The Life and Opinions of Maf the Dog and of His Friend Marilyn Monroe by Andrew O'Hagan
John Banville admires Andrew O'Hagan's act of canine ventriloquism
Saturday 8 may 2010
ot the least of the surprises awaiting readers of this unexpectedly high-toned novel is its opening: "My story really begins at Charleston, a perfect haunt of light and invention that stands in the English countryside." Charleston, the fragrant East Sussex domicile of Bloomsbury leading lights Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, is a far cry surely from the succession of foster homes and orphanages through which Norma Jeane Mortenson was dragged in the course of her harsh childhood. At the age of 16, in order to avoid being put into yet another institution, she married a hearty chap called Jim Dougherty, whom she addressed as Daddy – an appellation this fatherless daughter tried out on many of the men in her life, whether her heart belonged to them or not. She started out in care but until the day she died, at the age of 36 and horribly famous, she was never cared for as she deserved.
Why Charleston? It is from here in June 1960 that the terrier later to be known as Mafia Honey, or Maf for short, sets out on a grand adventure that will take him to New York and Hollywood and into the arms of the greatest screen goddess of them all. Mrs Bell's gardener, a Mr Higgens, had purchased him as a pup from a farm in Aviemore in the raw north, and now he is being sold on to Mrs Maria Gurdin of sunny Sherman Oaks in Los Angeles, Russian émigré, mother of Natalie Wood, and dealer in canine pets to the stars. Presently Mrs Gurdin will pass the pooch on to Frank Sinatra, who in turn will present him to his sometime lover Marilyn Monroe. It's a dog's life.
But what a dog, and what a life. Maf, whose "pedigree was terrifically intact", would have us know he is no ordinary hound: "We Maltese — we bichon maltais, the Roman Ladies' Dog, the old spaniel gentle, the Maltese lion dog, or Maltese terrier – are suffered to know ourselves to be the aristocrats of the canine world. A great relative of mine was famous as the boon companion to Mary, Queen of Scots; another one gained the ravenous affections of Marie Antoinette . . ."
As to how Maf came by his feeling for history or his fancy prose style, not to mention an impressive knowledge of the works of numerous philosophers, especially Plutarch, the answer, it seems, is metempsychosis. Most people, he observes, imagine they have only one life to live, but they are sorely mistaken: "God is not in his place of work and is not answering his phone – get it? You don't get saved, brothers and sisters, you get reassigned."
Maf opens his picaresque narrative with two splendid set-pieces, the one at Charleston, where we glimpse the literati at lunch and hear Cyril Connolly surmising that "Virginia's little novel Flush was a joke on Lytton"; and then at the rackety home of Mrs Gurdin, known, more or less affectionately, as Muddah, and her alcoholic husband Nick, who spends much of his time watching Bonanza and other cowboy dramas on television – "'This,' said Mr Gurdin, looking across the room at me through tired eyes, 'is a very beautiful show. A very very beautiful show, I tell you that for free, Dogville'" – while idly menacing the screen with his rifle. Their daughter Natasha – Natalie – is a fearsome product of her milieu: "The new swimming pool is crawling with frogs. They're all dying. You argued for a salt water pool, Muddah. Better for the circulation, you said. Now we have a fucking biblical plague down there. Isn't that just dandy?"
Into the midst of the ongoing Gurdin soap opera steps the world's favourite crooner. "Frank's neat row of teeth rhymed perfectly with the white line of handkerchief cresting the top pocket of his suit." The portrait of Sinatra is one of the glories of the book, catching with aching accuracy the arrogance and violent insecurity of a man so successful and so famous he no longer knows quite who he is or what exactly he wants – "Frank's needs always came out like urgent threats" – yet who penetrates to the very heart of American power politics, rallying his Hollywood cronies to "Back Jack", only to be cast aside by the Kennedys because of his ties to the underworld. "Who's feeding this shit to the newspapers – Mr Sinatra's 'connections', Mr Sinatra's 'associations'? I'll feed their fucking children to the piranhas at Oceanworld, d'you hear me?" Later, after Sinatra has been evicted from Camelot, there is a frighteningly funny scene in which he rampages through his luxury home in the desert, screaming in the pain of his betrayal, and ending by making a bonfire of the vanities when he drags out from a guest room the clothes and swimming gear left there by Peter Lawford and his family and sets them on fire beside the pool –"See this, Norma Jeane? See this, you two-bit whore?"
The author, although he largely has the measure of her – "Marilyn was a strange and unhappy creature, but at the same time she had more natural comedy to her than anybody I would ever know" – is plainly in thrall to his subject, and his narrative, so measured and sceptical elsewhere, rises to the level of rhapsody when he is writing about her. Yet for all the loving concentration he lavishes on her, she remains an elusive presence. "Her hair was pale and her skin beautifully clear; it was as if the world had bleached her with attention," he writes, perhaps realising, consciously or otherwise, that he too is taking part in the bleaching process. Life for Norma Jeane was the ceaseless task of maintaining Marilyn Monroe in bright and burnished existence: "Some women need a fully accompanying silence to help them speak, and that was how it seemed sometimes to be with my owner, the pupils of her eyes engorged in front of the mirror as she completed her rituals of becoming."
Writing of the wonderful times they had together, Maf recalls how they would go out into the city, "Marilyn sometimes in a headscarf and sunglasses, completely unknown, running into the wind with our mouths open, and hungry for experience". One recalls the anecdote told by another of the star's friends of walking along Fifth Avenue with her one day and remarking how no one was taking any notice of her. "Oh, but I'm not her," Marilyn said. "Do you want me to be?" Taking off her sunglasses she went into that walk – "Like jello on springs," as Jack Lemmon's character lip-smackingly puts it in Some Like It Hot – and within a minute she was being mobbed by fans. This was fame and more than fame; this was divinity, a goddess come among men.
Andrew O'Hagan has taken on the voice of a dog to write a subtle, funny and moving study of America on the eve of one of its periods of greatest crisis. The lonely and sordid death of Marilyn Monroe in 1962 ushered in, did we but know it, not the age of Aquarius but of Thanatos, and the fact that it was a daughter of Eros who had died makes the moment all the more tragic. Maf the Dog, like Lolita, like The Great Gatsby, is a threnody for lost innocence. At a literary party at Alfred Kazin's that Marilyn attends, Maf listens to the medleyed voices of the new world's leading intellectuals – Edmund Wilson is there, "like a grand and busy bumble bee" – and what he hears is the sound of "old Europe boiled down to its modern sap, the sons and daughters of immigrants claiming America's newness for themselves". Maf the canine savant is a shrewd observer of the modern age and of the American century, a veritable Tocqueville for our times: "It has never been easy for us Trotskyists to face, but it was America, dear, golden, childish America, that joined the narrative of personal ambition to the myth of a common consciousness, making a hymn, oh yes, to the future, the spirit, and the rolling land. It was all about hope."
John Banville's The Infinities is published by Picador.