Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Man Born With Dog's Head!

by Stephen J. Gertz

In this issue of the Weekly World News, featuring the finest in Martian journalism, we report the incredible story of Edmond Du Chaillu of France, born fully human from the neck down but a cocker spaniel from the neck up.

Upon their only child's birth, the Du Chaillu's were, to say the least, shocked:

"When she was told, as tactfully as could be, that she had just given birth to a child with a dog's head, Mme Du Chaillu fainted. After twenty years of sterility, it was a severe blow. M. Du Chaillu was, if possible, even more distraught. For fifteen minutes he seriously felt like killing his spouse, but one glance at her innocent face made him blush for his hideous suspicions. He contented himself with sighing: 'My poor Henriette! We might have been spared this.'

"Mme Du Chaillu burst out sobbing.

"'It's ghastly! How could it have happened? I don't ever want to see it. Do you feel as miserable as I do, Léon?'

"M. Du Chaillu pressed Mme Du Chaillu's hand, whereat she redoubled her tears. Blushing, he inquired in a choking voice: 'Did you think of a dog while you were pregnant?'

"'Never!' cried Mme Du Chaillu. 'Not once!'

"'And . . . before?' murmured M. Du Chaillu, in a still more broken voice.

"'Before?' asked Mme Du Chaillu in surprise.

"The child snuffled in its cradle. The head of a puppy, frail and endearing, surmounted the swaddled body of this newborn human being. Its pink muzzle, its unopened eyes and its soft f'ur wrung from M. Du Chaillu his first tears.

"What will people say?' wondered Mme Du Chaillu."

They will say this is one of the best novels - a grand satire in the tradition of Voltaire - that you may never have heard of, much less read.

Une tête de chien by Jean Dutourd was originally published by Gallimard in 1950. It was issued in an English translation by Robin Chancellor by J. Lehmann, London 1951, and by Simon and Schuster in New York in 1953. As rare books go, the London 1st is most obtainable, followed by the Lion paperback. For some reason yet determined, the 1st American edition is the rarest of the three.
London: J. Lehmann, 1951. First edition in English.
Image courtesy of MW Books Ltd.
Related in a dry, understated, deadpan reporter's voice, A Dog's Head is a sardonic critique of humanity, existence, and the plight of the "other." It is at once tragic, devastating, and delightfully witty - at times laugh-out-loud hilarious - written with stylish charm in a sure hand.

Life isn't easy for Edmund. Is his bark worse than his bite? Can he help himself when he presents the morning newspaper to his parents in his mouth? How does he cope with the cruel taunts of schoolmates? Hold a job? Meet women and develop relationships? Have sex?
New York: Simon and Schuster, 1953. First American edition.
Image courtesy of Between the Covers.
Edmund wants to experience all that human existence can offer. He drinks, uses drugs, visits brothels,  enjoys the whole gamut of human pleasures, illicit or otherwise. He is sometimes a very naughty dog.
His parents want him to become a lawyer but he's advised that, with the head of a spaniel, he will likely make a poor impression in court. [Jackel-heads evidently, get along just fine]. He gets a job as a banker. He falls in love with a cruel wanton. She dumps him. He becomes rich, keeps dogs as pets, and establishes a life as human as possible for a man with a head worthy of the Westchester Kennel Club. Edmund finally meets the woman of his dreams, who accepts him fully for what he is. At that point, the story takes a turn leading to a denouement as tragically inevitable as it is deliriously funny.

Dutourd establishes a straight, matter-of-fact tone and then never lets up, rigorously sticking to the fantasy and never tipping his hand. The book is an expertly cut diamond.

While the first editions in French and English are certainly collectible, it is the first English edition in paperback that remains the most desirable, in my opinion; the cover art takes the prize. (The artist, alas, remains unidentified). The publisher, Lion Books, was founded by Martin Goodman in 1949 (he later established Marvel Comics). Copies in fine condition sell for about the same amount as the American first edition in hardcover.

New York: Lion Books 196, 1954. First English edition in paperback.
"Dutourd is a fine craftsman, whose work has the classic virtues of brevity, lucidity, and concentration. He has written a sardonic divertissement that concerns itself with fundamental problems of man's existence-a tale that is sad-eyed, witty, and often very funny" (Charles J. Rolo, New York Times Book Review).

"A tiny masterpiece in the French classical tradition. . . . Stylish, elegant and witty, and told with an apparent lightheartedness that points to rather than obscures the hero's essential tragedy" (P. L. Travers, New York Herald Tribune).

"Wit, a good deal of shrewd classical allusion, and a Voltarian satire are the book's assets" (Edmund Fuller, Chicago Tribune).

"The work of an expert craftsman and of a careful writer of prose, ending with the rarest gift in modern letters: the comic spirit" (Henri Peyre, The Saturday Review).

"Dutourd might well have dropped his story at this point, had it been his intention simply to excoriate the human race for its treatment of those who are physically afflicted. Instead, he presses on in his terse, deadpan prose to teach a lesson to the afflicted of the world as well" (Time).

"A Dog's Head is one of the most curious, most beautifully conceived and written fantasies you've ever come across" (J. H. Jackson, San Francisco Chronicle).

"A Dog's Head is an excellent joke in the worst possible taste, and its author, M. Jean Dutourd, is a satirist of the first rank" (The New Yorker).

University of Chicago Press issued a reprint in 1998; collect the first editions (particularly the Lion paperback) and use this one as a reading copy.

Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998.

Now go, fetch the book! Atta boy! You're a good d-- er, human!

No comments:

Post a Comment

Subscribe to BOOKTRYST by Email