If you wanted to write about Marilyn Monroe, how would you go about it? The pile of biographies, memoirs and novels about poor, sad Marilyn is already teetering. How could you make something new of her life? Clever Andrew O’Hagan has come up with an answer: by writing as her pet dog.
How the hound came to be in her possession is a terrific story in itself. Maf, a Maltese terrier, was given to Marilyn by Frank Sinatra (the dog’s name was her sly reference to Sinatra’s alleged mafia connections). Sinatra got the dog from Natalie Wood’s mother, who regularly travelled to Britain to scoop up puppies, in much the way that contemporary Hollywood stars now trawl the globe for orphaned children. Bizarrely, Natalie Wood’s mother apparently obtained the pup from a litter raised at Charleston farmhouse in Sussex, the home of Bloomsburyites Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell.
From these scant facts, O’Hagan has constructed a sparkling, high-falutin’ caper of a novel. He is not, of course, the first writer to have used a dog as a narrator, but Maf is one of a kind: erudite, intuitive, slightly camp and — perhaps most boldly of all — a committed Trotskyite, with a vastly literary sensibility. He has plenty to say on the state of the novel, and often finds himself discussing such matters as Greek tragedy, perhaps with a couple of Dachshunds and a standard poodle.
As one might expect from his height, Maf takes a keen interest in people’s shoes, and floor coverings. His formative experience at Charleston, a house in which no surface escaped decoration, instils a keen interest in interiors. Maf hates Sinatra’s house, but loves George Cukor’s classical taste. There are a number of jokes about canine colour-blindness, but O’Hagan doesn’t overdo the dogginess: there are no foul smells or lickings to offend squeamish readers.
The dog is a fount of bon mots: ‘Good human relationships depend on an instinct for tolerating and indeed protecting other people’s illusions’; Dean Martin’s face ‘was a brown olive ripening on the ancient coast of Liguria’; ‘There’s nothing so empty as an empty swimming pool’. He notices that Europeans laugh at jokes, while Americans respond by saying ‘that’s funny’. About the film, Son of Lassie, he remarks the starring ‘dog whose eyes blazed with the strange existentialist thinking of Martin Heidegger’.
And the name dropping! Maf is shameless. He’s especially keen on intellectuals, as was his owner: Lionel Trilling, the young Susan Sontag, Carson McCullers (a real-life friend of Marilyn’s), Lillian Hellman, Edmund Wilson. My father, Cyril Connolly (an ardent lover of animals and himself the owner, incidentally, of a French bulldog), would have been delighted to find himself so often mentioned. He is especially good on Sinatra, who does not emerge as the most noble of men.
Maf refutes the affair between his owner and President Kennedy, but records the conversation at their first meeting. Mostly, he stays out of his owner’s bedroom, neither revealing her amorous encounters nor, it is a shame to learn, keeping her company while she slept.
He is marvellous on Marilyn. About his owner he feels tenderness, admiration, sorrow and bewilderment. He helps the reader see her anew, no mean feat for the most looked-at woman the world has ever seen.