By Ian McEwan
New York: Anchor Books, 1992
ISBN # 0-385-49432-7
149 pages

Comments by Bob Corbett
August 2016

I found this novel to be one of the most challenging and exciting novels I have read in the past several years. Yet structurally is was a good deal more scattered and undisciplined than I’m used to with serious writers. For example in the very first pages the narrator, Jeremiah begins by describing himself and his world when he was 17 and just about to enter university. We are given a fair amount of background on his family, his much older sister and so on, yet this information, contributes very little to the primary story of the novel, or even to the reader’s understanding of the author.

Despite the small quibble, the novel raises several exciting and fascinating stories related to the lives and intellectual-political growth of his mother in law and father in law.

At the time of Jeremiah’s writing the central story, it is 1987 and his mother-in-law, June Tremaine, has just died. Jeremiah had visited her in her nursing home, taking notes and interviewing her in order to write her auto-biography for her. She is entering her last days. Yet her mind is fairly sharp and she has strong and clear ideas of what she wants to say, and how she wants to be remembered.

Her story has two primary facets: The key and center to the novel is her view of the world that she has had in her mid and late life and how she got there, and the other part of her life is the very strange story of her life-long love of her husband, who he was a man that she couldn’t ever live with after just very short time after their marriage, when she was just pregnant with her FIRST of FOUR children! Obviously, whether they lived together full time or not, their relationship was part of the rest of her life once had she met her husband.

In one of the very last interviews before she dies she tells Jeremiah of “her dream” of the two dogs that give this novel its name. However, it will turn out that her two dogs were not exactly “a dream” though their MEANING in her life may be more like a dream than an actual experience.

The narration reveals a key event of June’s life from her birth in 1921 until her death in 1987 at the young age of 66 (says Bob Corbett who’s now 77!)

In 1946 she was living in France. She had met Bernard, who would become her husband in that year, and they had joined the Communist party.

Later on Bernard explains to Jeremiah his own leaving of the party:

“But you always do it later than you should. I went (left Communist party) in ‘fifty-six, I almost went in ‘fifty-three and I should have gone in ‘forty-eight. But you hang on. You think, the ideas are good but the wrong people are in charge and that will change.”

Science helps:

“Laboratory work teaches you better than anything how easy it is to bend a result to fit a theory.”

Bernard, however, developed trust in the British socialism of his time and ended up entering that political world and serving in the British Parliament for many years.

However, June’s journey is quite different. She tries to explain it to Jeremy:

“This is what I know. Human nature, the human heart, the spirit, the soul, consciousness itself – call it what you like – in the end, it’s all we’ve got to work with. It has to develop and expand, or the sum of our misery will never diminish. My own small discovery has been that this change is possible, it is within our power. Without revolution of the life, however slow, all our big designs are worthless. The work we have to do is with ourselves if we’re ever going to be at peace with each other.”

She is an agent of retreat, contemplation and acceptance. Her husband is an agent of change. She sees the world she is trying to learn about and come to terms with to be the world of forever, the universal world. She sees hopelessness in Bernard’s world which she sees as the world of politics, parties and TODAY.

There was, however, a specific moment in her life which caused this dramatic change in their lives. They were just recently wed and on a trip to a fairly remote area of southern France. They were hiking in the mountains and she was somewhat ahead of Bernard who was studying some insects along the hiking trail. Two gigantic black dogs – the dogs of the title – were approaching her and she didn’t know what to do. Soon they attacked her and in a wild and crazy moment of panic and terror, she wounded one the dogs with a knife she had in her backpack and the dogs ran off. However, she was bitten, hurt, terrified and, soon, changed forever.

She saw this as a conversion moment for her. Her path of trying to change humanity, or participating in politics, even society itself, made no sense. She needed to retreat into herself and discover a connection with the larger cosmos, with life over all space and time, and not within the confines of human struggles and short-sighted historical moments.

Bernhard was ready to move away from the Communist ideals that had once held, yet he found her views of union with some larger cosmos to make no sense whatsoever. They were in very difficult places, having two incompatible views of the nature of life and its meaning.

He was ready to enter a new world of political activism within the British model, she was determined to enter into this universal world that transcended time, place and politics.

Yet, they dearly loved each other. However, they simply couldn’t LIVE together on a daily basis.

They ended up purchasing a farm for her in this remote region of southern France, and Bernhard returned to England. He would come there to visit when he could and they always loved one another, and even had FOUR children over time, even though they didn’t live together.

Central to this vision of life for her had been the attack of those dogs, the BLACK DOGS of the title. It was as though they were a cosmic sign to her of the meaninglessness of the path that Bernhard was following.

Nonetheless, he would come to be with her when he could, and he rose in his position and respect within the British political system. She stayed mainly in her French rural mountain outpost and lived a simple life bearing and raising their four children.

However, her entire world view had risen out of the attack of those black dogs. They spurred the rise of her consciousness to a new level. The dogs were there in those mountains since WWII, and had been used by the Nazis to locate local people and traitors against the Nazi cause. These black dogs became symbolic to her of the basic evil she saw in an arrogance of humans in seeing their lives and meanings and aims and hopes as the most important things in the universe and the motives for many of their acts which harmed not only other humans, but other creatures and the planet itself. Thus the black dogs who attacked her physically, and the black dogs as they existed in her mind, created for her an entirely new and satisfying world view and guide to life.

When Jeremiah was doing his interview with her just before she died he contrasted her view with her husband’s view and asked if perhaps BOTH views were correct and useful, just correct and usefully differently.

“Isn’t it for the best if some journey inward while others concern themselves with improving the world? Isn’t diversity what makes a civilization?”

But June never answers that question, nor, really, can her husband. Each was wedded to his or her own view, yet, astonishingly, their deep and profound love for each other lasted the rest of their lives.

While this whole “conversion” experience for June was rooted in the dogs’ attack on her in those remote French mountains, she tended to remember them as thoughts in her head. On his side her husband tried to tie them to black dogs that Churchill had talked of:

“I was the one who told her about Churchill’s black dog. You remember? The name he gave to the depressions he used to get from time to time. I think he pinched the expression from Samuel Johnson. So June’s idea was that if one dog was a personal depression, two dogs were a kind of cultural depression, civilization’s worst moods.”

Even Jeremiah’s wife, the daughter of June and Bernhard used the expression of black dogs to speak of the German prison guards when he and his wife visited a prison camp in Poland.

Thus the dogs were an actual physical experience in their family with the attack on June in those remote French mountains, but these concepts were settled differently in her mind, and known to her husband more in relation to things that Churchill had said, and even entered the speech of their daughter in relation to the concentration camp guards in Poland.

The Black Dogs were symbolically powerful in the lives of their whole family.

This is a disturbing, challenging, chilling and gripping read. I simply can’t get it out of my head. It touches me in a very personal manner. June’s “Communist days” remind me very much of my own days in the 1960s-80s in the various “anti” movements in the U.S. when I was very active in various protests from the Viet-Nam War, anti-nuclear movement, Civil Rights and other such struggles. Yet in later years now I have, much like June, ceased to be an “activist” and turned more to contemplation, trying more and more to understand not only human existence and struggle, but the nature of reality, the cosmos, and perhaps more than anything else: myself.

Bob Corbett


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