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Maf and Marilyn

June 20, 2011

Andrew O’Hagan, The Life and Opinions of Maf the Dog, and of his friend Marilyn Monroe.

Halfway through this book, Marilyn Monroe says, “The best way for me to find myself as a person is to prove to myself that I’m an actress.”

Her dog Maf is perplexed by this remark. Near the end of the book he complains, “Who were these people, who could invent life on the screen but couldn’t begin to live their own lives?”

These are rare moments for Maf, who most of the time is tolerant of Marilyn’s “panic about who she was,” and her search for the “large recognition that would change everything.”

Maf is the white Maltese who was given to Marilyn by Frank Sinatra shortly after Kennedy won the 1960 Presidential election. She called her new companion Mafia Honey. In this book he tells his own story as a first person narrator, although, because dogs are exquisitely sensitive and can pick up human thoughts, he is almost an omniscient narrator.

It sounds like a ridiculous premise for a novel but the good news is that, in the hands of Andrew O’Hagan, this trickery works. I could believe in Maf and grew fond of both him and Marilyn, enjoying the comedy but also feeling the sadness of Marilyn’s life.

The story is told in a series of wonderful scenes, including Frank Sinatra in a scary tantrum; Marilyn in psychoanalysis, with Maf on her lap discussing the analyst’s counter-transference with a spider who is walking across the desk; a sparkling conversation about the nature of fame between Marilyn and the President; and a party packed with New York intellectuals, where Maf bites both Lillian Hellman for bagging his hero Trotsky and Edmund Wilson for being nasty about the British.

These and other scenes make up the picaresque tale of Maf’s journey with Marilyn. Maf sees himself as a picaroon “set for foreign adventures and ordained to tell the story.” This idea is made explicit several times. At the literary party, critic Irving Howe discusses The Brothers Karamazov with Marilyn, who has been reading it. Howe likens Dostoyevsky to Dickens, who “sets in motion a line of episodes: the picaro is defined by his energy and his voice, and he moves from adventure to adventure, each cluster of incidents bringing him into relation with a new set of characters.”

This is a precise description of O’Hagan’s novel. But woven through this procession of episodes is the narrative of Marilyn’s search for meaning, her longing for self-improvement, her quest to find herself. It is almost the episodic and the narrative in one book (more about episodic/narrative distinction here.)

Maf is happy being in the moments of the episodic, and is not troubled by the questions that preoccupy his fated companion. (He calls her blue, worried eyes her preoccupeyes.) After all, dogs “have none of that fatal human weakness for making large distinctions between what is real and what is imagined. It is all the same, more or less.”

Marilyn “had more natural comedy to her than anybody I would ever know,” but wanted to be taken seriously, wanted to learn to take herself seriously. She tells JFK about a critic writing of the “the habitual music of Scott Fitzgerald’s seriousness” and says, “That’s the thing I most wish someone had written about me.”

This is a book that sparkles. It sent me scrabbling through Wikipedia and Google to find out more about Marilyn’s life, the history of the early sixties, and the remarkable cast of famous people around Marilyn – actors, directors, writers, intellectuals, politicians and psychoanalysts. This extracurricular research added to the pleasure of reading the novel.

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