The author’s father didn’t want you to read this book. It’s hard to understand why

A review of A Dog’s Life, by Michael Holroyd. This thinly veiled portrait of Holroyd's family is more an exercise in self-chastisement than vanity

19 July 2014

9:00 AM

19 July 2014

9:00 AM

A Dog’s Life Michael Holroyd

MacLehose Press, pp.237, £12.99, ISBN: 9781848665224

There were several times when reading A Dog’s Life that I felt as if I’d fallen into a time warp. It starts with a quote on the cover from Hugh Massingberd: Holroyd is ‘a brilliant writer blessed with perfect pitch’. Nothing wrong with that, except that Hugh, alas, is no longer in a position to review books, having died seven years ago.

The book itself, a novel closely based on Holroyd’s own family, was written in the late 1950s but never published in the UK after his father took violent exception to the way he’d been portrayed. He also warned that publication could well kill Holroyd’s elderly aunt. Under the circumstances, he decided it might be prudent to withdraw it.

At this distance, it’s hard to see what all the fuss was about. The aunt, Eustace Farquhar, may be an autocratic lush with an increasingly wobbly hold on reality, but there’s no real malice there. If anything, Holroyd is much tougher on himself — he appears, lightly veiled, as Kenneth Farquhar, the possessor of a ‘masturbatory white face’ and a head full of music and literature. But then all the characters here are grotesques of one kind or another, all of them uncomfortably crammed together under the roof of the family house, the implausibly titled This’ll Do.

In a postscript, Holroyd writes how the book was originally going to have an introduction written by the then highly regarded novelist William Gerhardie, in which he hailed the author as ‘a master of inconsequence’. As endorsements go, this seems almost homeopathically weak, but you soon get a sense of what Gerhardie was on about. Nothing much happens here, and what there is unfolds at a very stately pace indeed. Nor does it help that the narrative is broken up into extremely short chapters, thereby slamming the brakes on any threat of momentum.

Some of Holroyd’s imagery stands up pretty well: ‘Her wizened features, mottled and spotted like some Spanish omelette.’ Some of it, on the other hand, doesn’t, as in, ‘Every now and then a low moan, like a siren, came from her lips’ — can’t have been that low, I wouldn’t have thought.

Far more poignant than the novel itself is Holroyd’s postscript, in which he laments the way the world has changed in his lifetime: ‘Music and literature have faded from our education system, while science is held up as a money-making discipline… Our new houses, with their tiny windows which only the Artful Dodger could get through, resemble small prisons.’

But most of all Holroyd laments the way that he has changed. Re-reading A Dog’s Life after 50 years brought a grim shock of recognition, he writes. ‘Many of the traits in my own family that I so keenly observed in my teens and fitted here and there on to my characters, are my traits now; I possess them.’

I started off by thinking that publishing this book after so long was an act of uncharacteristic vanity on Holroyd’s part. But I ended up by seeing it as a much more melancholy, even self-chastising, exercise than that.

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