A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
I’m not sure I’ve ever encountered a book so difficult to categorise as Roger Grenier’s The Difficulty of Being a Dog. It is part literary-historical-philosophical journey, part memoir, and simply a celebration of dogs in their various forms; and as for the format, I don’t know if these collected short pieces should be called ‘essays’, ‘mini-essays’, or ‘essay-vignettes’. I veer towards the latter.
Grenier, a literary journalist of long standing, writes about his own dogs and about Freud’s chow-chow, who smelled his master’s cancer; about mediaeval knights and their hounds; Baudelaire’s dirty mongrel strays; Virginia Woolf’s Flush; Reynaldo Hahn’s dachshund (and assistant composer); Schopenhauer’s slavish devotion to dogs; André Gide’s sexually deviant dog (he had a thing for cats); a poodle that committed suicide; and Jacques Brenner, who wrote a work of literary criticism/history which classifies authors according to their treatment of dogs. The variety of topics and authors and digressions and dogs’ personalities is dizzying. (For a sampling of the style, look here.)
Most of these topics do boil down to the question, ‘What are dogs and what do they mean to us?’ Why do we feel so attached to them, what do they think about it, and how do they cope being – in Rilke’s phrase – ‘neither excluded nor included’? This is the difficulty of being a dog, what Roger Martin du Gard calls ‘the pitiful need to believe, which we see in the way a dog looks at us’. It can’t be easy to be a committed friend and ally when you don’t even speak your master’s language. Their loyalty is tragic and beautiful – and oddly dignified – because they need to sacrifice their own nature to be what they are to us.
Of course, the difficulty and sadness about the ‘dogness’ of dogs isn’t limited to the dogs themselves: the French do call dogs bêtes à chagrin, and Grenier writes a lot about the pain of losing a beloved pet – how there’s a streak of masochism in embracing that pain knowingly, a streak of sadism in having a creature in your power, and how much, in the words of one Roland Dubillard, even disappointing a dog can hurt you: ‘It would hurt me to make a dog suffer, a dog that was mine by virtue of that suffering and of everything that made that suffering possible. That’s why I hate dogs.’
The best – and worst – thing about books on literature is that one’s must-read list will inevitably grow by several titles. The Difficulty of Being a Dog fulfilled this purpose admirably: added to my list are Turgenev’s Mumu, Vassili Aksyonov’s Moscow Saga, Kafka’s Investigations of a Dog, Proust’s Letter to Reynaldo Hahn’s Dog, Chekhov’s Kachtanka, Raymond Queneau’s Dino, Louis-Frédéric Rouquette’s The Great White Silence, Gertrude Stein’s Ida, Romain Gary’s White Dog, Rilke’s The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge . . . among others. Well, that should keep me going for a while.
And just in case it won’t, I asked my fellow bookfoxes to write about some of their favourite dogs in literature. It is interesting that many of the choices are children’s books – though one of the few ‘grown-up’ books is chosen by Eve’s eleven-year-old daughter Jessica!
A darkly comic take-off of the classic Lassie Come Home, Dan Rhodes’ 2003 novel tells the story of Timoleon Vieta, a mongrel with beautiful eyes “as pretty as a little girl’s”, who lives with washed-up composer Carthusians Cockroft in a crumbling farmhouse in Umbria. Cockroft spends his days mourning fickle lovers and his failed career, and dotes on Timoleon Vieta. That is, until a stranger arrives: a man known only as the Bosnian, who claims to be someone Cockroft met during a drunken weekend in Florence. This surly yet irresistibly handsome character insinuates himself into Cockroft’s life, making himself useful about the house in return for room and board. Problem is, he hates Timoleon Vieta as much as Timoleon Vieta hates him, and before long the Bosnian manages to convince Cockroft to dump the dog in Rome. What follows are the stories of the people encountered by Timoleon Vieta during his journey home: tales of love and loss and the same search for meaningful companionship that led Cockroft to exchange his canine friend for a human one. Poignant, biting and compulsively readable, the tale ends with a force that will either make you want to laugh, cry or break something.
Lisa: When it comes to Enid Blyton’s Famous Five, there is only one of the five that I admired unreservedly. This character was tough yet loving, smart but patient, and braver than the other four put together. Yes, I am talking about Timmy the dog. I loved Timmy so much that I would frequently dream about him and I lived for the day when I would be allowed my own dog. Timmy could be relied upon to stay ‘on guard’ and sound a warning bark when strangers approached, he could dodge bad guys and carry help messages to the outside world, and he would fight off anyone trying to hurt his human pack. In Five Get Into A Fix, the children go to a farm in Wales and Timmy is attacked by three savage farm dogs. Dark times. Thankfully Timmy recovers, and the farmer’s dogs later save the day, by managing to hear their owner’s call from several miles away and rescuing the captured children and farmer. I’ve been lucky enough to have two border collie companions in my life – both of them every bit as smart and loving as Timmy. Harry Potter had his owl, but imagine what he might have achieved if he had a dog at his side! That Voldemort would have been mincemeat on Day 1.
Jon Katz and his wife Paula Span start off this particular year contentedly and blissfully with their labs Julius and Stanley. Then Devon (a troublesome border collie) joins the pack. He wreaks havoc from the moment he arrives in the airport when he escapes and it takes Jon, two baggage handlers and three police officers to track him down.
Jon tries his best to make Devon understand he has a loving family but it just doesn’t seem to be working. He then becomes impatient with Devon.
Then disaster strikes, Stanley is found to be ill with hip dysplasia and his heart rate was down and is put down and cremated with his ashes being scattered in his favourite spots.
Soon after this tragedy another one unfurls. Julius is found to have colon cancer and gets just what Stanley did, put down then cremation.
Jon now learns the hard way to make Devon behave, trust and love. But besides the troubles of their first year together Jon discovers his life is invigorated by an animal with a life of such mischief. He soon realises he needs to change as much as Devon.
A Dog Year is a very moving and funny story about how in some cases it is not only the animal that must change for the better.
Rosy: I devoured Joyce Stranger’s books as a child and early teenager. Stories of independent women buying dilapidated farms and saving Shire Horses (The January Queen), stories of courage against adversity of independent young women going blind and ending up developing fantastic symbiotic relationship with guide dogs (A Walk in the Dark). All the women were short (usually barely 5ft nothing) and all the plots involved youngish independent women acquiring stupid amounts of animals from all sorts of unlikely places and somehow struggling against the odds to become a success in some animal-related profession. Sometimes there was a bit of human love thrown in but that was very much not the point.
My favourite of Stranger’s books were actually simple accounts of the lives of her pets. Kym was about her very eccentric Siamese cat and Two’s Company and Two for Joy were about her dogs – Alsatian, Puma, and Retriever, Janus. I can’t remember the books in too much detail except that that they had some of the charm of James Herriott but a bit more prosaic. A bit funny, a bit sentimental, with that true life feel that you could relate to and a lot of drama and dog competitions added to the mix. They were strangely moving and did capture the real place a dog takes in the lives of its owner. I seem to remember Janus being clownish with some medical condition and Puma being highly strung and difficult but transformed by training. Or something. Hell, it’s been 20 years so don’t hold me to anything.
Looking them up on the internet for the first time in two decades for this piece, it was hard to find any images for the books I have mentioned, let alone blurbs, so I am afraid I can’t enlighten Vulpes readers much more than I have done. Finding her website, I was saddened to learn that Stranger died only last year. It is a shame that so many of her books seem to be out of print. I also learnt that in addition to being a novelist that she was a dog behaviourist – with more books on dog training under her belt. So that probably explains the sense of authentic detail of her books.
That combined with dogs, horses and independent young women (all 5ft nothing of them) acquiring dilapidated farms…it’s a winning formula.
I was disconcerted to find out that this granddaddy of all doggie books is as old as I am. First published in 1956 it’s been going strong ever since … and no wonder. It’s an absolutely timeless children’s classic that – like most classics – wears its years remarkably well. It remains as readable today (for both adults and children) as it was when it was written.
It’s a story with a moral – a story about loyalty, kindness, good parenting and courage. It makes its points without ever becoming preachy, doesn’t shrink from portraying life’s uglier side, but never forgets that its primary remit is to entertain.
Fast-paced, touching and funny it also sports one of literature’s most memorable, boo-hissable villains – the entirely splendid Cruella de Vil.
If there’s such a thing as a perfect children’s book, The Hundred and One Dalmatians is it.
Jackie: Finding The Legacy of the Puppy under your Christmas tree, as I did, is perfect. It stirs all those warm, cozy feelings that Santa and the holidays are supposed to, but is accessible all year round. Hiromi Nakano has gathered nearly 100 breeds with a double page spread devoted to each. Not only does it include the usual physical description, but also a bit of history for the breed, plus anecdotes, which are sometimes amusing and always of interest.
But the main draw of this book is the full color photos of the young dogs. Not only are there the expected photos of puppies sleeping and nursing; but puppies wrestling, running, yawning, jumping and even falling down. All designed to maximize the cute factor to the point where one gives a delighted squeal when turning the page. The plain white backgrounds ensure that the entire focus is on the dogs themselves. The pups are shown with an adult dog, usually the mother, which is some breeds is not much bigger than her babies. Some puppies look very different than their mature forms. For instance, young Bedlington Terriers look like mini Irish Wolfhounds rather than the lamb-like adults.
There’s not much to read in this book, but no matter, its intent is to spend a half hour or so gazing at the oversized pages full of adorable puppies, smiling all the while.