah- dictated plot featuring a man who can make a woman have an orgasm on the other side of the Atlantic by making love to her cousin.) Attallah objected to some of Erdal’s claims about him in Ghosting, and legal manoeuvrings took up a lot of the time in which she had planned to start a novel. When she did so, the death of a grandchild made it seem too trivial to bother with.

The subjects Erdal chooses for her new novel go right back to her pre-Attallah days. She had always been fascinated by David Hume, ever since she first read him in her second year at St Andrews, and she had gone on to do an honours course in Humean ethics. But then she had always been interested in translation too: what about a novel that put both of those loves together?

The ideas began to coalesce. “At the Edinburgh book festival, I bumped into the translator Nick Caistor and I said I’ve a novel buzzing in my head and I ‘m thinking of putting a translator in it. And he quipped, ‘Ah, a minor character then’, which I thought was wonderful, because that’s all that translators ever are, in fiction and in life. They are background people. But I thought, ‘No, I’ll make my translator an important character.’”

But what would he translate? That was easier. It had to be Hume. Compared to many of the other philosophers she studied, he was a shining beacon of common- sense: not just a brilliant mind and a wonderfully clear writer but someone who also appreciated the messiness and contingency of everyday life.

She met Gilles Robel, the distinguished French translator of Hume’s essays, and asked whether he would mind having a fictional equivalent in her character Edgar Logan – who, although totally different in almost every other respect, would at least mirror some of his own work. That was fine, he told her – what’s more, when the fictional Edgar flew in from Paris to Edinburgh to work on his Hume translations, he could even live in the same mews house at the back of Calton Terrace where Robel himself had stayed.

Even though Logan is the narrator of the novel, its central focus is Harry Sanderson, a disillusioned but brilliant philosopher at Edinburgh University who befriends him. Sanderson is a magnificent creation, a clear-minded maverick on the verge of a breakdown. And if Logan’s roots are deeply threaded in Erdal’s mind, so too is the realisation that it is often the philosopher, the man with the most capacious brain for rational thought, who is most easily tripped up by the daily demands of life.

“It’s hard to generalise, but I do know academic philosophers, says Erdal. “Initially, they might come over as being terribly reasonable , but I just know that they’re not. At the micro level, you know, having toast with their wives over breakfast, they can be absolutely impossible people.”

Erdal twists the knife further by making Sanderson , who is gradually becoming more paranoid about his friendship with Logan, also write a book about happiness. “A lot of academics these days are pretty much forced to write books because the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE), on which academic funding is based, requires it.

“My friend, the philosopher Simon Blackburn, has written one on lust, so I thought let’s have one on happiness, or at least on eudaimonia – the ancient Greek word for doing well and living well – the concept we came to think of as happiness. And that’s one area in which I appear to have been slightly prescient because when I started to write the government had no interest in happiness, and now they are very interested indeed and even have a happiness index.”

Her novel, The Missing Shade of Blue, takes its title from a question the philosopher David Hume posed in A Treatise on Human Nature. If a man, he asked, knew every shade of blue there could possibly be apart from just one, would he be able to imagine it without first having seen it? This is a classic question in philosophy – can we know anything other than through our senses? – but in Erdal’s novel the missing shade of blue also works as a metaphor for love and happiness. Can brains alone bring bliss?

We are, as you have probably realised, deep in the territory of the philosophical novel. Publishers are often wary of this label; indeed when Cape published Samantha Harvey’s All Is Song earlier this year, there was no mention even on the back cover that it was a contemporary reworking of the trial of Socrates.

Richard Beswick, Erdal’s editor at Abacus, had no such doubts. When she received an advance proof of The Missing Shade of Blue Erdal was surprised to see that he had added the subtitle “A Philosophical Adventure” (as does the finished copy). “I e-mailed him immediately and said I don’t think it’s quite right,” laughs Erdal. “Certainly not ‘Adventure’. And certainly not ‘Philosophical’.” Beswick’s point was that the title needed a further explanation for all non-Humeans; indeed he was so confident about the novel’s ability to bear the weight of so much snappy philosophical discussion that he asked her to supply even more of it.

The Missing Shade of Blue is a bright, well-crafted and neatly argued book, and part of the argument isn’t only about ideas. Flyfishing, love, art, the joys of the unexamined life – all weigh heavily in the balance against Sanderson’s philosophy and Logan’s translations. Hume himself had, after his own breakdown, come to realise that too much study, and not enough ordinary enjoyment of life would only lead to “the disease of the learnèd”: that way madness lay.

Erdal realised some of the limits of philosophy early on. “I loved my dad and he loved me, but he was not for the examined life at all. He left school at 14 to be a brickie. I used to help him build walls.

“At my graduation day at St Andrews, he came through from Lochgelly, took me to one side and asked me for the first time what subject I had studied. Even then that would only have been because someone at the garden party might have asked him. And when I said I’d been studying moral philosophy and Russian language and literature, it’s almost unrepeatable what he said.

“But he was straight, my dad. He had his best shirt on, his collar was too tight, and he was pulling at it. I knew he was way out of his natural milieu. Yet when I looked at him, and I looked from him to some of the people who had taught me, I could see that next to them, he was the model of happiness and contentment.”

I’ve got no idea what colour the sky was that day in St Andrews. But I can guess.

• The Missing Shade of Blue by Jennie Erdal is published by Abacus, priced £12.99