My story really begins in Charleston, a perfect haunt of light and invention that stands in the English countryside. It was warm that summer and the mornings went far into the afternoon, when the best of the garden would come into the house, the flowers arranged in pots and given new life by Vanessa in her fertile hours. She was always there with her oils and her eyes, the light falling through the glass ceiling to inflame the possibility of something new. She had good days and bad days. One good days she set out her brushes and knew the time was right for work when all her memories became like an aspect of sleep.
It was June 1960…
The narrator of that wonderfully written opening, and the novel that follows it, is a dog. A small, white Maltese, to be exact. Who shares more in common with a hero from Dickens than he does with Lassie. Maf, allegedly short for Mafia Honey, began life in the home of Vanessa Bell – sister of Virginia Woolf and a core member of Bloomsbury. He was purchased by Natalie Wood’s mother, who then sold him to Frank Sinatra, who presented him as a gift to Marilyn Monroe on the eve of her divorce from Arthur Miller. If this book is to be believed, Maf’s version of the game Six Degrees of Separation would put Kevin Bacon to shame.
From the beginning Maf travels in the best circles – in both the human and animal worlds. According to Andrew O’Hagan dogs, animals in general really, are a very literary bunch. Cats “prefer poetry over prose”. Flies, rats and squirrels hurry about their business pretty much as usual, except with NY accents (at least when they live in NY). It’s fanciful, but it plays just close enough to what most of us want to believe as to avoid feeling cutesy. At one point Maf tells his reader, “That’s what humans do. They talk to you. They talk nonsense. They talk to you and they talk for you. And so they create a personality for you which is defined by the way they act you out. Every minute they are with you they are constructing you out of what they want, a companion, a little man, a furry friend…” And he’s right.
And so Maf is believable as Marilyn’s protector, her confidant, her erstwhile child, her therapist. He can form opinions on her, her friends, her employees, fans, psychotherapists and teachers. At the same time, he can lecture us on the novelist Henry Fielding, Emma Bovary’s dog, the real feelings of the police dogs at Civil Rights marches (their sympathies, we are told, were firmly with the marchers). He’s wickedly funny. We, the readers, accept it all. That is key – O’Hagan had to get that right, or the book doesn’t hold together. Maf had to be convincingly anthropomorphized – expressing human opinions without losing his sense of doggie-ness. In one of my favorite scenes, at a cocktail party Maf attends with Marilyn, Lillian Hellman states ‘I’m sorry to say Comrade Trotsky is a traitor. I was glad I opposed his application for American Asylum.’ The Maltese (a diehard Trotskyite) launches himself from under a nearby table and sinks his teeth “into her nylon-clad ankle” to the appreciation of the other guests.
The Life & Opinions of Maf the Dog is jam-packed with celebrity cameos. The usual suspects make appearances – Frank Sinatra, John F. Kennedy, Natalie Wood, Leo Castelli and Lee Strasburg. More interesting to me was the friendship between Monroe and the author Carson McCullers. (But that could just be where my interests lie – with the New York literati Monroe met through Miller rather than the Hollywood glitterati she seemed to want badly to escape). I don’t have a whole lot to say about the cameos other than that they are entertaining. O’Hagan didn’t particularly dazzle me with new insights into the complex personalities and egos at play.
This is, ultimately, a book for serious lit lovers. Accounts of Frank Sinatra’s tantrums or the Kennedy “affair” take a backseat to Maf’s segues on the great dogs of history and literature – complete with footnotes. The narrative tends to ramble, in the way of a stodgy 19th century novel. It’s all in good fun, but it rambles nonetheless. The storytelling is unapologetically British (despite the author being Scottish) and there was a point halfway through where I found myself wondering if an American author could have written this kind of book, about these people, so engagingly. In the end, I doubt it. It needed the distance of another species and at least one ocean to make it work.
Andrew O’Hagan brings a unique perspective to material that’s been pawed over by way too many people. He has written true affection into the relationship between Maf and his owner. As usual the character of Marilyn remains glamorously elusive, even to her best friend – and that’s probably for the best (let’s face it, no one wants to watch a legend clip her toenails). The Life & Opinions of Maf the Dog and of His Friend Marilyn Monroe is far from being a perfect novel… or a perfect working title. But O’Hagan has captured a bit of magic here. There’s something remarkably touching about this story of a girl, fading into depression, and her dog, forced to witness it. Maf tells it with an artless candor that pulls this book out of the Hollywood gutter, past tawdry speculations and makes it special. And, thank goodness, a lot of fun.
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, New York (2010)
ISBN: 978 0 15 101372 2