I was hoping to finish Richard Adams's The Plague Dogs yesterday, having managed to get some reasonably sustained reading done with the long weekend break for the National Day celebrations in this Far Place, but it was not to be. Instead we spent the afternoon and evening in the company of Hamza and Sharifah who are taking a short break themselves in the city state, and a very jolly time we had. But that left no time to read the last eighty pages.
Normally this would have been of little significance, and it wasn't in any way a massive issue, but I did find myself desiring urgently to find out how the novel was going to be rounded off, having completely forgotten the resolution from my first reading of several decades back. This morning my memory was suitably refreshed (I remembered that it was essentially a happy ending but couldn't recall how it was contrived) and I must say that the strength of the ending, despite it being somewhat contrived in the more pejorative sense of that word, reinforced my feeling that the work as a whole is really quite remarkable - not the out and out almost complete perfection of Watership Down to be sure, but a novel that deserves to live well beyond its era despite its faults.
The faults are obvious, to name just three: a narrative voice that's not exactly under control and often reflects fairly nakedly the under-processed opinions of the highly opinionated Mr Adams (though he's such good company that the attitudinising is almost attractive in a convivial sort of manner); way too much quotation from various literary classics, and sometimes less-than-classics, thrown in almost at random (what the sudden quotation from the libretto to Britten's Peter Grimes in the final sequence has to do with anything relevant to the story I have no idea); chunks of satire of contemporary political and cultural concerns that come off as decidedly heavy-handed, and not in the least funny (though with moments of splendid indignation.) But none of this matters put against the glorious story-telling and sheer power of the whole confection. Anything involving the two dogs and their extraordinary temporary companion the un-named tod (the lower-case is deliberate) is superlative, giving access to that mythic level Adams achieved with his rabbits in his first novel, but at a far darker, more adult level.
One thing I noticed about my reading of the novel on the most personal front was just how often I found my mind straying to concerns outside the book that nonetheless connected powerfully with it and became integral to the experience. I suppose this is the reason why the reading of novels generally has to be the most severely compromised if not contaminated of all artistic experiences: the mind has so much time in which to stray into other concerns. Fortunately I care little for the notion of aesthetic purity so I embrace the digressions.
With regard to The Plague Dogs there were two broad digressive territories I kept blundering into. The first was one I'm sure a number of other readers have found themselves thinking of. I couldn't help but keep mulling over broad questions of animal rights and our often frightful treatment of other creatures. Since encountering the philosophical work of Peter Springer (name-checked in Adams's preface) in this domain some eight years ago I've found myself developing a clearer set of ideas about Animalkind and our relations to them, though I don't entirely accept Springer's utilitarianism. I now feel obliged to get these ideas as clearly sorted out as I can and, possibly, consider, acting upon them in some sense.
The second territory is entirely personal. The wonderful drawings and maps of the Lake District by the incomparable Wainwright that pepper the text made me think almost constantly of my dear friend Tony who went to his long home in the early part of this year, as did simply the names of the various hills. I can't read the simple place name 'Great Gable', for example, without hearing his voice. So he was a haunting presence for me throughout. And a strangely comforting one.