Simon Garfield Shares His Favourite Novels About Dogs
From the history of the world's first synthetic dye in Mauve to sharing the stories behind different fonts in Just My Type, Simon Garfield has explored an incredible variety of topics in his betselling non-fiction. In his new book, Dog’s Best Friend, Garfield turns his attention to the age-old and very special relationship between humans and dogs. In this exclusive piece, he shares his favourite novels that feature unforgettable canine characters.
The literature of dogs is as varied, complicated and (usually) rewarding as dogs themselves, and we’ve been writing about our friends for almost as long as we’ve been living with them. And they’ve been writing about us, often with terrifying insight.
One of the chapters in Dog’s Best Friend is devoted to how we’ve portrayed dogs in books over the centuries. The story begins with Homer and his flea-ridden Argos, but soon moves to John Caius, whose Of English Dogges, the Diversities, the Names, the Natures and the Properties of 1576 was the first book devoted entirely to canines (Caius, the same man whose name adorns a Cambridge college, found three main types of dogges: a currish kind (bad-tempered and angry), a gentle kind (used for hunting), and a homely kind (‘apt for sundry necessary uses’).
Here are four novels and one children’s book that I loved revisiting when I was writing my own book. My selection could have included many others - those wild Jack London adventures; or Paul Auster’s Timbuktu with the wondrous Mr Bones; or The Friend by Sigrid Nunez (in which the narrator loses her lover but inherits Apollo, her lover’s Great Dane).
Dogs have other literary roles beyond inspiration though. In 1936 John Steinbeck wrote to his agent Elizabeth Otis that his Mexican setter puppy (whom he called Toby, like many of his dogs) had been left alone one evening and had ‘made confetti of about half my manuscript book’. The book was Of Mice and Men. ‘It sets me back,’ Steinbeck reported. ‘There was no other draft. I was pretty mad but the poor little fellow may have been acting critically.’
Compiling this list I’ve surprised myself, finding that most of these books end on a lamentable note. But all of them get to the soul of a dog, and to their loyal and vulnerable hearts.
Flush by Virginia Woolf
Woolf’s relationship with dogs was complex, full and earthy. One of her first published works was her obituary of her family dog Shag, whom she considered convivially bound for the finer things in life: ‘I can see him smoking a cigar at the bow window of his club,’ she wrote of Shag in a friend’s journal aged 22, ‘his legs extended comfortably, whilst he discusses the latest news on the Stock Exchange with a companion’.
Woolf used one of her later dogs as a - should we be surprised? - hot literary device. The dog, a mixed-breed called Grizzle, was fond of Vita Sackville-West, as of course was Virginia. ‘These shabby mongrels are always the most loving, warm-hearted creatures,’ Woolf wrote, anticipating a reunion with her lover. ‘Grizzle and Virginia will rush down to meet you – they will lick you all over.’ And Vita replied, ‘This will be my last letter. The next thing you know of me will be that I walk in and fondle Grizzle.’ (Leonard, the screens!)
Flush was Woolf’s ‘biography’ of Elizabeth Barrett’s cocker spaniel. A jeu d’esprit after writing The Waves, it’s a delightful account of a dog’s ability to transform a single life. Woolf uses Flush to write about the Barrett–Browning courtship, not least the couple’s elopement to Italy. And when Flush gets kidnapped from Wimpole Street to live in a dive in Whitechapel, it’s a smart way for the author to consider class divisions and social inequality (‘a Woolf in dog’s clothing’ as one critic observed.) But Flush has also been read as feminist allegory, a strong, searching figure in a teeming city, particularly happy when uncooped, roaming Oxford Street and elsewhere, alive to the world.
Go, Dog. Go! by P.D. Eastman
My childhood favourite, in which a needy posh Poodle and a bluff plain-talking mutt flirt and discuss fancy hats and cars. Both dogs end up at a massive dog party, so all is right with the world. This is a Beginner Book recommended as an engaging and funny read or read-along for little ones. But it’s a lot more too. It is mesmeric in the way of Dr Seuss, and the vivid, hallucinatory pictures will sear your adult brain.
The Life and Opinions of Maf the Dog, and of His Friend Marilyn Monroe by Andrew O’Hagan
How to know the real MM? Surely you would want to be carried around in her arms and sit in her lap. Writing as Monroe’s fluffy Maltese, O’Hagan conjures a world of celebrity and deep loneliness, and gets to all the parts humans could never reach. Arthur Miller does not come out of it entirely well.
The Last Family in England by Matt Haig
A literary Labrador’s view of dysfunctional domestic life, rather rude and always realistic. I’m a sucker for books written by dogs, especially if the author is as worldly and paws-to-the-floor as Prince. But woe betide you if you break the Labrador Pact. One for searching young adults and soppy older ones.
Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens
Dickens was a dog lover for most of his life. He owned dogs, he observed their remarkable healing power at a local hospital, and he featured them in his novels. But I also found one episode where he tried to borrow a gun to shoot dogs in a Bloomsbury square making so much noise that they were disturbing his work on Bleak House. In Oliver Twist poor old Bulls-eye emerges as an unforgettable victim of Victorian cruelty, and pity his fate to have such a terrible owner as Bill Sikes. Re-reading the depiction of their deaths made me want to hug my own dog a little more.
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