Tuesday, September 15, 2009

NYRB Challenge #2 & #3: In which I go to the dogs (and the movies too!). . .

Let me start by saying that I've never been a dog owner. I classify dogs in the same category as cars and kids; I can understand the appeal, but for me - too much work and worry. This hasn't stopped me though from thoroughly enjoying these two short canine tales, both of which were published in 1956 but couldn't be more different in style and content.

My NYRB Challenge Book #2 is the very funny memoir My Dog Tulip by British writer J.R. Ackerley, which I picked up both because I had a ticket to the new animated film screening at TIFF, and I couldn't help laughing at the E.M. Forster quote on the back: "It is the biography of the New Dog - a creature comparable to the New Woman that disturbed our grandparents."
Tulip is a young Alsatian that Ackerley acquires when he is in his fifties and she completely changes his life, despite the fact that she is badly behaved, barks at everyone, and has very unpredictable bowel movements (the chapter simply titled "Liquids and Solids" is Ackerley's comic account of dealing with the latter in this era before "poop and scoop" laws). However the two absolutely adore each other and the reader can't help but smile at Ackerley's determination to make Tulip happy by ensuring that she experiences all that a female dog should - namely sex and pregnancy. Two thirds of the book follows his many frustrating attempts to find Tulip a proper mate; who knew how complicated canine sex was? But the deed is finally done and there is a very touching scene when Ackerley watches throughout the night as Tulip gives birth to her puppies (though you'll be shocked by what happens next). Even if you are completely indifferent to dogs, the strength of this memoir is definitely the writing which will charm and surprise with its candor whether Ackerley is describing the inexhaustible and unsuccessful wooing on the part of Tulip's suitors - many of them too small to do anything about it - to the heartfelt gratitude he feels when they both relieve themselves in the park and Tulip makes a point of sprinkling her own urine on his: "I feel that if ever there were differences between us, they are washed out now," he writes. "I feel a proper dog." (Must be a guy thing). He is also very good at describing dog owners to comic effect. My favourite quote shows the strong and beautiful bond between the two: "Tulip never let me down. She is nothing if not consistent. She knows where to draw the line, and it is always in the same place, a circle around us both."
I saw the animated film of My Dog Tulip last night. It's directed by Paul Fierlinger who is also the main animator along with his wife Sandra Fierlinger. He draws the images and she paints them. He was at the screening and in the Q & A that followed he explained how the images were created. The entire movie was hand-drawn but using a computer software program that allows the process to be paperless. He draws the frames on a computer slate and later the colours are painted in. It still took two and a half years to complete. I enjoyed the film; the style of animation (which is far more sophisticated than it initially looks - lots of interesting things happening the in the background) works well with the basic simplicity of the story, and Fierlinger has stayed very close to the book (95% of the narration is taken directly from it). Christopher Plummer is a marvellous choice for the voice of the crusty and cynical Ackerley. There are many sexual references and jokes, but these are rendered in an non-explicit, almost cartoonish style - while not a children's film specifically, I don't think it will unduly disturb any kid 12 and up. You can see clips and the trailer at the movie's website located here.

Niki: The Story of a Dog by Tibor Déry, translated by George Szirtes, is a very different breed of dog story and #3 in my NYRB Challenge, picked up because I was fascinated that it was published in the same year as the Ackerley and seemed an ideal pairing. This is a novel set in Hungary after the Second World War, amidst the fears and violence of ongoing political unrest. Niki is a scrappy little terrier who is adopted by the Ancsas, a couple who have lost their son in the war. When the husband gets a new job in Budapest, they move from the country to a tiny flat and things start to fall apart. Niki is not an urban dog and has a hard time adjusting. Mr. Ansca gets shifted to a number of jobs for which he is highly overqualified and then one day he doesn't come home and no one knows why. His wife is left to fend for herself and with little money, she has to question whether or not to keep the dog which is now viewed by a suspicious and hungry society as a luxury item. But Niki is the only thing she has left, and so she strives to provide as much love and happiness as she can for the inconsolable dog who is missing her master. This sad novel explores the difficulties of true communication between dogs and humans. This incomprehensibility is played for laughs in My Dog Tulip, but here, Niki stands in for the Hungarian citizens - they too can't understand why people suddenly disappear with no explanation given or how long this state of suspension will last. It takes a physical and mental toll:
The bitch neither cried, nor argued, nor protested, nor demanded explanations; and it was impossible to convince her. She simply resigned herself to her fate in silence. This silence, which resembled the ultimate silence of a prisoner broken in body and soul, was, for Mrs. Ancsa, like a violent protest at the nature of existence itself.
I was oddly touched by both books which of course were as much about the owners of Tulip and Niki, and their own quests to fight loneliness and connect emotionally with the world. Dog lovers will find their own personal touchstones within these pages, but any rendition of a relationship has a universal appeal and relevance to all humans - even those not attached to a leash.

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