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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

A Dog's Head

Jean Dutourd

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To purchase A Dog's Head

Title: A Dog's Head
Author: Jean Dutourd
Genre: Novel
Written: 1950 (Eng. 1953)
Length: 157 pages
Original in: French
Availability: A Dog's Head - US
A Dog's Head - UK
A Dog's Head - Canada
Une tête de chien - Canada
A Dog's Head - India
Une tête de chien - France
Testa di cane - Italia
  • French title: Une tête de chien
  • Translated by Robin Chancellor
  • With a Foreword by Wendy Doniger
  • With a Preface by the author (1997)

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Our Assessment:

A- : dark and sharp

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Harper's Magazine . 7/1953 Gilbert Highet
The NY Times Book Rev. . 15/2/1953 Charles J. Rolo
The New Yorker . 14/2/1953 Anthony West
Time . 16/2/1953 .

  From the Reviews:
  • "(H)e presses on in his terse, deadpan prose to teach a lesson to the afflicted of the world as well. (...) (B)lunt and ferocious" - Time

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       In his Preface author Dutourd explains how he came to write such a story:

     I was twenty-eight years old. One morning, looking at myself in the mirror, I realized I had the head of a dog. You understand, of course, that I was alone in perceiving this -- no one commented on it -- but it was undeniable: I no longer looked as I had the night before.
       A Dog's Head has a simple and unrealistic premise: when Mme De Chaillu gives birth it is to a boy with the head of a dog. A spaniel, to be exact. It is not an overnight-transformation (like Dutourd's own); rather, Edmond De Chaillu is and remains dog-headed from birth on -- and Dutourd spins out a fantasy of what such a life might be like. It is a dark tale, and given how Dutourd came to write it it's hard not to read considerable self-loathing into it, but there's also undeniable power to it, as well as quite a bit of fun.
       There's no way of getting around a dog's head. The De Chaillus can treat their son like any other child, but eventually what sets him so far apart can not be denied. Still, his experiences at school, university, and then in the army wind up not being that much different from those of anyone labeled different and singled out. Edmond can even occasionally use it to his advantage (whining "I'm so unhappy ! Oh, sir, if you had a dog's head like me !" to avoid reprimands and more serious punishment), and though he has to put up with a lot he also finds some companionship.
       Though he gets degrees in both law and the arts, finding a job in those fields -- working in a law office or as a teacher -- proves more difficult, the head getting in the way as potential employers point out how people will react to it, making it impossible for him to properly perform his duties. Even lowlier jobs seem out of reach -- except that of night watchman -- but eventually he takes a job as a bank teller.
       Personal relationships also aren't easy, with even his parents finding it easier to live without him. He doesn't do too well with the ladies, either, with even prostitutes needing a lot of convincing before putting up with him. And getting a pet dog also doesn't prove to be a solution. A date with a fellow bank employee goes awry, too, leading him to leave his bank job -- but then he begins to play the stock market and suddenly finds himself very wealthy.
       In this very shallow society Edmond finds that money really is close to everything, or that it at least trumps most everything:
     Wealth brought Edmond great enjoyment. First, it canceled out his head. [...] Oh, the sublime effect of bank notes ! Overnight that hideous or ridiculous object became just anybody's head.
       Edmond finds love, too, -- but can't help think that anybody who loves a creature such as him can't be in her right mind, undermining all potential for such happiness. Still, the woman, Anne, remains madly devoted (the emphasis -- for him -- on the mad-part ...), and Edmond eventually gives in to it, despite not feeling equally passionate about her. He can't get beyond his head, thinking of their being together in all the wrong terms:
(H)e understood that he had taken a futile step which, like all his actions, was absurd; that nothing good could ever be born of a union between a lunatic and a monster. What problems for a being who abandons himself to Fate !
       Edmond finds a bit of stability, but it doesn't look like it will last, Dutourd's final descriptions of their life all doom and gloom:
They never openly laugh about Edmond. The most moderate demand his internment in an asylum. One day someone will shoot him. Anne also has to face this ostracism. They have nicknamed her "Loopy Anne". Dirty, in rags, with matted hair, she recaptures her old tone when she goes shopping.
       Yes, A Dog's Head is bleak in its outlook, repeatedly showing society to be entirely superficial -- and Edmond not having the strength to accept and rely on the few sympathetic figures that he does encounter. His head is more trouble than it's worth even to many who are supportive -- his parents, for example, finally simply abandon him (though only after having done their duty and raised him to adulthood, no less lovingly than most parents).
       It may be steeped in self-loathing ("Not only have I a dog's head but, aggravating circumstance, the head of the most ridiculous dog to be found", Edmond complains), but Dutourd's novel is also a compelling misanthropic attack. The tone -- taking the story seriously despite its absurd premise, recounting it as one would any other life-story, even at its most preposterous -- is pitch-perfect, making the dog-tale consistently engaging and, almost despite itself, enjoyable. It is very dark stuff, but Dutourd pulls it off with a sure hand.

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A Dog's Head: Reviews: Jean Dutourd: Other books by Jean Dutourd under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of French literature

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About the Author:

       French author Jean Dutourd lived 1920 to 2011. He was a member of the Académie française.

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