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.

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