In 1999, the Belgian artist Francis Alÿs started a photographic series entitled Sleepers. The images documented people lying on the footpaths of Mexico City; in each case the camera was positioned at ground level. I saw this artwork exhibited as part of his solo show in the Tate Modern in the summer of 2010. The exhibition catalogue included a quote from the artist in reference to Sleepers which has always stayed with me.
‘What gives this series its human quality,‘ he said, ‘is the fact that there are dogs in it.‘
I am a Dog Person. Whether I like it or not, this is the only thing my neighbours know about me. They’ve no idea what I do inside my house all day and every time I leave it I’ve a dog lead in either hand, or am myself wearing their leads while the dogs dawdle a few paces ahead or behind. What my neighbours don’t know is that I’m of a lesser spotted species of canine enthusiast; my preference is for mongrels. Mine are one big, one small, both rescued from tragic backgrounds, both poorly behaved in their own particular ways. Big is afraid of people; Small bites them. Big rolls in shit; Small eats it. What my neighbours don’t know is that I can’t stand the sight of their coiffed and coddled trophy pets, their cat-sized Yorkshire terriers and flaxen-coated labradoodles, their Marleys and Lassies and Old Yellers.
A couple of months before the publication of my first novel, a well-meaning friend said to me, ‘Let’s hope it doesn’t get pigeonholed as a Dog Book…’ ‘Uh oh,’ I thought, presuming he meant to suggest that this would be a bad thing. And so I started pursuing fiction with prominent canine characters, novels and short stories mostly. I wanted to know a little more of this tradition I have unwittingly continued; I wanted to hunt down literary dogs which serve purposes other than the purely sentimental.
It was the German philosopher, Immanuel Kant, who famously said, ‘We can judge the heart of a man by his treatment of animals‘. In the spirit of Kant, most literary dogs are positioned to reflect something essential in the souls of their human counterparts. In Chekov’s ‘The Lady with the Little Dog‘, Anna Sergeyevna is a pretty woman of delicate disposition, her pet a white Pomeranian. In Oliver Twist, the notorious Bill Sikes is master of a grisly, scar faced English Bull Terrier. Mr Bones, the dog protagonist of Paul Auster’s Timbuktu is ‘part collie, part Labrador, part spaniel, part canine puzzle‘. Following the death of his life-long guide and master, Mr Bones strikes out alone in search of a kindly new owner. As he ambles the streets, every person he meets is portrayed under the terms of their treatment of the old dog with ‘burrs protruding from his ragged coat, bad smells emanating from his mouth, and a perpetual bloodshot sadness lurking in his eyes‘.
Timbuktu ends with a game of ‘dodge-the-car’. It’s a plucky book, but I couldn’t quite figure out whether it was supposed to be funny or profound, or neither, or both. I found myself caring about Mr Bones and wanting him to shut up both at once.
Jack London was my kind of Dog Person; he didn’t dare rose-tint the base preoccupations of his beast characters, instead celebrating their beast qualities over and above their propensity to be humanlike. ‘There were the eaters and the eaten,‘ he writes in White Fang, ‘the law was: EAT OR BE EATEN.‘ Both Call of the Wild and White Fang are based on the author’s experiences during the Klondike Gold Rush of the 1890s. They go right back to the wild, to the wolf pack from whence all Yorkies and labradoodles circuitously descended. London’s sled dogs are witnesses to a rich history of cruelty from animal to animal as well as from man to animal and man to man, yet his novels are more than anything about adjustability: the tremendous capacity of ‘man’s best friend’ to integrate himself into our better sheltered and food-stocked society.
White Fang’s life, for example, starts in a draughty cave and ends in ‘a deep porched, many-windowed house in San Francisco.‘ Clever old White Fang.
In the short story ‘A Mean Utility‘ by Craig Davidson, meanwhile, the dogs are bred for fighting and the people who encourage them to violently slaughter one another in the ring convince themselves that they are doing so not for money or show or glory, but in the dogs’ own interests, as an exercise in allowing them to express their inner beasts.
In 1925, Mikhail Bulgakov stretched the subject of canine adjustability to its extreme. Because the Russian playwright and author had already published a number of satirical pieces criticising his Soviet homeland, he was the subject of much censor, and the The Heart of a Dog wasn’t published until 1968, almost thirty years after his death. The novel tells the story of Sharik, a stray mongrel found cowering in a doorway by a distinguished professor of experimental medicine. The description of the wintry streets of Moscow, corner shops with sawdust floors and the smell of onion soup, is as rich as the rest of the novel is bizarre.
By means of a horsemeat sausage, the professor lures the stray back to his apartment and proceeds to fatten him up. Just as Sharik dares to believe all his dog dreams have finally come true, the professor puts him to sleep and saws his skull open. A human pituitary gland and testicles are transplanted into the dog, who barely survives, and then, as he slowly recovers, transforms into a chaotic, grotesque man-animal hybrid. This is certainly not a book about a dog, but one in which the dog is used to terrific effect. Here is what happens when the natural order of things is reversed, Bulgakov was very probably saying. Sharik surely represents the sort of monster who adapted well to Soviet society.
And set in Communist Hungary in the aftermath of the Second World War, Niki: The Story of a Dog by Tibor Déry follows the punishing fortunes of the Ansca family. Mr Ansca is an engineer who falls foul of the authorities; when he is sent to prison, his wife and fox terrier are forced to struggle on alone. In common with Bulgakov, Déry portrays the surreptitious way in which politics can destroy life after life. But in contrast to The Heart of a Dog, Niki is an elegant portrait of dog nature, perfectly capturing the terrier’s range of sheer emotion, from abject despair to oblivious joy in the tiniest, stupidest of things. When circumstances appear unbearable, Mrs Ancsa is soothed by Niki’s simplicity and sincerity.
Their story underscores how comprehensively the human species complicate life.
But nowhere better is dog nature described than in these lines from the 2006 novel Julius Winsome by Gerard Donovan: ‘he was a dog run through with happiness, for they lead short lives and have an extra sense of each passing moment‘. Though the animal in question, Hobbes, is shot on the first page, everything which follows stems from the event of his murder. This was the Dog Book which, for me, came closest to explaining the incredible strength of the relationship between man and mutt. Inconsolable after the loss of his only friend, Winsome is driven slowly mad by grief. He thinks he can hear scratching at the door during the night and checks the grave over and over lest Hobbes has dug himself back up again. Then he launches a bloody, aimless campaign of revenge. The crime against Hobbes is, to Winsome, so terribly unjust because his dog was an innocent, as all animals are. (In Niki, Déry writes ‘…an animal’s dumbness, making it incapable of pleading for itself, is a more penetrating weapon than the most irresistible arguments.‘)
All animals are fundamentally innocent because they lack the ability to reason. They cannot envision things which do not exist, events which have not yet happened, and so by extension, cannot be held unreservedly responsible for their actions. Even the pre-eminent evil dog character, Stephen’s King’s eponymous Cujo, was bitten by a rabid bat, transformed into a rampaging lunatic against his will.
The most ingenious of the literary dogs are those drawn by authors who have used the clean slate of animal consciousness to examine our curious world afresh. From an uncontaminated dog’s-eye view, it makes perfect sense that human behaviour as well as the set up of our society appears ridiculous, and no better perspective from which to inspect this than that of a dog. Of all animals throughout history, they’re the ones to have most successfully wheedled their way into our homes and affections whilst also retaining a certain wildness; lying on the hearth rug one moment, barrelling through undergrowth the next.
The finest I could find, the most unexpected and ingenious of all talking canines is from Kafka’s short story ‘Investigations of a Dog‘. The narrator is simultaneously a mutt and a philosopher, fixating on titbits and agonising over the limitations of his species all at once. The story comprises his intellectual efforts to rise above his fellows, above himself, not so much in order to become humanlike but to validate his existence as a dog. Like all the best protagonists, Kafka’s dog is a disillusioned outsider, one amongst the perpetually dissatisfied. He feels alone with such intensity as only human intelligence is ordinarily capable of. Unlike the other dogs, he attempts to reason. But he fails to comprehend and refuses to guilelessly accept why things are as they are, and why they must do as they must: ‘Do you understand why we must?‘ he asks a hound who sings a dog song without even parting his jaws, as though automated.
‘No,‘ replies the hound, and of course he doesn’t, no more than any human ever can.
I wanted to tether the Dog Books together somehow, to find more than one obvious thread running through all of them, but this was harder than I’d hoped. In the same way that there are different species of Dog Person, there are also different species of literary dog. In the shadow of the sentimental ones, there’s a whole pack of exquisite mongrels. And it would be impossible to squeeze them all into one pigeonhole together; it would be pandemonium.
As for my own Dog Book, I know that I ended up writing from the point of view of a man speaking to his dog simply because I spend significantly more time with animals than I do with people; Big and Small are the dual protagonists in my life, and as with Alÿs‘s artwork, they insinuate themselves into my writing as a matter of course. Speaking to a creature who can never understand is quite a different sort of speaking: less self-conscious and prepossessing, more colourful and weaving. And this was what interested me as I wrote, what propelled me through to the epilogue.