Thursday, 8 December 2011

Andrew O'Hagan's The life and opinions of Maf the dog and of his friend Marilyn Monroe

It was a dark and stormy night ... no, really, it was ... but nonetheless around 8 Minervans forded the hail, lightning and thunder to go to Kate's to discuss our November book, The life and opinions of Maf the dog and of his friend Marilyn Monroe, by Scottish writer, Andrew O'Hagan.

Why, asked a member to start proceedings, was it told by a dog? Couldn't it have been just as easily written as a third person story? Perhaps, others of us said, but the dog adds another perspective. And, in fact, O'Hagan suggests in the book that the animal world has it more together than the human of the species. At one point Maf talks of spouses, and how some can be competitive, can even want to destroy what they love. He suggests
Poor married people: perhaps they could learn something from dogs about how to settle the business of oneself before setting up shop with another.

There's a sense in fact that dogs are more moral, more sensible, that they can see the moral problems while humans get themselves tied up over such issues fame and celebrity. In a footnote, of which there are many ("a dog is bound to like footnotes. We spend our lives down here"), Maf tells us that dogs speaking of humans has a long tradition, starting in prose with Cervantes.

But, before I continue, a quick rundown of what is a pretty slim plot. Maf (short for Mafia Honey) is a Maltese Terrier who was given (in reality as well as in fiction) to Marilyn Monroe by Frank Sinatra. In the first few chapters Maf moves from Scotland, where he is born, to the home of Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant (of the Bloomsbury set), to the Los Angeles home of Natalie Woods’ parents, to Frank Sinatra to Marilyn. In the rest of the book we follow Maf as he lives with Marilyn Monroe, in New York and Los Angeles, in the last couple of years of her life.

Maf meets LOTS of people, moving as he does in the rarefied air of Hollywood and New York - and this brought out another criticism/comment. Some members felt the book was a little too clever or smart-alecky. There IS a good degree of name-dropping and if you don't know all the references (as I admit I didn't) then you're sure to miss something. Is this a flaw? Some felt it was, but we all agrees that O'Hagan's years of research resulted in the era being well described. And this was part of the theme or topic we thought, that is a description of the 1960s. The hope, in particular, with the election of John F Kennedy and the country being on the verge of the Civil Rights Movement. They were exciting times. At one point Marilyn and Maf take a tour to Ellis Island, the historical arrival point for many immigrants to America, and where the universal cry was "Let me start again".

Trotsky appears regularly in the novel, as he's Maf's hero. Maf seems to see him as an ideal man - a potential world leader, an interior decorator, and a literary critic. Towards the end is this:
In the society of the future, Trotsky wrote, all art would dissolve into life. That is how the world would know good philosophy had triumphed. No needs for dancers and painters and writers and actors. Everyone would become part of a great living mural of talent and harmony.

Oh yes!

We also talked a little about the humour, such as the various party scenes where Marilyn talks with the likes of Carson McCullers or the Trillings, or where Maf nips a literary critic he doesn't like. It's a pretty funny book and contains (of course it does) a discussion of tragedy versus comedy.

One of our members had done some research on O'Hagan and reported that when he was a teenager he saw Marilyn Monroe as representing what human beings can do with their lives. She became an exemplary life that spurred him on. Some, though, wondered whether he had idealised her. The book's ending, given that it's about the last couple of years of her life, was not the expected one - and a couple of members felt it was a somewhat schmaltzy movie-style ending.

By the end of the discussion, some of those who had not finished it and had been unsure whether they wanted to, felt that it might be worth keeping on going! What better assessment could there be of a good discussion ...