Ghosts by Sophie Calle: How to Read Like a Writer
Sometimes the story we wish to tell is not our story. In Ghosts, Sophie Calle seeks to tell the story of paintings and other works of art that are missing from their museum homes. She accomplishes this by asking curators, guards, and other staff members to remember and describe the pieces. Ghosts is a collection of their responses and through them reveals the power of word choice, imagery, voice, and perspective.
A Collective Perspective
Even though each individual person polled in Ghosts and the author are speaking as first person narrators. The book as a whole comes as close to omniscient as nonfiction can. Because Calle requests all different kinds of museum employees to share their memories of the missing art pieces, she is able to create a community perspective. Everyone who described Bonnard’s Nude in the Bath remembered the focal point was a woman taking a bath, and each person contributed a detail the others hadn’t. Together, they were able to build a detailed description of the painting.
Each employee is given roughly the same amount of space to describe the art piece in their own words. In a way, this is like how the omniscient perspective allows readers to see inside the head of multiple characters without allowing any one character to overpower the other’s opinions and thoughts. If you wish to convey a nonfiction story that is larger than any one person or doesn’t belong to anyone in particular, look at how Calle balanced the different interviews and wove them together to create a complete description of the stories of the missing art pieces.
While the museum employees build the image of missing art pieces, Calle sets the scene. Before each museum’s missing pieces are described, she provides a brief paragraph explaining where the art is missing from, who the describers are, and which piece is gone. This is similar to when authors use omniscient point of view to describe the setting, world, or history of a place or characters before diving into a story. Calle is providing context.
A Collection of Voices
Even though together, the collection of interviews are creating the effect of an omniscient perspective, each individual description is actually in first person point of view. While the basic subjects of the art pieces were consistent, the moods and tones were not. How a person (or character) describes a work of art reveals whether or not they liked it and parts of their personal history. Two people described The Enigma of a Day by Giorgio de Chirico as:
It doesn’t have instant dramatic appeal. It’s mostly those typical de Chirico colors, mustard, gold, brown and blue. There’s not much life in that one.
It’s an abandoned city that you would expect to be dirty and black, and this one is impeccable. It feels like the air has been sucked out. There is not a single cloud in the sky, nothing between you and the object. There is an uncanny atmosphere of silence in this picture (40).
The first person found The Enigma of a Day boring. They tell the reader this outright in short declarative sentences. The second person shows readers they enjoyed the painting by spending twice as long describing it as the first and sharing both how the painting looked and how it made them feel. Their sentences are a mixture of longer and shorter ones that make the speaker seem breathless with excitement.
In addition to how the speakers felt about the painting, the way they describe it reveals a bit of their history and character. The first responder is clearly a fan of art. They not only share their opinion of the piece; they also compare it to the artist’s other works. The second person chooses to focus on the impression the painting left on them, how it made them feel. While they may have some knowledge of art, it is most likely not as deep or important to them as it is to the first person.
Voice Through Dialogue
Because Ghosts is a collection of interviews, it is an assortment of different people’s voices. These people are speaking directly to Calle, and therefore directly to the reader in dialogue. Because Calle sets this up with her introduction paragraphs, she doesn’t need to use conventional dialogue structure to show when a character is speaking. Instead, she strings the descriptions together and separates them with a square bullet to let the reader know when a new person is speaking.
This dialogue convention allows Calle to have both distinct individual voices and build the larger story of the missing art piece at the same time. While the reader is aware of the two people’s opinions of The Enigma of a Day, the reader is also able to build a better mental image of the painting with both descriptions than with just one. The first person provides the color scheme, and the second person offers the tone and landscape.
Why a Professional Editor Recommends Ghosts by Sophie Calle
Any writer attempting to deepen their characters or develop distinct voices within their story can take the premise of Ghosts and use it as a writing device. Pick an object or event that is featured, important, or in some way influences your story and ask your characters to describe it. Keep in mind their backstory and how that will influence their opinion and word choice. Or pick a missing art piece and look at how each person describes it. Would you be able to tell when a new person began speaking even without the square bullets?
Ghosts is an example of creative nonfiction that plays with form in order to create a specific effect. If you are looking to have a conglomerate of voices, an omniscient nonfiction, or in some other way challenge the conventional form of writing, look at how Calle approaches form. What conventions does she keep? What conventions does she alter and why? Understanding why changes in form are working (or not) in someone else’s story will help you know when your own experiments are and are not working.
Ghosts by Sophie Calle shows the impact art has on people and how different people remember and respond differently to the same piece. At the same time, it shows the collective perspective of a work of art, how that piece affected the community. Both of these are something to consider in your own writing. Think about how you can use a collection of voices and characters’ responses to objects to Ignite Your Ink.
If you were to interview people for a book, what subject would you focus on? What questions would you ask? Share your interests in the comments below. Ghosts highlights different people's voices through memory and word choice, to learn more about building character voice, subscribe to Ignite Your Ink below.
Ignite Your Ink is written by editor and author Caitlin Berve. She holds a MFA in Creative Writing and Poetics, actively participates in multiple writers’ organizations, and is dedicated to helping writers produce content that leaves an impression on readers.