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For years I used to walk Ulysses in our neighborhood, so we ended up
knowing a lot of people. Dogs are like Emmanuel Kant, who always wanted to
take the same walk. The less it changes, the happier they are. Leaving the
house, we would turn left. Unless, inadvertently, I uttered the word
"Tuileries," in which case there was nothing to be done; Ulysses would
turn right and I had to follow him. We would march across the rue de
Varenne under the surveillance of the policemen who guard the intersection
in front of the Matignon, the official residence of the prime minister.
These security police, many of them from rural areas, would compliment the
Saint-Germain pointer on his beauty or ask me about his hunting skills.
Depending on the day, I would lie or tell the truth, the truth being that
he didn't hunt.
A little farther on, Dora, the big black dog that guarded the Catholic
Rescue Mission, would have smelled our arrival. She would start to cry
with emotion, with desire. She would thrust her muzzle through the bars of
the gate to kiss her beloved. Dora, the black sinner in a pious community
of bishops,priests, saintly women.
The next house belonged to the writer Romain Gary. On our first outing at
7:30 in the morning, we would often meet him strolling down the street,
going to buy the newspaper or to have a cup of coffee across the way. Gary
said that the rue du Bac was his country. Tartar, Jew, Russian, Pole: he
was a mix of so many things that he had no desire to be a citizen of the
world, a European, or even a Frenchman. What he required was membership in
a tiny province or someplace even smaller. Hence the rue du Bac. "Come
here, you jerk," he would say to Ulysses, who would advance immediately,
stretch his hind legs, and rub up against him.
One day in September 1980, we met Gary near the front of his building. As
usual he said, "Come here, you jerk!" We approached. I said to Romain:
"I'm afraid this is the last time you'll see Ulysses. He's going to be put
Romain let out a violent sob and hid in his entryway.
Ulysses died September 23; Gary died December 2.
In one year, Gary's former wife (the actress Jean Seberg), Gary himself,
and Ulysses all died, and the street was empty. I might as well speak of
all three in the same breath, since we loved one another.
We would pass the Clermont-Tonnerre mansion, where Chateaubriand spent the
last ten years of his life. From there, we'd follow the same short path
the writer used to take to Madame Recamier's house at the Abbaye-aux-Bois,
a stone's throw from Sevres-Babylone. But in the end, he was paralyzed and
she was blind.
The concierge of one of the most aristocratic abodes on our street always
had small dogs, which gave us a chance to stop for a moment and exchange
dog talk. On one encounter she announced the death of a little fox
terrier, more than fourteen years old, and added, "Since Easter is coming
and we're going home to the country, my daughter has put her in the
Walking the length of the Bon Marche department store, we'd take the rue
Babylone down to Boucicaut Square. Our car was parked there, in the
underground garage. Ulysses would push his luck and take to the stairs.
No, not today, no car, no walk in the "dog meadow" at the Bois de
Boulogne. Just a turn around this wretched square, made even uglier by a
block of lard purporting to represent that do-gooder Madame Boucicaut,
surrounded by charitable ladies. The turn around the square was always
counterclockwise. Sometimes during our last nightly outing I would cross
paths with shadows that already belonged to the past: the Italian
filmmaker Marcello Pagliero, the male lead in Rome Open City, walking a
little dog; the singer Marianne Oswald, who ended her days in a rented
room on the attic floor of the Hotel Lutetia (Marianne once appeared
dressed as a red flame reciting Cocteau's Anna la bonne); an old gentleman
on roller skates, dragged down the street by two labradors and guaranteed
to fall flat on his face. In the square, a strange bag lady dressed in
khaki, a French flag and the word "patriot" sewn on her knapsack, had set
up on a bench for the night. Her bicycle was beside her. She said she was
General de Gaulle's niece. One day she too disappeared. The city creates
phantoms, then swallows them up.
Once in awhile this bag lady would come to Gallimard, the publishing house
where I work, claiming that her manuscript had been stolen. On one
occasion she asked to see Gaston Gallimard. "But Monsieur Gallimard is
dead," the receptionist said, only too happy to have an irrefutable alibi
at her disposal. "That's not true," the bag lady replied. "I saw him at
Jean-Paul Sartre's funeral." (Sartre was still alive.)
Once we'd finished our tour of the square, it was time to start for home.
At night, too, I used to spot Ronald Dubillard, who lived in the same
building as Gary, crossing the street to buy a bottle of whiskey at
Pucinella's, a grocery that stayed open late. I mention Dubillard because
he, like Rilke, refused to love dogs for fear of making them suffer: "It
would hurt me to make a dog suffer, a dog that was mine by virtue of that
suffering and of everything that made that suffering possible. That's why
I hate dogs."
Many years earlier, when I was working as a journalist, Nicole Ladmiral,
the star of Robert Bresson's film, Diary of a Country Priest, had asked me
to interview Dubillard, who wasn't as well known as he deserved to be. We
sat a good half hour face-to-face without speaking. My method was to say
nothing, because people usually can't tolerate silence. So they start to
confess. But with him it didn't work. In the end we burst out laughing.
This good memory is associated with a tragic one: the awful death of
Nicole Ladmiral, who threw herself under a Metro train.
I'm quite glad to have Chateaubriand for a neighbor. His amorous
adventures amuse me. But it was still more exciting, during World War II,
to walk down the rue d'Amsterdam every day on my way to work and to pass
the Hotel de Dieppe, where Baudelaire lived. Or, even today (to stay close
to the rue du Bac), I'm happy when I cross the rue Paul-Louis Courier,
formerly called the Passage Sainte-Marie, and remember Stendhal: "Suddenly
I see myself in a room on the third floor, with a view of the rue du Bac;
you entered this lodging from the Passage Sainte-Marie, so beautiful and
so changed today. A humble staircase led to my garret room."
He insists that he was very ill there and almost died. But he had already
convinced himself that the ultimate happiness was to live in a garret in
Paris and to write. On the same corner where the young Henri Beyle had his
room in 1799, there now sits a cafe. With the first ray of sun, a crowd
mobs the outside tables, while the boulevard Saint-Germain stretches out
below like an arm of the sea. This is our beach.
Our village has always attracted writers. I can identify my neighbors in
the portraits adorning the windows of the Gallimard bookshop on the
boulevard Raspail. Most of them are alive, and I meet them on the street.
But sometimes I see the faces of friends who have gone. The photo of
Romain Gary that they have there adds to my sadness because it shows Gary
holding his dog Pancho in his arms, a dog that looks at you seriously,
almost severely, and that died in Majorca, run over by a car. When that
portrait is on display, a visit to the bookshop feels like a pilgrimage.
On June 19, 1841, more than forty years after starting out on the rue du
Bac, Stendhal wrote to Romain Colomb from Citavecchia: "I have two dogs,
which I love tenderly. One is a black English spaniel, a handsome dog, but
sad and melancholic. The other, Lupetto, is cafe au lait, gay, lively-a
young Burgundian, in short. It made me sad to have nothing to love."
Four months later, Stendhal left Citavecchia forever. Nine months later he
was dead. What became of his dogs?
When you love a dog and it loves you, the lack of synchronization between
human and animal life is bound to bring sorrow. I remember a phone call
from Madame Simone: "My dog has died. You seem to know about these things.
Could you tell me where I might get another?"
She was 95 at the time. What optimism! Perhaps she was right, since she
lived to be 107, some say 110. So she still had just about the duration of
a canine existence before her.
Excerpted from The Difficulty of Being a Dog
by Roger Grenier
Copyright © 2003
by University of Chicago.
Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Posted November 6, 2000
It's not always easy to be a dog--to be a companion to those strange human animals, as Roger Grenier shows us on this literary dog walk. In some fifty self-contained and lovingly crafted vignettes, esteemed French author Grenier visits the great dogs of history and legend, beginning at the beginning, with Ulysses and his dog, Argos, the only creature to recognize him after years of absence. From Virginia Woolf, who became the self-appointed biographer of Flush, Elizabeth Barrett Browning's cocker spaniel, to André Gide, whose diary records his bemusement at his dog's propensity to mount his ancient cat, Grenier reveals how dogs have inspired writers. He introduces us to Freud's chow Lün, who was able to make him understand he was about to die; to Fala, FDR's scottish terrier, who now has his own statue in Washington; and to Michael and Jerry, the heroes of Jack London's novels. Along the way, Grenier tells us about a few of the dogs who have occupied his own life and heart. Though the rapport between dogs and people remains a mystery, it is also, for him, the source of the purest form of love. Grenier's poetic sense of the streets of Paris, his artful use of literary quotation, and his humor and humanity made The Difficulty of Being a Dog an immediate bestseller in France. 'A pet is a protection against life's insults, a defense against the world,' writes Grenier. His book reminds us on every page of that sentiment, making it the perfect gift for any dog lover or for those who might not love dogs enough. Yet. Roger Grenier has published over thirty novels, short stories, and literary essays and the recipient of numerous literary prizes, including the Grand Prix de Littérature de l'Académie Franaise. Alice Kaplan is the author of French Lessons and The Collaborator, both published by the University of Chicago Press. She also translated Grenier's novel Another November.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.