(Reviews of Julian Corkle is a Filthy Liar by DJ Connell and The Life and Opinions of Maf the Dog and of his friend Marilyn Monroe by Andrew O’Hagan)
What a wonderful week has just passed! Reading Julian Corkle is a Filthy Liar by DJ Connell was delightful enough and then another book arrived courtesy of Australia Post, with the most impossible-to-resist title: The Life and Opinions of Maf the Dog, and of his friend Marilyn Monroe. Of course, I had to immediately pick it up and start reading it. This book, by Andrew O’Hagan, fulfilled and then exceeded all expectations. I have to say, dear Reader, it is, without doubt, one of the funniest I have read in years.
But first to Julian Corkle, who starts his life in Ulverston, a small town on Tasmania’s north coast, and suspects quite early in his life that he is a little different from the mainstream. He must learn to survive the misguided intentions of a foolish, homophobic father; avoid, whenever he can, his sadistic older brother; and accommodate his mostly indifferent sister, Carmel, who has a buzz cut, can punch harder than any man, and plays cricket for Australia. Julian’s mother, however, immediately recognizes his star quality and supports him in his aspirations to a show-biz career. She also allows him to express his innate pizzazz by doing her hair and make-up for her.
That Julian Corkle is a filthy liar is probably a filthy lie. Life can be so difficult – even dangerous – for him, that he simply finds himself often forced to be a little circumspect with the truth. In order to survive, Julian must constantly re-invent himself, and this he does with a deliciously subversive wit.
When I tried to find out who DJ Connell is, going to the HarperCollins website, I learned very little. In the front of the book is a paragraph about the author who was born in New Zealand and is described as ‘a British national’. No photograph available. Then the website of one Graham Beattie, an ex-publisher and bookseller, reveals that DJ Connell is a lady novelist, from Hamilton. So the question is: Why did she choose Ulverston and then Hobart to set this story? Perhaps as the last bastion of homophobia in the world? We wish!
The Life and Opinions of Maf the Dog, and of his friend Marilyn Monroe by Andrew O’Hagan; publisher: faber and faber.
In 1960, Frank Sinatra gave Marilyn Monroe a Maltese terrier. To the crooner’s consternation, she decided to call him ‘Mafia Honey’. Frank claimed she read too many newspapers, believing all that stuff about his mob connections, but the name stuck and the little dog stayed by Marilyn’s side, pretty much until her death in 1962.
Though all the dogs in this terrier’s tale are extremely well-read and profoundly philosophic by nature, Maf has the good fortune, around 1960, of finding himself amongst the Bloomsbury set. His first owners work for the artists Vanessa Bell (sister of Virginia Woolf) and Duncan Grant who “shared a determination to dream the world they lived in and fashion it into permanence.” Cyril Connolly was a neighbour, but it was probably Christopher Isherwood – via Stephen Spender – who alerted Mrs Gurdin (a notable Russian émigré and the mother of Natalie Wood) that the Bells’ housekeepers bought and sold pedigree puppies.
‘Nothing is lost on the littlest of all dogs’, explains Maf, (who is quick to point out that his breed, the Maltese terrier, is the most aristocratic of the canine clan.) His comments in the body of the text, and also as footnotes, shine much light on the characters and habits of all around him. For instance, he describes his breeder, Paul Duff, as ‘a complex man with a love of whiskey and a passion for the early European novel’, then adds as a footnote to this statement: ‘*He liked novelists who got out of doors. Defoe, Smollett, Orwell. He said novelists who didn’t like adventure should take up knitting.’
As someone who normally dislikes distracting footnotes, preferring to see important information contained in the body of the text, I must say that I quickly became addicted to O’Hagan’s. Most of them offer jokes or humorous observations of literary or artistic distinction. For instance, the comment on the habit of Mrs Higgens (Vanessa Bell’s cook) of keeping a diary:
‘*As a diarist, Mrs Higgens was a minimalist. Feb. 5: “Bought cream buns with real cream.”’
When it is decided that Maf will go to America with Mrs Gurdin, Mrs Higgens places the collar once belonging to Pinker around his neck ‘with the great ceremony that English people reserve for moments of minor sentiment.’ Pinker was once Virginia Woolf’s dog. At Mrs Gurdin’s home, Maf meets her husband Nick (a drunk who fears a Communist take-over) and her daughter, Natalie Wood. Enter Frank Sinatra. Maf describes him as a person who tried to appear incredibly cool, but was ‘actually the least relaxed person I ever met.’ In the footnote he adds that Natalie and Frank were trapped in some perpetually infantilized state. ‘They would never grow up. Sinatra was eternally Private Maggio, the weedy and needy antagonist in From Here to Eternity. And Natalie would always be the girl who wanted to be cool in Rebel Without A Cause.’ In another footnote, Maf compares Natalie’s daddy Nick with ‘the great film director, John Ford, who, every time he had a drop of the Irish, especially when in close proximity to galloping hooves and discharging firearms, would turn into a right-wing lunatic.’
Nick fears that Jack Kennedy, one of the Presidential candidates, has pinko tendencies, probably because Kennedy appears to support what in 1960 was considered to be America’s new liberalism with its civil rights and its movement towards the Partial Test Ban Treaty (of 1963) which would flower as Detente in the 1970s. But at this time in history, Kennedy was only a popular contender. There was also the matter of the space race. Maf reminds us that Kruschev would give one of two pups, Belka and Strelka, who were sent by the Russians up into space and returned safely to Earth, to John Kennedy’s daughter, Caroline.
As I have mentioned, Sinatra is a little put out by Marilyn’s name for his gift, suggesting she give up reading newspapers. He has long been annoyed by the innuendo of this medium, objecting to words like Mr Sinatra’s ‘connections’ or Mr Sinatra’s ‘associations’ and threatening to feed the children of the sources of these stories-with-such-volatile-nouns-embedded-in-them, to the piranhas at Oceanworld.
Mafia Honey, was, of course, a real historical figure. His license and some photographs of him were sold at auction with Marilyn’s other personal effects after her death in 1962. O’Hagan apparently saw these photographs and felt compelled to write Maf’s history with the woman who became for many people, a sex goddess.
O’Hagan uses Maf’s privileged position to comment on the kitsch and craziness of Hollywood and part of the brief, tumultuous reign of John Kennedy, and to provide insights into the life of a woman who was so much more than her image-makers allowed her to be.
Andrew O’Hagan was born in Glasgow in 1968. Since then, he has won a slew of literary accolades including the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Fiction for Personality (2003) and the E.M. Forster Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. In January 2003, Granta also named him as one of the ‘Best of Young British Novelists’. Since I cracked up all the way through this book, I’m simply hanging out for his next.