Marilyn Monroe has a strange hold over many people, myself included. She was the third female poster on my bedroom wall after Debbie Harry and, dating me very specifically, Nena of 99 Red Balloons fame. When I should have been studying for my standard grade exams I was reading two biographies instead. One was The Mutant King, David Dalton’s book on James Dean, and the other was Randall Riese and Neal Hitchen’s The Unabridged Marilyn. I was fascinated, and perhaps mildly obsessed, with these two screen icons who had died young and beautiful. Even after getting my predictably terrible results, and to this day, I don’t regret spending that time getting to know them.
Andrew O’Hagan is obviously similarly smitten with the myth of Marilyn. His novel The Life and Opinions of Maf the Dog and Marilyn Monroe looks at the final years of her life, beginning just after her split from Arthur Miller, through the eyes of her dog Maf (short for Mafia Honey. He was a present from Frank Sinatra, another icon who is a major character in the novel). This decision is a brave one, and one that could have backfired spectacularly. I am a huge fan of O’Hagan’s fiction, but I was wary about this book. It all sounded a bit ‘Disney’ to me. I should have known better. O’Hagan has written a novel that looks at the nature of celebrity, the human need to be loved, and respected, and which comments upon the absurdities that accompany being human beings.
The dogs in the novel are superior in almost every way to the humans. They are well read, philosophical and have a world weary view that is if not cynical about their ‘masters’, is at least brutal in its honesty. There is a fantastic scene where Maf is talking literature and philosophy with other dogs. It is reminiscent of Woody Allen as these intellectuals bandy talk of Proust, Aristotle and the theory that Toto is the central character in The Wizard of OZ. Actually, if you are a fan of Allen, particularly Annie Hall, Manhattan, Stardust Memories and Hannah and Her Sisters, then I think you’ll love this book. The novel has a similar mixture of intellectual enquiry and human failing and there is an easy sense of humour that I hadn’t expected from O’Hagan. This is his most charming work to date.
The human supporting cast include Sammy Davis JR, Nathalie Wood and her dog breeding mother, Lee Strasberg, Angie Dickinson and Carson McCullers. Both human and canine chat about Doestoevsky, Henry James and Sigmund Freud and consider the relationship between individuals, art and politics. The backdrop to the novel is the election success of John F. Kennedy and the hope that this brought to liberal America. But this is Maf’s book, and his story is as interesting as any of these more famous humans. His early life was among London’s Bloomsbury set where he sat at the feet of Virginia Wolf, Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant learning about philosophy, aesthetics and literature. He is the hero of the piece in the true meaning of the word, protecting his mistress with a loyalty that is ultimately heartbreaking. Maf is one of my favourite literary characters of recent years.
As is increasingly the case these days, the release of the novel was accompanied by this ‘trailer’. Take a gander:
Marilyn Monroe was not a great actress, even she would have admitted that, although she wanted to be. What she had was a presence and vulnerability that is difficult to pin down. Those who say her appeal was all about sex are mistaken. Her sex appeal was part of it, but there was also an apparent innocence that many mistook as a lack of intelligence. O’Hagan’s novel doesn’t play to the myth of ‘poor’ Marilyn, a weak woman who was destroyed by men and fame. He paints her as someone on a constant quest to better herself, to be respected rather than simply loved. This is not a sensationalist novel, but a respectful one that could only have been written by someone who has at least tried to understand Marilyn the person rather than the legend. Here’s a clip of Monroe as Sugar Kane in Some Like it Hot, to my mind the best film she was involved with:
The Life and Opinions of Maf the Dog and Marilyn Monroe is moving but never morose. Like much of Andrew O’Hagan’s fiction the novel uses a lot of fact, or at least accepted truths, to give the story credence. The author has dealt with the pressures of celebrity before in his 2003 novel Personality, a barely disguised biography of Scotland’s own Lena Zavoroni, a singer who couldn’t cope with the pressures of fame. I would say Personality is his weakest novel. It’s still a terrific read, but I got the feeling that the balance between fact and fiction was poorly judged. The Life and Opinions of Maf the Dog doesn’t fall into that trap, and it doesn’t jar when the fiction and biography meet. It is an odd book, but a very good one. This is refreshing as too often Scottish writers write in similar styles and forms and deal with familiar subject matter. And let’s face it, a little oddity never hurt anyone.