My first novel, A Dog’s Life, was largely autobiographical. It described my grandparents’ life, my parents’ marital exploits, and my own limping attempts to become a writer. But since I seemed unable to harness these first two subjects to the advancement of the third. Then I suddenly saw how I might carve out the first quarter of this spacious family saga and make it a self-contained novella covering 24 hours of family life.
Heinemann offered me an advance on royalties of £500, which was ten times what they had given me for my biography of Lytton Strachey. Roland Gant did not wish to publish A Dog’s Life until the two Strachey volumes were out of the way. But since Penguin wanted the novel as a paperback and my publisher in the United States also sent me a contract, I was happy.
My father was not happy. He had given up writing novels by then, and assumed that I had done so too. He had read an early draft of my novel guardedly, reassuring himself perhaps that it would never be published. When I posted him the later shortened typescript, his reaction was more sparing in its praise than Roland Gant’s.
‘The typescript of your book arrived,’ he wrote, ‘and I read two or three chapters before I was so nauseated that I had to put it down.’
Since the first two chapters covered five pages and the third chapter reached the top of page eight, this was not encouraging. He wanted to impress on me as dramatically as possible how dreadful my novel was. When I urged him to complete it (it was not long), arguing that the death of Smith, the family dog, brought out the underlying sympathy of the characters (a sympathy sunk so deep, one reader was to write, that you needed a diver’s suit to reach it), he simply refused. He hated everything about it.
‘Your formula is evident. Take the weakest side of each character – the skeleton in every cupboard – and magnify them out of proportion so that they appear to become the whole and not part of the picture . . . Surely you could have written a study of old age and loneliness without photographing your own family for the background? Why should they be pilloried? You go out of your way to avoid any redeeming features in anyone’s character. One would have thought that you could have waited a few years until we were dead before appraising the world of our misery.’
If I went ahead and tried to publish the novel, my father promised to bring legal proceedings against me and the publishers. Publication would, he believed, expose to savage ridicule the whole family.
‘As you know I work in a firm with a staff of several hundreds…In the circumstances – for my sister’s sake and my own – I must do everything to prevent this book being published anywhere till we are dead, and I am prepared to take whatever steps that are necessary legal or otherwise.’
I was appalled by this hostility — as appalled as he was by what he felt to be my hostility. The next four months, during which I tried to negotiate some compromise, were deeply unhappy for us both. When I asked my father what pages he would like changed, he answered rather wittily: ‘Why not introduce a few fictional characters? It would of course entail rewriting but you would discover whether you are a novelist or whether as I believe – you are not.’
Here lay one of our difficulties in reaching an agreement. For where I would refer to A Dog’s Life as a novel, my father insisted on calling it a ‘distorted biography’; and where I pointed to inventions, he saw lies. But it was of course true that the first drafts of my characters were closely sketched from life.
Rereading A Dog’s Life for the first time in almost 30 years, I do not find it hard to understand my father’s dismay. As Henry Farquhar, he appears ‘inclined to fatness, jovial in manner and vociferous in his denunciations’. He bulges out of his green suit, the color of which clashes with his complexion (a patchwork of mauve and crimson), and by various means he spreads consternation and panic through the house. At one time he is innocently using up all the hot water for his bath (drowning the clamor of complaints at the bathroom door with his lusty singing); at another he is filling the dining-room with smoke, sparks and a snowstorm of tobacco as he attempts, between terrible volleys of coughing and a blind staggering from wall to wall, to light his pipe.
‘I must admit a feeling of great distress when I read your true opinion of me,’ he wrote. ‘…I quite agree with your statement that I am a failure. I am well aware of it.’
Heinemann could not afford, they warned me, to win a court case over a novel. It was therefore up to me to settle matters amicably. Since this proved impossible, production on the book was stopped and A Dog’s Life never appeared in Britain. When I asked my father about publication abroad, he replied: ‘Of course I agree that were the book to be published in Hindustani or Erse there would be little likelihood of it affecting anyone, but this does NOT apply to the English Language.’
A Dog’s Life was published in the United States in 1969, reviewed surprisingly well considering how English it was and, less surprisingly, sold not so well. I was in New York at the time of publication, beginning research for my Augustus John. When I returned to Britain with my advance on royalties due on publication of the novel, I found that my father was in great financial difficulties. Everything he had feared about the future of his business and had once hoped to escape through a new career writing novels, was coming true.
I handed him my advance — the best part of £2,000 — without him knowing that it came from the American publication of A Dog’s Life.
This extract is from Slightly Foxed Edition No. 29: Basil Street Blues by Michael Holroyd. Slightly Foxed Editions are beautifully produced pocket hardback reissues of classic memoirs, all of them highly absorbing and irresistibly collectable, and are available here.