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October 24, 2010

The Life and Opinions of Maf the Dog and of his friend Marilyn Monroe by Andrew O'Hagan

I am sure I could get to the bottom of whether Marilyn Monroe’s dog (a gift from Frank Sinatra) really had been previously owned by Vanessa Bell, but maybe the joke would be on me then. Or it would just demonstrate that I’d missed the joke altogether, the punchline to a question like, “How do you write a novel about a dog that belongs to Marilyn Monroe, and make it implausibly literary?” If if were to tell you a joke right now, it would probably be something about how I wasn’t quite smart enough for the book about Marilyn’s dog, which is The Life and Opinions of Maf the Dog and of his friend Marilyn Monroe by Andrew O’Hagan.

Most remarkable about this book (and how I could start any number of different sentences this way) is not its pop-culture references, or its grip on Mad Men era current events, but its doggishness. Which is unsurprising for a novel written from the perspective of a dog, but then how many novels have been narrated from the perspective of a dog? Well, quite a few, actually, including Virginia Woolf’s Flush, which is referenced on Page 5, and so here is a novel quite aware of itself and its tongue-in-cheek literary tradition.

“A dog’s biggest talent,” so says Maf, “is for absorbing everything of interest– we absorb the best of what is known to our owners and we retain the thoughts of those we meet. We are rentative enough and we have none of that fatal human weakness for making large distinctions between what is real and what is imagined.” A narrator who borders on omniscience then, which makes Maf the Dog… not such a jarring departure as novels go, dog or no dog, but then this is no “no dog” and O’Hagan never falters with his dog’s eye view, of shoes and pantlegs, and whatnot. The dog stays in the picture– a visit to Marilyn’s analyst raises Freud’s dog Jo-Fi, Maf references other literary dogs including Flush, and Steinbeck’s Charley, from Civil Rights we go to Abe Lincoln’s dog Fido who “gave the future president his love of the untethered”,  and so on, and so on. The novel is peppered with footnotes containing such fascinating facts, one of these notes beginning, “A dog is bound to like footnotes. We spend our lives down here…” On page 164, Maf finds part of a journey boring, and so devotes his energy to compiling a list of the Top Ten Dogs of All Time. (Greyfriars Bobby, Lassie, Snoopy, Laika…)

After leaving his home in England with Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, Maf travelled to Los Angeles and Frank Sinatra via Natalie Wood’s eccentric mother. Kennedy had just won the presidency, and spirits were high– Sinatra presents the dog to Monroe was a gift, she christens him “Mafia Honey”, and they spend the rest of her life together. Monroe had just come off the tail-end of her breakup with Arthur Miller, had become determined to prove herself as an actress and as a person, carried a thick Russian novel around in her bag, and insisted on trying to read it. She’s studying Method Acting with Lee Strasberg (and O’Hagan’s scene of Marilyn reading from “Anna Christie” is incredible, deep and affecting– a seamless weaving of her lines and her conjuring from her own experience to underline them). She has lunch with Carson McCullers, goes to parties with Lionel Trilling (who notes how “[w]hen Henry James was old and tired… he could be seen moving down the High Street in Rye with his dog Maximilian trotting behind him”), meets President Kennedy (and it’s much less sensational than you’d think– “A lot of depressing shoes at the party,” reports Maf. “I mean Mules.”)

Oh, and Mafia Honey is a Trotskyist, and delivers line about how some people think being themselves is a fine alibi for not being something better, and considers Montaigne “my personal friend”, and pees in Frank Sinatra’s backseat. The Marilyn Monroe he presents to us is a complex character, fascinatingly and lovingly rendered, and more interesting than I’ve seen her in any other tribute. The novel is original, surprising, intelligent, full of brilliant insights, and shows that O’Hagan is a novelist with plenty of tricks up his sleeve.

One thought on “The Life and Opinions of Maf the Dog and of his friend Marilyn Monroe by Andrew O'Hagan”

  1. Mr. B says:

    The premise reminds me somewhat of Shakespeare’s Dog by Leon Rooke which, I believe, was also turned into a play not so long ago.

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