This is a blog inspired by the acquisition of a new puppy (Simon, a Dobermann, born 15/11/2010). However, since even I don't really believe the emotional life of a puppy can sustain a blog indefinitely, I'm combining such reflections as Simon's progress gives rise to with my other indulgence, books. So this will be about books and dogs, in particular books about dogs, and dogs in books. There'll also be plenty of photos of Simon.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

The dog that lived happily ever after

One of the great pleasures of last weekend's Franschhoek Literary Festival was listening to and talking to Justin Cartwright, whose new novel, Other People's Money, I referred to in my last blog. One of the things he said, very much in passing, was that what most people seem to remember of  his heart-wrenching novel White Lightning, is Piet the Baboon; and yet, he said, Piet had been a bit of an afterthought, not part of the original conception. Moral: as all actors know, never share a stage with an animal. And, I might add, you allow the animal to die at your own peril. (What, after all, is it that most people remember of Disgrace? But I'm keeping Disgrace for a whole blog to itself).  I experienced something of the same thing with my first novel, The Children's Day.
The novel was semi-autobiographical. though I took very many liberties with my own history. One incident that was based on actuality was the tale of Dumbo, the protagonist's dog. I meted out to Dumbo the fate of the real-life Dumbo: found playing with a meerkat, he was suspected of having contracted  rabies, and duly destroyed. I'm putting very baldly what most people seem to have found the most affecting part of the novel. One reader told me that she was never going to read another of my novels: 'I'm sick of reading of dogs being put down.' (This was soon after Disgrace devastated its readers.)
Having learnt my lesson (which seems to be, if you have a dog in your book, allow it to live; though heaven knows, literature and children's literature in particular is crawling, as it were, with dead dogs), I took a much more upbeat line in my next novel, The Reluctant Passenger
This dog clearly is a survivor. In fact, the dog in the shopping trolley doesn't actually appear as a character in the novel: he is more in the line of a ruling metaphor. Here is the relevant passage, narrated by my rather thin-blooded central character, Nicholas (I had a Dobermann called Nicholas at the time). He is here talking about his inability to finish Middlemarch:
My friend Gerhard says my attention span is adjusted to the sonnet rather than to the nineteenth-century novel, but I don't seem to find poetry very interesting either: there's such a lot of unassimilated emotion around for so little reason, as far as I can see. Gerhard says the point of the sonnet is exactly that it tidies up the emotion, but I'm not sure that uncontrollable passion succumbs that easily to a few quatrains and a rhyming couplet. I once saw a man transporting his Rottweiler through a No Dogs Allowed area: the beast was clearly well trained, and stayed put, but you could see that all it really wanted to do was chew the wheels off all the trolleys in the universe. That's the sonnet. 
So the Rottweiler in the shopping trolley encapsulates the novel's central concern with the tension between passion and constraint, in broader terms between nature and art. (He is also one of the reluctant passengers in the novel, but that's another branch of the metaphor.) There is, though, a real dog in the book. He is a bull mastiff called Tornado and he belongs to Nicholas's neighbours. Nicholas doesn't really like Tornado because, as he says, he can't meet the emotional expectations of a dog. But in a complicated run of events, Tornado actually saves Nicholas from a would-be hijacker, and so he feels a grudging kind of gratitude to the beast. Thus, when the neighbours  decide to move to Perth for the health and safety of their new baby, Tornado is in jeopardy: if they can't find a home for him, he'll have to be put down. This is where I made amends to Dumbo and Nicholas made amends to Tornado: he adopts Tornado and they live happily ever after. Well, as far as one can tell. (This is one of the differences between my novel and Disgrace.)
Would that all dogs were so lucky. Catching up on Justin Carwright's earlier novels, I came across his very funny but rather poignant  'American' novel:
Cartwright's protagonist is in fact a Brit who grew up in the US, and has been asked to deliver the address at a reunion of his old school in America. He consents, on condition that he can make satisfactory arrangements for his dachshund Herbie. Now this warmed my heart; I complained in an earlier blog that even the great Henry James commits the cardinal sin of introducing a dog in the early reaches of The Portrait of a Lady and then forgetting all about it. Not so Cartwright: he knows that we're watching out for Herbie, and that he'd better keep us informed. In the event ... well, read the book, but hell, did it have to end like that?
If you look carefully, by the way, you'll see that the cover of Leading the Cheers looks rather mangled. That is because Simon, fed up with my retreating behind a book so soon after returning from three days in Franschhoek, grabbed the book and mauled it, thus unwittingly also avenging poor Herbie.
And yes, you'll want to know what happened to Simon while I was doing the Literary Festival. Well, he was well looked after by two house-sitters. He seems, though, to have felt the need to express his feelings in a tangible manner:
That was once a pillow. Tornado rides again. Passion triumphs over restraint.
There is another literary festival next weekend, this time in Richmond in the Great Karoo. I was invited to attend with this intriguing rider : 'Dogs welcome.' I shall take the invitation at its word and take Simon to his first books event. It seems appropriate that the festival is mainly about J.M. Coetzee, with particular attention to Disgrace. Simon will no doubt make a contribution. Watch this space.


  1. I'm watching. Enjoy Richmond.

  2. And so, Michiel, did Disgraceland survive Simon? PS: Some interesting stuff about JM and dogs in Bernt Polling-Vocke's thesis:

  3. Thanks, Lynda, I'll check out the comments on JM and dogs. As for Disgraceland, see the latest blog.