A Dog's Life by Michael Holroyd - book review: This tragicomic family portrait has plenty of bite


The late Josephine Pullein-Thompson, aged 12 and anxious to avoid any possibility of libel in her first unpublished novel, went to the family phone directory to check that the name she chose for her hero was currently possessed by no one else. Her final innocent choice, before being gently discouraged by her parents, was Edwin Pisspot. But there are other ways fiction can face potential legal problems, as Michael Holroyd discovered with this autobiographical novel A Dog's Life. It was written in 1953 but only published in America after his father, furious about such thinly veiled pen portraits of himself and his family, declared he would sue if it ever appeared in this country.

In a lengthy postscript to this revised edition, Holroyd gets close to saying that perhaps his father was right. For this is an intensely personal novel, drawing on first-hand observations and atomising with the merciless eye of youth the growing follies, frustrations and eccentricities associated with the tragicomedy of extreme old age.

Grandmother Anne, whose default mode is "eager pessimism" and whose conversation is described as "a string of non sequiturs linked by a general sense of discontent" is a particularly sad portrait. She lives in genteel poverty in a run-down house also occupied by her former children's nurse, her husband, son, and grandson plus her deadly rival Great-Aunt Mathilda and a much loved dog approaching death. A cook and sometime gardener make up the household, where bickering is a way of life and daily struggles to get sufficient hot water from the boiler or make a new television set work take up a disproportionate amount of the time in the 24 hours in which this story is set.

Young Kenneth, back home on a break from his National Service and clearly the author's alter ego, feels both irritation and pity at the bleak reality of these wasting lives. But this is not a depressing novel. Holroyd as always writes beautifully and there are comic moments, with each knock at the door or ring on the phone regularly bringing about a general sense of panic.

He adds in his postscript that eventually "I found that I could escape from myself more readily when re-creating the life of someone else than when trying to re-invent my own life through fiction." His many fine biographies bear this out, yet he is discounting here his two previous volumes of straight autobiography, Basil Street Blues and Mosaic. These accounts of his childhood, where he was brought up by his paternal grandparents while living largely within his own imaginative world, are even better fare than that offered by this intriguing if belated publication.