Since the beginning of world language, the narrative voice in books has frequently been that of an animal. Readers of all ages have received well-written wisdom and world views from bears, spiders, ravens, donkeys, rabbits, crows, coyotes, moles, mice, frogs, alligators and, of course, the domestically reigning cats and dogs.
Barbara Gowdy's The White Bone presents an encroached-upon African veldt through the voice of elephants. Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's Little Prince is instructed by a fox in the finer points of domestication.
Given all that, I have never read a more original work than Scottish novelist Andrew ( Our Fathers) O'Hagan's Maf the Dog.
We enter Maf's odyssey at the country estate of English Bloomsburyites Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant. The Scottish-born, Maltese Maf, a white fluffy puppy and committed Trotskyite, is about to be sold to Mrs. Maria Gurdin, Russian-born mother of actress Natalie Wood. Mrs. Gurdin, having more money than time, thanks to her daughter, wanders the world seeking pedigreed dogs for Hollywood celebrities. Maf is given to Frank Sinatra, who is seeking a canine gift for his friend Marilyn Monroe.
Off to Hollywood goes Maf, a commited Scots dog, very proud that "an ancestor of mine is known to have licked the face of his dead owner at Culloden."
Maf's physical picaresque (he calls himself a Picaroon) is more than matched by his mind's articulated journeys through politics, art, literature, food, human and dog behaviour, politics, film, theatre and literature.
The book is filled with footnotes, which Maf thinks entirely appropriate, as dogs live at ground level, near a great assortment of feet and shoes, all of which he can identify by brand. He also likes looking at illustrations of shoes in magazines. (A reference to shoe-illustrator Andy Warhol? Very likely, as no thought appearing in Maf the Dog fails to trigger connective memories.) This is not mind-wandering - it is linkages, a cascade of linkages - without a computer doing the work for you. O'Hagan, speaking through Maf, will reward the reader with a wealth of jogged memories and musings. And then he and Maf will pull you back to the page, to continue travelling with them
The book has a huge cast of characters. Humans include Cyril Connolly, Maud Gonne, Carson McCullers, Lionel and Diana Trilling, Noël Coward (who greets a sour-faced customs inspector with a jolly "Little lamb, who made thee?"), Princess Marie Bonaparte, Cervantes, Maurice Maeterlinck, Martin Heidegger, Lillian Hellman, Frank Sinatra's rat pack and Cuauhtémoc, last emperor of the Aztecs. O'Hagan wisely eschews trumping his story with tabloid speculations about John F. Kennedy. The Monroe-Kennedy meeting and brief connection is seen by Maf as two doomed supernovas taking comfort and a measure of safety inside their shared starriness.
Animals include dogs (who speak in diverse accents, and always in prose) and cats (who speak only in verse) plus ants, butterflies and bedbugs (who are apparently of Russian origin and accent).
Maf meets the bedbugs on a discarded mattress behind an expensive private hospital, where his owner and beloved friend Marilyn has been sent by her psychiatrist, Dr. Marianne Kris.
Marilyn Monroe. Many have written about this iconic, searching, damaged and luminous girl-woman. Almost everyone who ever met her has acquired a magazine or book deal from the time spent. She has been fictionalized in a play by ex-husband Arthur Miller and re-imagined by Norman Mailer (with adolescent yearning and adult respect). Nothing I've read or seen more fully evokes her than her actual little dog as imagined by Andrew O'Hagan.
Miss Monroe takes Maf everywhere, allowing us to experience an Actors Studio acting class, assorted literary soirées, fine food and wine, plane trips and the combination of angst, hope and young-country bravery that was early-sixties America.
When one writes about wandering searchers, there will be a large cast of characters, an accretion of experiences and understandings. The skill-miracle is in doing this while never losing your protagonist's voice and journey. This skill-miracle is achieved by Cervantes and Nabokov; closer to home, and to date less canonically, by Miriam Toews and Sherman Alexie, both remarkable writers. Andrew O'Hagan's Maf the Dog. However, is the 21st Century's Master Class.
I don't know if O'Hagan ever met Marilyn Monroe. Through his vibrant writing, I feel I have. Maf's Marilyn will always matter to me. And, even more so, O'Hagan's Maf will always matter to me. This book is a treasure trove and a literary treasure.
Contributing reviewer Gale Zoë Garnett, a linguistically addicted travelling writer, is grateful for the Andrew O'Mafigan Master Class - not for imitation; for inspiration.