Years ago, Andrew Sullivan gave me a copy of J.R. Ackerley’s My Dog Tulip. I don’t think he gave it to me because he saw Tulip in my dog Archie – Teddy had not entered our shared life yet – but instead a lot of me in the cantankerously lonely Ackerley.
The memoir was called “one of the greatest books ever written by anybody in the world” by Truman Capote. Christopher Isherwood offered more high praise by calling it “one of the greatest masterpieces of animal literature.” Here is The New York Times review by Elizabeth Hawes of the re-issue of the book in 1987:
Ironically, it may well be his friendship with a dog that will be responsible for the wider recognition of J. R. Ackerley as a writer of extraordinary gifts. As the literary editor of the BBC’s weekly magazine, The Listener, from 1935 to 1959, Ackerley was little known by the general public. Yet he was beloved and brilliant in the eyes of his cohorts, many of whom, like E. M. Forster, Edwin Muir, Christopher Isherwood and W. H. Auden, he had guided into print. Joe Ackerley, it was said, cared most about his friendships, which, like his editorial gifts, derived from his prodigal sympathy, his candor and his obsession with the truth. With the reprinting of his memoir My Dog Tulip, one sees that it is these very qualities that lie at the heart of his vision as a writer.
After the original publication of My Dog Tulip in England in 1956, and after it was brought out by a small press in America in 1965, readers divided neatly into those who loved it and those who loathed it. Ackerley then wrote two other books that add footnotes to the story of Tulip. In 1960 his only novel, We Think the World of You, told the odd tale of the transference of the narrator’s love to a dog from its master; in 1968, a year after his death, Ackerley’s autobiography, My Father and Myself, appeared, an intimate account of his homosexuality, dedicated to Tulip and ”her constant, simple-hearted, incorruptible, uncritical devotion.” ”I sang with joy,” Ackerley said, ”at the thought of seeing her. I never prowled the London streets again. . . . The fifteen years she lived with me were the happiest of my life.”
My Dog Tulip is a dog story quite unlike any other dog story. Indeed, with all the dogs that have gamboled through literature, it is astonishing how few have emerged as more than appendages or household fixtures. James Thurber, of course, playfully insisted on the higher order of the dog, and placed it on the sagacious end of the leash. Colette, when she scrambled with her bulldog in new snow or listened to the disordered beating of its little heart, projected an animal soul. And Virginia Woolf’s noble attempt to be a dog in Flush opened up a world of canine smells and sensitivities, although, in the end, it was writerly and somewhat remote. In My Dog Tulip, Ackerley grants his Alsatian bitch her dogdom on her own terms and then, like Boswell, sets out to record it as intelligently and sympathetically as a man might do.
Tulip is a love story, in which the object is honored by being observed as herself. Ackerley is an innocent – at the beginning, he says simply: ”There was much that I did not know and wished to learn. It astounded me to hear that dogs underwent major operations and had their stomachs opened and shut as we do” – and as he examines Tulip’s life, he maintains his purity of intent, speaking only of what he has seen and thought and felt, resisting literary trickery, sentimentality or editorializing, finding humor where it resides naturally, reaching eloquence through both his gift for detail and the depth of his commitment. Ackerley tells of Tulip’s beauty – her mosaic face, her incandescent ears, the shadow across her forehead, her sable tunic of the texture of satin – her London walks and visits to the vet, and then, because she is a biological creature, her eliminations and urinations (”Dogs read the world through their noses and write their history in urine”), her heats and, when he determines to find a ”husband” to ”marry” her, her matings. More than half of this book is a sexual history of nine years of courtship and contrived matings, set eventually in the birch woods of Wimbledon Common. Here, in this sacred precinct, Tulip runs free and kills a rabbit; here, Nature and nature are intertwined in the ”inexorable fires that smolder away below the peaty soil,” in the ”Dear Willow, foremost ever with tidings of spring.” Years go by, ”it is summer, it is spring,” and Ackerley only wishes Tulip a wonderful time, to have everything she wants.
That Ackerley is almost sacrificial in his consideration for Tulip, and obsessive in his love, rarely intrudes on the charm of his memoir. So converted is the reader to Ackerley’s sensibilities that when in the course of Tulip’s matings he encounters a complacent stud, or another dog owner who takes pride in his animal’s retrieval of matches to light his cigarette, it seems rather demeaning, like a sign of a lower order. Ackerley’s plea for deeper understanding of dogs is tacitly clear. A sturdy Dr. Doolittle-type vet appears early in the book and says: ”Well, she’s in love with you, that’s obvious. And so life’s full of worries for her. . . . Dogs aren’t difficult to understand. One has to put oneself in their position.” And the author has a final reflection: ”I realized clearly, perhaps for the first time, what strained and anxious lives dogs must lead. . . . Stupidly loved, stupidly hated, acquired without thought, reared and ruled without understanding, passed on or ‘put to sleep’ without care, did they, I wondered, these descendants of the creatures who, thousands of years ago in the primeval forests, laid siege to the heart of man, took him under their protection, tried to tame him, and failed – did they suffer from headaches?”
In 2009, an animated film based on the book was released featuring the voices of Christopher Plummer and Lynn Redgrave and Isabella Rossellini. It was adapted, directed and animated by Paul Fierlinger with backgrounds and characters painted by his wife, Sandra Fierlinger.
Here is a link to the full film on Vimeo