Saturday, May 10, 2008

Beckett's Kerry Blue Terriers

Thinking about life's ephemeral nature and how, in Nabokov's "Ada" a "poodlet" was described with its warm, imploring eyes the shade of "dark olives," I remembered not only importuning, accusatory, or soulful looks of my devoted Fido (half a Standard Poodle, and who is both too retiring and too sepia to pose well for photos), but of Beckett's Kerry Blues.

Not many great works of literature, or movies (my wife will dutifully point out "her favorite film" inspired by the director's own father, De Sica's "Umberto D" as a noted exception, notwithstanding more obvious family fare and endless Disney public-domain cash cows), explore the bond between us and our dogs. Beckett, often misread as (only) a wailer of woe, has delved into this relationship. He loved his Kerry Blues, and paid tribute to them in one of his best plays.

I found a photo of Sam and a Kerry Blue at the Kerry Blue Terrier Foundation. This in turn linked from the wonderfully comprehensive Samuel Beckett On-Line Resources & Links". Very thorough archive: a few years ago I sent to its webmaster a web-find that I'd first scoured on the SBR site to make sure that it had not been already listed, and there, somehow, it was, the webmaster assured me, before I had alerted him. Synchronicity, I suppose.

Steve Schultz & John Van Den Burgh write their tribute at the Kerry Blue page, under "Famous People Who Have Owned Kerry Blues"

The picture on the right shows Samuel Beckett with one of his mother's Kerry Blues, though not the one remembered in Krapp's Last Tape, whose death he grieved so much. Beckett would go on long walks, up to 10 miles, with his Kerry to find peace and inspiration.

Samuel Becket [sic] with one of his mother's Kerries. [caption for photo above.]

Krapp's Last Tape is a semi-autobiographical work. The Kerry plays prominently in the book, (No pedigree or kennel name is listed.) When the Kerry bitch he grew up with was diagnosed with cancer and had to be destroyed at the age of 12, Beckett plunged into such deep gloom that he contemplated suicide. Luckily, instead he wrote Krapp's Last Tape.

He also mentioned the Kerry in two other short stories published in More Pricks Than Kicks.

This statement implies that Krapp came about soon after Beckett's beloved bitch which "he grew up with" was "put down," as the dog people I grew up among put it, but I assure you not even a Nobel laureate had quite that precociousness. Unless Beckett set a Guinness world record for arrested development. If the bitch lived to be 12, and the play was not broadcast until 1958, there's some poetic license here. Sam would have been forty-six when his own mother died, in 1950, if this event's a catalyst for his play's slow conception. He was at least in his thirties when his attachment to the dog would have formed. One can't be too yoked to the writer's own life when arguing the power of his art. Granted, May Beckett's dog's memory must have lingered long before the gestation of the radio drama. Still, quibbling aside, we all have such attenuated memories of those whom we love, and they endure long after their physical presence has terminated.

In the play, on the other hand, I risk pedantry, but the little "white" dog chased the "black" ball that K. threw when his mother died. So, not too exact a Kerry Blue-- their lovely color's actually a barely blueish shimmer in a good light on the usual black coat-- equivalence "to the one remembered" can be established, unfortunately. Yet, let's stay with the wavering image Krapp conjures up in his mind's eye for our ear: the contrast, and the poignancy of the dog with his master amid our mortality.

It's worth recording how deeply we can establish a love for our pets. My friends Bob & Chris near Santa Cruz feature an intelligent blog devoted to the legacy of Loon, a recently departed companion Leader of the Pack. (They, the day after I originally wrote this, posted a welcome to Winni, the newest pack member, a white lab, therefore easier to distinguish from Loon's lookalike-- at least to me-- Lobo.) Many harder-hearted people mock such an expense of our emotion. What's the profit, they might ask? I do believe dogs sense our goodness or our hostility after living so long among us, and being engineered to respond to such cues for their own calculations.

Pets at their noblest (or cutest) and perhaps our silliest spark our altruism, although they'd be much more useful if they'd live up to their classifications for which we bred them into "working dogs" categories rather than layabouts. You can say this about all the kids and half the spouses in America, too. My own parents, admittedly in their own kennel pursuits that earned them much of their meager living, found it much easier to show affection for dogs than people. I too inherited some of this reticence, finding the gaze of a dog easier to cope with than a glare of a person.

My first dogs that I remember were Sugar the Airedale and Corky the Kerry. When a log-in has a password hint that asks you "what was your first dog's name?" I have to vary the selections or select another "secret" prompt, as Sugar, Corky, Kelly, Boots, and many more could contend for beloved dogs of my youth. Not to mention adulthood. My single years were worsened when, in dorms or rented rooms, I could not have a dog to keep my company so many lonely evenings or forlorn mornings.

Now, if I could have ten dogs, I would! Despite our current trio's pack mentality, and their liking to jump up and bark frenetically at a squirrel (why can't dogs or cats hunt those rats with bushy tails that eat our tangerines before I can but not the grapefruit that none of us like?), I do welcome our current menagerie: Taffy the Welsh incorrigable, unobsequious Pembroke Corgi, Rover the stolid American Staffordshire Bull Terrier (not to be confused with a pit bull, and a graduate of the Dog Whisperer's inner-city finishing school before he, the Whisperer and not Rover, gained media buzz), and Fido, the delicate yet rather slatternly princess herself. She comes out in snaps about as well as the Kerry Blue pictured today.

1 comment:

Chris Berry said...

Thanks for the press John...

Given your rich dog history, I'd love to see you "waste" some more ink/emotion on the pups in the future. I too, found the dorms pretty hard (can you think of a worse time to not have your dog with you?!)...and took it to the point where if I couldn't find a place that let me have my dog, I'd just curl up on the beach, in the back of my truck, in a friend's yard, in a friend's treehouse (that would be my friend Lyle, whom I blogged about today), etc. Ok, maybe that was a bit extreme...but you get the point.

Can't wait to get Winni running with your pack!