Love Is a Bitch: J.R. Ackerley and the Art of Canine Lit

Dogs have been a part of Western literature ever since Argos expired at the sight of his returning master, Odysseus. But very few writers have been as associated with their mutts as J.R. (“Joe”) Ackerley. True, Ackerley, who died in 1967, was known for many memorable things during his life: He was a highly revered editor of the BBC’s publication The Listener; an openly gay fixture of the London literary scene; a friend and confidant of E.M. Forster and Christopher Isherwood. His oeuvre was skimpy but notable, including a lively fictionalized travelogue of India (Hindoo Holiday) and a scabrously powerful (and often quite funny) memoir of his father’s closeted life of bigamy and homosexuality (My Father and Myself). Yet in his afterlife, Ackerley’s star is hitched to a hound named Tulip, the eponymous figure of his 1956 classic of canine lit, My Dog Tulip. Modeled on his real-life Alsatian bitch Queenie, to whom he was fanatically devoted, the memoir turned Ackerley into a kind of writerly William Wegman avant la lettre and guaranteed him a cultish, posthumous following.

For any cult to thrive, it needs zealous recruitment and eager acolytes. The Ackerley sect grew considerably following last year’s animated version of My Dog Tulip, which reintroduced a book that has been a part of the NYRB Classics fabulous lineup of hard-to-find little gems since the series was begun in the late 1990s. Among the most tireless of Ackerley’s proselytizers, NYRB Classics has long labored to widen appreciation of the author; it brought almost all of his output back into print more than a decade ago, and on the heels of the film version of My Dog Tulip, it has chosen a particularly propitious moment to relaunch another Ackerley title it originally republished years back, We Think the World of You (NYRB Classics, 232 pages, $14.95), the author’s sole novel. Whether this minor masterpiece will convert new members to the cause is anybody’s guess. But it should.

Like My Dog Tulip, the novel, adapted for the screen in 1989, features Ackerley’s beloved Queenie in another thinly disguised get-up, here under the nom de chien Evie. And like Tulip, it’s drawn from Ackerley’s life–as a writer, he never strayed far from his own extravagant experiences for material, which he dealt out with astonishing and sometimes shocking frankness. (“Joe doesn’t know how not to tell the truth,” Isherwood noted in his diaries; Ackerley lore includes the fact that the original opening line of his family memoir read, “My father’s penis was twelve inches long,” which he struck for the more temperate “I was born in 1896 and my parents were married in 1919.”) The details of Queenie’s acquisition furnish the plot of We Think the World of You: Ackerley got the dog when her owner, a petty criminal who had become the most recent in the author’s string of working-class romantic partners, landed in jail on burglary charges. Unhappily for Ackerley, in addition to a prison term, the incarcerated had a wife and kids, and the author grudgingly supported them. The support was far from altruistic–Ackerley loathed the wife and, according to his biographer, Peter Parker, toyed with a scheme to murder her.

In life, Ackerley’s misanthropy extended well beyond his erstwhile dependents. What’s remarkable about We Think the World of You is his comic displacement of his spite into what strikes the reader as a no-more-than-typical, at times hilarious, across-the-class-divide disdain by the novel’s Ackerley character, the forlorn and put-upon Frank, for the prole family of Johnny and his worthless wife, Megan. Frank haggles with them incessantly over the rare official visitation letters allowing him to see Johnny and fights jealously for his attention. (The exact relationship between Frank and Johnny is never explicitly stated; appearing in 1960, the novel is a product of its times, that blip of England between the end of the Chatterley ban and the Beatles’ first LP–and seven years before the repeal of the English laws criminalizing homosexuality.)

Johnny’s mother, Millie, and stepfather, Tom, live in a nauseatingly overheated flat, where they tend to Johnny’s doltish, red-faced infant, Dickie. Frank is mildly bound to Millie by their mutual devotion to Johnny and their shared hostility to Megan, and his visits provide him with an occasion to fulminate against Johnny’s attachment. “She got everything her own way before, and she seems to be getting everything her own way still,” he vents to them. “Johnny’s so blasted weak, Millie, that’s the trouble; she does what she likes with him; and though he says she thinks the world of me now, the little rat, and won’t interfere between us again, I don’t believe a word of it.” What Frank is unable to understand is the vague resentment of Tom and the intractability of Millie toward prying Megan from Johnny and convincing him of the more worthy affections of his older, wealthier “friend.”

Frank’s visits to the family are colored by his jealousy and frustration, but they take on a different hue when he notices the scampering dog Johnny had pleaded with him to care for when he went to jail. He’s immediately smitten: “She was certainly an extremely pretty dog, I had never seen a prettier, stone grey with a black tunic and her face most elegantly marked. Her nose and lips were sooty, as also were the rims of her bright brown eyes, above which tiny black eyebrow tufts were set like accents, and in the middle of her forehead was a dark vertical streak like a Hindu caste mark.”

Wild, innocent and pretty, the neglected Evie becomes a four-legged stand-in for Johnny, a prisoner condemned to a tiny backyard. Unable to bear her confinement, Frank offers to take her out for a long walk. The decision is momentous: “In the course of life, I have noticed, a number of critical turning points are reached which are only recognizable as such retrospectively, long after they are passed. This moment, I was to perceive later, was a turning point in mine.”

Once Evie enters in the picture, We Think the World of You shifts on its axis from a comic novel of class snobbery to a weirdly affecting tale of friendship, betrayal and desperation. She’s at its center, but the story is less about the connection between a lonely man and a neglected dog than the depressing difficulties of connecting at all. As Frank grows more and more attached to the dog, his contact with Johnny becomes inversely constricted–and his conviction that others are conspiring against him balloons. He’s granted a weekend with Evie–an interspecific proxy of communal visitation–keeps her longer than allowed, finds himself barred from contact as a result and sets in motion a spiraling series of events, both laughable and extreme, to win possession of both her and Johnny.

We’re not surprised that he eventually succeeds in getting the former at the cost of the latter, but what is astonishing is the toll it takes on all of them–and how subtly but decisively this breezy shaggy-dog tale turns poignant and dark. Ackerley trusts his dog character enough to allow her fate to illuminate the ultimate ironic twist on the book’s title, when Evie rejects Johnny, now out of jail, and he abandons her to Frank. “Yes, she knew he thought the world of her; but possibly I reflected, she guessed, as I now did, what the world amounted to, and that what he had just done for us was, of all the things she wanted, the most she would ever get, and that she could not count even on that.” Love, in more ways than one, is a bitch.

That Ackerley is able to deliver a masterful little novel of thwarted love and blocked desire in large part through the silent character of Evie is one of his remarkable achievements as a writer. So is his nimble control of the book’s structure and its artfully leveled turn–almost too artful, in fact–as Frank, alone with Evie at the end, darkly realizes that he, too, has created his own little prison. In fact, as he (and the reader) finally sees, he’s lived in it all along. That this revelation strikes with the bang it does is just one mark of the novel’s formal brio. V.S. Pritchett once wrote of the burden that came with “knowing that [the] work must be perfect–as that of minor writers has to be.” He was speaking of Max Beerbohm, but he might have been describing Ackerley, by all accounts a perfectionist. Ackerley despaired that he didn’t produce more in his life. But if he could connect as a novelist only once in his lifetime, to call We Think the World of You a minor classic is to take nothing away from its outsize effect.

  Love Is a Bitch: J.R. Ackerley and the Art of Canine Lit