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Beloved Dog: Maira Kalman’s Illustrated Love Letter to Our Canine Companions

“Dogs … are constant reminders that life reveals the best of itself when we live fully in the moment and extend our unconditional love.”

“A lot of us humans,” Ursula K. Le Guin wrote in her magnificent meditation on aging and what beauty really means, “are like dogs: we really don’t know what size we are, how we’re shaped, what we look like.” But humanity’s abiding love of dogs has to do with something deeper than this psychological kinship — in loving us, dogs clarify our own size and shape by mirroring back to us who we really are.

The magnetism of that mutuality is what artist, visual memoirist, and champion of attentiveness Maira Kalman explores in Beloved Dog (public library) — a tender, quirky, scrumptiously sincere love letter to our canine companions, part memoir of and part manifesto for the adoration of Dog.

Composed of Kalman’s vast existing body of work celebrating the canine spirit — spreads from her children’s books and illustrated memoirs, New Yorker covers, portraits of dog-loving literary icons, and more — the book is both quintessentially New York and astonishingly universal, a reminder that however much we may think with animals, we feel with them infinitely more.

Kalman, an irrepressible humanist and patron saint of presence, writes:

When I go out for a walk, there is so much that makes me happy to be alive. Breathing. Not thinking. Observing. I am grateful beyond measure to be part of it all. There are people, of course, heroic and heartbreaking, going about their business in splendid fashion.

There are the discarded items — chairs, sofas, tables, umbrellas, shoes — also heroic for having lived life in happy (or unhappy) homes.

There are trees. Glorious and consoling. Changing with the seasons. Reminders that all things change. And change again. There are flowers, birds, babies, buildings.

I love all of these. But above all, I am besotted by dogs.

Kalman’s path to becoming enamored of dogs has been an unlikely one — her mother, born in Belarus, instilled in young Maira a deathly fear of dogs, casting them as mean-spirited beasts likely to attack at any moment. (Having grown up in Eastern Europe myself, where decades of communism and poverty have seeded an enormous population of stray dogs — creatures obeying the same distribution of good and evil as our human lot but bedeviled by ravenous hunger at all times — I find Kalman’s mother far from unreasonable in her fear.) When Kalman fell in love with her husband, Tibor, her terror wasn’t exactly decondition by his family’s dog — “a big black slobbering hairy Hungarian beast named Boganch.”

Beast notwithstanding, Maira and Tibor built a loving home and started a family. But then Tibor fell mortally ill and as Kalman and their two children watched him die, they decided to get a dog — an Irish Wheaten named Pete, who became the family’s solace.

Kalman writes:

I was afraid to touch him. And then, little by little — or perhaps with blinding speed — I fell madly in love.

We took walks together and stopped often to talk to people, or just to look around.

He stayed net to me the entire day and slept on the floor next to my bed.

Pete became her muse and the subject of one of the loveliest children’s books of all time, Kalman’s What Pete Ate from A to Z.

A passionate reader, Kalman communes with literary history’s famous dog-lovers: Kafka, for whom dogs (along with books) were the only light amid his existential darkness, Gertrude Stein, whose French poodle named Basket was central to her daily routine, and E.B. White, literature’s greatest champion of dogs.

Undergirding the book, like all of Kalman’s work, is a subtle and poignant layer of philosophy. Of loss, she writes:

When Tibor died, the world came to an end. And the world did not come to an end. That is something you learn.

Over and over, Kalman embraces the glorious imperfections that make us human — our fragility, our irrational capacity for hope against reality, and above all our willingness to give ourselves over to the force of love which, taken to its ultimate denouement, is always a force of loss:

Complement the uncontainably wonderful Beloved Dog with Patti Smith on how the radiance of love redeems the rupture of loss and Kalman’s delightful Ah-Ha to Zig-Zag, then revisit The Big New Yorker Book of Dogs, Mary Oliver’s bewitching Dog Songs, and this lovely animated ode to what dogs teach us about the meaning of human life.

Illustrations courtesy of Maira Kalman / Penguin Design

Published October 29, 2015




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