Alan Cliffe

In Andrew O’Hagan’s The Life and Opinions of Maf the Dog, and of His Friend Marilyn Monroe, we are told of a late-night epiphany. The title characters are back home after a party with New York literati when our narrator says, “Listening to her thoughts, I was in love. She formed everything about me, including my sense of the novel.” Said narrator’s sense of the novel, like his overall sense of things human, is subtle and well informed, even though he’s a dog. Or maybe because he’s a dog.

Maf, a gift to Monroe from Frank Sinatra, informs us that dogs have a large talent for absorbing the knowledge and thoughts of humans. His erudition comes out of a natural canine attunement to the human; what is unexpected here is the scope of that attunement. He speaks with unaffected ease of such thinkers as Plutarch and Adorno while his owner works her way through The Brothers Karamazov. Maf lays the ultimate blame for the stupid, bullying arrogance of the men around Sinatra on Descartes, with his clueless denial of animal intelligence. This Maltese has as strong a sense of intellectual genealogy as any character I’ve recently encountered in fiction, or, indeed, in life.

Maf’s sophistication detracts nothing from his affection for his owner; indeed, it strengthens it. He describes Monroe as “terrific” to some dogs he meets, and he is her best companion in the last 20 months of her life. This is a time of divorce, psychoanalysis, affairs with the powerful and the thuggish, and desperate insecurity over her acting ability. Through it all, Maf is there for her. When her story is near its end, a bittersweet mood in his company may be about the best mood she can have, and it has its pleasures.

Monroe encounters many species of power—political, intellectual, showbiz, Mafia. None are very helpful to her as her own fragile self ebbs toward its ultimate powerlessness. It is a fitting contrast, and something like a posthumous gift to her, that this tale is told in the voice of a creature whose powers, if unsuspected even by Monroe, are of an extraordinary empathy and wisdom.

The last we hear from Maf, he is in Monroe’s bed, alone, breathing “the secrets of her pillow,” the kind a smart dog may inhale.

In Andrew O’Hagan’s The Life and Opinions of Maf the Dog, and of His Friend Marilyn Monroe, we are told of a late-night epiphany. The title characters are back home after a party with New York literati when our narrator says, “Listening to her thoughts, I was in love. She formed everything about me, including my sense […]

In 1587, Mary Stuart, aka Mary, Queen of Scots, lost her head on the orders of Queen Elizabeth I. Perhaps inspired by the fate of her namesake, author Julia Stuart has given us The Tower, the Zoo, and the Tortoise, the story of a place where heads used to roll.

As Stuart imagines the Tower of London in the time of the current Queen Elizabeth, some things have changed; today’s Tower residents sometimes have the chance to repair incomplete and damaged lives, and even dismemberment is not always fatal. As per a whim of the Queen, the animals she has received as state gifts, hitherto kept at the London Zoo, are transferred to the Tower and displayed. Chaos ensues. Balthazar Jones, a Beefeater guide of little zoological talent, is put in charge of the royal menagerie, much to his chagrin and the amusement of his fellow Tower residents. His relationship with his wife, Hebe, becomes increasingly strained. And the primal instincts of the Tower residents, a vibrant crew, begin to run wild. Sometimes passion is the hardest thing to tame.

Stuart’s tale is a comedy of realms—her Tower, her England—where people and things are out of place. Modern people and zoo animals live in a medieval fortress. Hebe’s job is to reunite loss-prone subway riders with their property; this includes such things as funerary ashes and gigolos’ diaries.

Stuart’s humor, and her pathos, are dryly English; people say things like “I quite understand, I’m useless with a saw myself” when discussing dismemberment. They endure loss and displacement with a stiff upper lip, but go slightly mad in the process. Sometimes it takes an escaped Komodo dragon for people to begin sorting out their lives. The menagerie’s coming eventually brings on changes, mostly for the better, in a number of lives. The animals and people in this story end up about where they need to be. Their travels there make for a ripping and very amusing tale. 

In 1587, Mary Stuart, aka Mary, Queen of Scots, lost her head on the orders of Queen Elizabeth I. Perhaps inspired by the fate of her namesake, author Julia Stuart has given us The Tower, the Zoo, and the Tortoise, the story of a place where heads used to roll. As Stuart imagines the Tower […]

Adam Foulds’ second novel is well named. The Quickening Maze is set mostly in an early Victorian English asylum, a place whose residents’ lives are mazelike in their complexity, even those who are free to leave.

John Clare, a poet destined for a fair-to-middling place in the English canon, has been committed to the asylum, a rural facility run by one Matthew Allen. Clare, whose literary career has stalled, is fixated on a lost childhood sweetheart whom he thinks is his wife. Sometimes he’s lucid; sometimes he thinks himself a famous prizefighter, Lord Byron or Robinson Crusoe. Young Alfred Tennyson is also on the scene, there to be near his brother, an inmate. The two poets’ paths intersect with those of Allen, several of Allen’s daughters and sundry other characters. Clare is eventually freed from the asylum, but not from his illness; Allen is brought low by ill-advised business dealings; Tennyson loses money in said dealings, but ends up, of course, on his way to becoming Lord Tennyson and poet laureate.

The book is divided into seasonal sections, which, along with its rural setting, suggests cyclical time and pastoral life. Some of the characters—certainly Clare—may prefer such a life. But Foulds’ England is becoming an urban and mechanized place. Life there may look like a road to be traveled, but it’s becoming a one-way street, and chances lost do not come again. Allen tries to become an industrialist, which is his ruin. His daughter Hannah fails to win over Tennyson, and ends up with an uninteresting but successful businessman, who, unlike Allen, has grasped such matters as mass production.

Clare is a man and poet of the common lands, where people travel and forage as they please. Unfortunately for Clare and his gypsy friends, the commons are disappearing. Early on, from inside young Clare’s mind, Foulds speaks of nature in language rivaling Clare’s own poetry; Clare’s relation to nature here is intuitive, even magical. But as the commons give way to such things as railroads, intuition gives way to madness. Mad Clare may be, but Foulds allows him his sensibility and an odd intelligence. Foulds writes from inside the minds of his characters, sane and otherwise, with as much empathy and respect as anyone this side of Dostoyevsky.

Clare ends up on the road, lost then found. His road is mazelike. His journey is amazing.

Adam Foulds’ second novel is well named. The Quickening Maze is set mostly in an early Victorian English asylum, a place whose residents’ lives are mazelike in their complexity, even those who are free to leave. John Clare, a poet destined for a fair-to-middling place in the English canon, has been committed to the asylum, […]

Sign Up

Stay on top of new releases: Sign up for our enewsletters to receive reading recommendations in your favorite genres.

Trending Features

Sign Up

Sign up to receive reading recommendations in your favorite genres!