Dogs and People
WHETHER you love dogs or fine writing, and certainly if you love both, it will be entertaining to compare the canine portraits which have been done by two of our leading novelists this year.
FEW things in life are better for the soul than the love of a dog. The one who does not know this is unfortunate. I should hesitate to ask a man if be has never owned a dog. If it were true, I should be reluctant to have any serious dealings with him. Many people have written well and sympathetically about the dog. The fondness for several shepherds I owned as a boy was made richer by A Dog of Flanders and two books by Jack London. The charm of Axel Munthe’s last pages is deepest when he is figuring the portraits of his animal friends. Of the gentle, inquiring philosophy over the canine world, and of its superb relationship to mail, too much cannot be set down.
Something permanent and vital has been done in Mazo de la Roche’sPortrait of a Dots (Little, Brown and Atlantic Monthly Press, $2.50). In ultimate concern with pure understanding, her book has probably not been surpassed. Few readers will last through it unmoved. In its small deliberateway, this portrait is the work of a master. It is easy to believe that the subject remains strictly autobiographical. It is especially easy to infer that the book was not completed without that pain which attends every honest surrender of an experience of self. If we loved them, it is hard to speak of the dead. I have seen, inside the walls of the old castle at Edinburgh, a hidden graveyard of soldiers’ pets. The guide will tell you the story of one of the dogs buried there who was largely responsible for his master’s winning the Victoria Cross during the Boer War. The present story is not less heroic, not less real.
It begins and ends on Christmas; and although we are given only a taste of them, the years between are measurable and full. Adventure, to be interesting, may still be small. And small adventure, with adequate telling, may seem quite large. Observation and understanding have crowned this book. A dog lives again: his play, his temper, his love, his ‘grand little body,’his spirit which transcended the blindness of his last days, his sex— which was feminine. ‘It was night when you came out, exhausted but happy, your sides almost touching with hunger, You on came out in a rowdy, headlong gallop straight to the door and barked to have it opened. With me I carried a brown bowl of bread and milk and set it on the grass before you. It was new milk and you put your muzzle into it, eagerly drawing up the bits of bread with a convulsive movement of your sides. You did not pause until the bowl was emptied, then you licked round and round it for every possible crumb, moving it along the grass before you. It turned upside down and you licked the bottom, then looked up at me with an air of triumph as though you knew what life meant — a hunt, great perils met and overcome, hunger, repletion, and rest. You raised yourself feebly on your hind legs and lifted two wobbly forepaws to be taken up.’
A second, and less successful, book is Thomas Mann’sA Man and His Dog (Knopf, $2.00), translated from the German by Herman George Scheffauer. This is the kaleidoscopic story of Bashan (a he-dog, by the way); more psychological, but less poignant, than the Canadian’s. The whole suffers somewhat from translation, and is impressively tenuous throughout. A discursive author, Mann has found a place for locale adequate to a pack of Bashans. Where Miss de la Roche is shy in regard to ‘house-corners, impregnated with the essences of old adventures,’Mr. Mann is not. I should conclude that one is a portrait, and the other, with a German’s eagerness for Quellen, remains somewhat in the nature of an introductory study to the intelligent behavior of a dog.