Delicate Sensationalism

January 14, 2012

Cover of BLACK DOGSIn my disorganized reading of found books—volumes that turn up in the house with no invitation on my part, usually left behind by my wife, daughter, or a friend—the most recent was Black Dogs, a 1992 short novel by Ian McEwan, a writer I admire but can imbibe only in small doses. As is typical of McEwan, the story is unconventional, a bit weird, unpredictable. It’s a good read. Yet it indulges in a technique that my purist side deplores.

When pop novelists use bodice-ripping and gruesome slayings to spice up a plot, serious critics can dismiss the effort as mere sensationalism. But what happens when a top-notch literary writer employs similar elements, in a much more skillful way, and presumably to a higher purpose?

In Black DogsSPOILER ALERT, if anyone who hasn’t read this 20-year-old novel still plans to—the narrator, Jeremy, is writing a memoir about his in-laws, June and Bernard. The two have long been estranged, in part because of a transforming experience in 1946, on their honeymoon, when June encountered two large dogs in the French countryside. The animals provoked a revelation about good and evil that propelled her into decades of spiritual exploration, at odds with Bernard’s involvement in politics. Tantalizingly, throughout the novel, the author merely alludes to the key event. The explanation arrives in the last chapter with a vivid description of June’s being cornered on a lonely mountain path by feral dogs “of an unnatural size,” as big as donkeys:

she saw them as a juddering accumulation of disjointed details: the alien black gums, slack black lips rimmed by salt, a thread of saliva breaking, the fissures on a tongue that ran to smoothness along its curling edge, a yellow-red eye and eyeball muck spiking the fur, open sores on a foreleg, and, trapped in the V of an open mouth, deep in the hinge of the jaw, a little foam, to which her gaze kept returning. The dogs had brought with them their own cloud of flies. Some of them now defected to her.

The beasts slink forward to attack; June fights them off with rocks, a penknife, a rucksack and a distracting sausage.

But that’s not the real climax.

Later, in the inn where the newlyweds are staying, the proprietress and the mayor explain the dogs’ origin. During the war, the canines were brought to the region by the Nazi Gestapo to terrify the populace, which had supported the Resistance. Left behind when the Germans fled, the dogs have been living off the sheep.

Against the wishes of Mme. Auriac, the innkeeper, the mayor then proceeds with the story of a young woman, Danielle Bertrand, who had moved to the village during the war. She turned up at this very inn one day bleeding and gibbering, with her clothes torn.

Mme. Auriac said quickly, ‘She had been raped by the Gestapo. Excuse me, madame,’ and she placed her hand on June’s.

‘That was what we all thought,” the Maire said.

Mme. Auriac raised her voice. ‘And that was correct.’

‘It’s not what we discovered later. Pierre and Henri Sauvy—’


‘They saw it happen. Excuse me, madame’—to June—‘but they tied Danielle Bertrand over a chair.’

Mme. Auriac slapped the table hard. ‘Hector, I’m saying this to you now. I will not have this story told here.’

But Hector addressed himself to Bernard. ‘It wasn’t the Gestapo who raped her. They used—’

Mme. Auriac was on her feet. ‘You will leave my table now, and never eat or drink here again!’

Hector hesitated, then he shrugged, and he was halfway out of his chair when June asked, ‘They used what? What are you talking about, monsieur?’

The Maire, who had been so anxious to deliver his story, dithered over this direct question. ‘It’s necessary to understand, madame.… The Sauvy brothers saw this with their own eyes, through the window … and we heard later that this also used to happen at the interrogation centers in Lyon and Paris. The truth is, an animal can be trained—’

At last Mme. Auriac exploded.

Though the proprietress goes on to accuse the mayor and his cronies of spreading vicious rumors, the lurid secret is out. The tale is told ever so delicately, with many hesitations by the characters themselves, the culminating words never actually spoken … but it’s sensational nonetheless, and in this moment the titular black dogs acquire their full load of symbolism for June and for the reader.

And at this point in the book, a dozen pages from the end, I was annoyed at McEwan.

Not that I mind hearing about monstrous things in fiction. But there’s a tawdriness in this teasing and titillating of the reader to build toward a revelation of appalling sexual torture. It doesn’t matter how fine the prose—which indeed is brilliant—and it doesn’t matter whether rape by trained dogs was in fact a Nazi method. Nor does the symbolic intention justify this device. The author is playing with the reader’s ability (and willingness) to be shocked, and in my snooty opinion that’s a low-class trick unworthy of the best fiction.

All right, I admit it: in literary terms, I’m a prig.

Now I’ll move on to the next found book, which an unidentified person just slipped through our mail slot: the peculiarly appropriate Dogs for Dummies—a donation inspired, no doubt, by our new terrorist puppy.

3 Responses to “Delicate Sensationalism”

  1. Sand Says:

    Yup, that’s disgusting, and merits the author a thumbs-down.


  2. Marcy O'Rourke Says:

    I totally agree with you Sam. Really sort of trivializes the horror of the Nazis. Sorry, have read McEwan and think he’s a phony.


  3. Sam Gridley Says:

    Well, there’s a new critical study of McEwan’s works, which the publisher describes as follows: “Acknowledging the central role of alterity in these novels, the study draws its theoretical framework largely from ethicists in the Levinasian tradition who, rather than arguing for normative codes of behaviour or notions of virtue, understand ethics in terms of the interactive encounters between individuals.” Can we agree that McEwan deserves that?


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