A Dog's Life by Paul Bailey

Creature comforts amid the grief
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The Independent Culture

The lot of the jobbing writer isn't particularly what Paul Bailey's title refers to. Still, he has been busy of late. In addition to a stream of articles, Bailey has published three books in under two years. An innovative triptych of biographical sketches, Three Queer Lives, was followed by Uncle Rudolf, a vivid novel of post-war Mitteleuropa. Now arrives a sequel to An Immaculate Mistake (1991), his account of a working-class childhood in Battersea, and a memoir characterised by particular charm.

Like its predecessor, A Dog's Life offers selective, episodic recall. The experiences it encompasses - the death of a long-term lover through alcoholism, for instance - may ask for such finessing. But they aren't belittled by it. Circe, a mongrel puppy Bailey buys on a whim at the outset, allows for a certain ordering of the material. As anyone used to walking dogs knows, however, deviations and encounters with the unexpected must remain the book's Shandyean principle.

The most entertaining moments concern Bailey's former partner David, an opinionated dancer-turned-chorus-boy-turned-dresser. David is given to "small, but necessary acts of rebellion" everywhere.

Republican sympathies meant he would not waste time bowing to Princess Margaret at Royal Ballet rehearsals. Unfazed by talent or charisma, he refused to fit Rudolf Nureyev before he agreed to shower: "You stink, Rudi," he complained. "And your jockstrap is disgusting."

Some will object that David's drink-related demise is unexplained. That is, however, the point. Memoirs do well not to "solve" the predicaments they present. When they do so, they risk untruth. Logically, then, the loss of an Italian friend to Aids does not lead Bailey to obvious pieties. Instead, he presents Vanni's mother with some gladioli, and they discuss the grande vuoto (great emptiness) caused by grief.

A Dog's Life is a serious book about the most enduring of literary themes: mutability, and how we deal with what Fate allots us. In this light, the many references to Dante are particularly poignant: "There is no greater sorrow than to remember in misery the happy time." Circe, Bailey reports, has an odd facial expression - the fully fanged smile. A Dog's Life adopts a similar expression.

A warning, then: this book is not about a pet. One dog-loving reviewer has bizarrely condemned the "canine come-on" of Bailey's "cross-bred bitch", presented as a "loss leader in the supermarket of the author's self-indulgence". Bailey has done nothing wrong. In memoir, you are allowed to write about yourself.

Such misplaced spleen also ignores the obvious metaphor of the title. It suggests, perhaps, that charm is not among the literary qualities most esteemed in our culture. But Bailey knows how to deploy it with uncommon skill. This charm sweetens, for a moment, life's pills of misfortune, only to heighten, rather than overcome, our discomfort at their potency. If we share, at times, a dog's life, as readers we may be grateful for the creature comfort of Bailey's prose.

The reviewer is writing a life of Ronald Firbank.