Andrew O’Hagan‘s The life and opinions of Maf the dog and of his friend Marilyn Monroe is a fun – though also serious – book, so I’m going to start with something trivial, just because it will provide a laugh to those who know me:
Like all dogs, I take for granted a certain amount of sanctioned laziness, but beaches, tanning, ice-cream? To me the beach is an unfixed term on a roasting spit, a stifling penance …
Yep, Maf and me, we don’t like beaches*! Enough digression, though … on to the book. First off, I liked it – but how to describe a book that roams so widely yet has such minimal plot? The story is told first person by Maf the dog. Maf (short for Mafia Honey) is a Maltese Terrier who was given (in reality as well as in fiction) to Marilyn Monroe by Frank Sinatra. In the first few chapters Maf moves from Scotland, where he is born, to the home of Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant (of the Bloomsbury set), to the Los Angeles home of Natalie Woods’ parents, to Frank Sinatra to … well, you know who now. In the rest of the book we follow Maf as he lives with Marilyn Monroe, in New York and Los Angeles, in the last couple of years of her life.
The book though is less about Marilyn Monroe (that “strange and unhappy creature”) than it is about America and the author’s exploration of the issues that occupied, or typefied, America in the early 1960s. They were years of hope and excitement, when people believed they could (re)make themselves (“Let me start again” say the migrants coming in through Ellis Island). John F Kennedy was elected in 1960 and the Civil Rights movement was about to take centre stage. But Maf sees the American paradox, sees that the ideals of liberty and happiness are by no means assured.
A repeated motif in the book is that of interior decoration – and its literal meaning can be overlaid with something a little more symbolic:
My hero Trotsky would have made a great interior decorator: after all, decoration is all about personality and history, the precise business of making, discovering, choosing the conditions of life and placing them just so. The best decorators finding it quite natural to inject a splash of the dialectical into their materialism.
It’s a clever motif because it encompasses the perspective (the floor) from which dogs (like Maf) see and describe the world, the (often superficial) fascination with home decoration (which sees, for example, Monroe going to Mexico to buy goods that she never unpacks), and the more existential notion of “decorating” or fashioning oneself.
Another motif running through the book is Trotsky. The above quote comes early in the book, but there are many other references, including this one quite late:
Wasn’t he [Trotsky] the god of small things and massive ideas, a cultivator of man’s better instincts? That, my friends, is the greatest work of the imagination: not action, but the thought of action.
Maf sees Trotsky as an enlightened being, who might, just might have shown us the way, had he been given the chance. But, let’s move on, because this book – chockablock as it is with philosophers, artists, writers, actors, critics and politicians – rarely stands still. We are continually on the move, either physically as Maf moves from place to place, or mentally as Maf explores idea after idea, such as fiction and art versus reality, tragedy versus comedy, humans versus animals, interior decoration, psychoanalysis, politics and fame, master versus servant (even in the great democracy). These are not didactically or artificially explored in a let’s-tick-off-another-obsession way. They are neatly integrated into the story as Marilyn, with Maf in tow, experiences the last years of her life. She dines with Frank Sinatra, discusses books with Carson McCullers, is treated by her therapists, attends Lee Strasberg’s Actors Studio, discusses civil rights with JFK, works with Cukor on Something’s gotta give, and so on. As far as I can tell, all the facts of her life presented here are “real” – as are the major cultural movers and shakers depicted within. It can be daunting to confront so many names in such a short space, but there are some good laughs here if you just go with the flow.
While the facts are interesting, however, what makes the book are Maf’s observations. Somehow, O’Hagan manages to imbue Maf with a persona, a voice, that works. It’s not twee or sentimental. It’s a little tongue-in-cheek, it’s knowing, and it’s clear-eyed but with compassion where compassion’s due. Maf notices for example the paradox contained in:
… the upper classes arguing in favor of radical politics while their servants set down their tea in front of them.
One of the issues that crops up regularly is the line between art/fiction and reality, which is not surprising in a book populated with actors and other artists. Early in the book Maf tells us that dogs**:
have none of that fatal human weakness for making large distinctions between what is real and what is imagined.
I like this. I fear that too often we polarise life/reality and art/imagination, particularly in literary analysis. We might express discomfort, for example, with a dog narrating a story about people! We “trust” realism, and we distrust or are uncomfortable with the opposite, with what we deem to be “not believable”.
A little later, playing with this idea from a different tack, he tells us:
We are what we imagine we are: reality itself is the true fiction.
Marilyn’s inability to sort this out probably contributes to her undoing. The book’s title suggests that we will get to understand Marilyn, but we don’t. She is, at the end, as elusive, “unearthly”, “abstracted”, as ever she was … which is probably the most realistic (ha?) way to go!
Maf says Marilyn taught him that:
A novel must be what only a novel can be – it must dream, it must open the mind.
Can’t say better than that … and this book, I reckon, gives it a good shot.
The life and opinions of Maf the dog and of his friend Marilyn Monroe
London: Faber and Faber, 2011
* A footnote, emulating Maf whose footnotes add to the fun of the book. I do like to visit the coast, to look at the sea. It’s the beaches – the spending hours on them – that I don’t like.
** In a footnote, Maf tells us there’s been a long tradition of animals speaking for humans, listing such writers as Cervantes, Orwell, Woolf, Swift, Checkhov, Gogol and Tolstoy, just in case we decide to question a tale told in his voice!