In the early 1930s, whist researching the life of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Virginia Woolf wrote Flush. It was an attempt to get closer to her enigmatic subject by viewing Browning through the eyes of her cocker spaniel. Whilst Woolf viewed Flush as light relief – a distraction from The Waves (which she was working on at the same time) – it was an instant success and sold more copies than any of her better-known novels during her lifetime.
O’Hagan draws our attention to this previous incarnation of Canis domesticus in the canon by having his hero, a Maltese terrier – full name Mafia Honey – living at Charleston with Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant when the novel opens. From this artistic background, Maf is sent to Los Angeles (within the “existential vacuum” of the hold of a Pan-Am flight) where he is acquired by Frank Sinatra, who then gifts him to Marilyn Monroe. Maf accompanies Marilyn during the last years of her doomed life, providing us with a dog’s-eye-view of one of the great cultural icons of the twentieth century.
Glenn David Gold’s Sunnyside left me cold because it was a novel that so depended on the reader sharing the author’s fetishised view of his subject. Maf the Dog risks straying into the same territory. O’Hagan has already written with great poignancy about Marilyn in his collected essays The Atlantic Ocean, and the Marilyn in the novel shimmers in and out of view, never quite coalescing into a fully formed character. She is eclipsed by the bitchy brilliance of her dog.
But maybe this is the point. Mine is a generation that has never quite got Marilyn. Candle in the Wind is about Princess Diana for us. We don’t do girls in black and white. I know well the frisson that passed over my father’s features whenever Some Like it Hot appeared in the Radio Times; but Marilyn’s figure, her coquettish pout: these feel like an anachronism to Generation Y or whatever they’re calling us now. The fact that O’Hagan’s novel manages to enthral whilst not quite grasping the elusive personality of his subject speaks to the marvellous creation that is Maf.
Paul Auster’s attempt at presenting the world through the eyes of man’s best friend, Timbuktu, was notable in that it made no attempt to anthropomorphise the hero, Mr. Bones. Maf the Dog goes in entirely the other direction. Not only is Maf given a human voice, he is thoroughly civilized. Dogs in the bizarre parallel world that O’Hagan has created are supreme aesthetes, moving with ease through the high cultural milieu that Marilyn inhabited towards the end of her life. Cats, we are told, speak exclusively in poetry (which reminded me of the old joke If cats could speak, they wouldn’t). In one of the many footnotes with which Maf peppers his text, he reminds us that Kafka had said “All knowledge – the totality of all questions and answers – is contained in the dog”. Maf, whose erudition is both deep and diverse, particularly regarding literary modernism, seems to represent the witty sophisticate that Marilyn strained to be in her later years.
Any Cop?: The Booker judges showed that they have no fear of comic prose in longlisting Howard Jacobson’s The Finkler Question. I can just about see why they didn’t go for Maf the Dog. It is a silly book, just as P.G. Wodehouse was silly, just as Woody Allen at his best is silly. It is a shame, though, as despite (or perhaps because of) this silliness, Maf the Dog is a wonderful romp of a novel. It manages to create a realistic alternative world in the fashion of the best science fiction, and provides a unique and witty perspective on Marilyn (and particularly on her literary pretentions). I hope that, following the opposite path to Woolf’s Flush, Maf the Dog will over time recognized as the masterpiece it most certainly is.
 My favourite reads: “Marmosets are known for their patriotism”.