I had two personal responses when I noticed Helen Humphreys’ new book, “And a Dog Called Fig” on a book stand in Stratford. First, there is my own love of dogs and, in particular, of dachshunds, be they standards or miniatures. Second is my interest in knowing more about Helen Humphreys as a novelist and writer.
The Kingston resident, now nearing 60, has been prolific in her output to date — nine novels, four books of poetry, and six works of “creative non-fiction.” This new book belongs in the latter category. It is an easy read though I was occasionally disappointed in her straightforward style and a tendency to repetitiveness. Some subjects, I admit, lead to such problems in presentation.
”And a Dog Called Fig” is subtitled “Solitude, Connection, the Writing Life.” It is a meditation on the ways in which dogs provide companionship, refreshment and structure for a writer at work. Writing professionally is, after all, a lonely and somewhat dull, sedentary occupation. Humphreys admits to being “quite a social person” for whom the solitude of writing has never been easy.
But, as she argues, “With a dog one is never alone.” Furthermore, she wonders, “What does a dog bring to the creative life?” “My writing life,” she reports, “has mostly included dogs, but I never spent time thinking about what this has meant to my creative journey.” This book is her personal reassessment of those experiences.
Her subject, overall, is her lifelong set of relationships with four-legged creatures of several breeds. Still, she realizes that her attachment to dogs will only be of interest to some readers. Thus, she counterpoints her account of her canine companions with observations about her life as a writer and the choice of subject matter for some of her novels.
She admits to being a poet manque — that is, a poet who slowly discovered that the novel form was more amenable to her creative skills.
She shapes her memoir and her record of her canine relationships into seven writerly chapters — Beginnings, Character, Structure, Process. Setting, Pacing and Endings. She boosters her personal experiences with glimpses into the lives of other writers and their special dogs.
Thomas Hardy, Virginia Woolf, Emily Dickinson, James Thurber and J.R. Ackerley are a few among the many she visits. Perhaps not surprisingly, we learn that highly-respected writers were often not good dog owners; they let their beloved pets behave outrageously, but they loved them no less for all that.
Dogs were a part of Humphrey’s life from her earliest days. A 150-pound St Bernard named Lisa was her pet and companion from her childhood years in England to her new life in Canada. There were — happily for me but only briefly for her — dachshunds as well, but it was the Vizsla breed that she chose as companions for her writing life. Three in particular are her focus — Hazel, Charlotte, and her new puppy Fig. I knew little of Vizslas before; some readers may share that reaction. But I know more about them now.
Vizslas are “a finely tuned hunting dog,” bred initially in Hungary. They are long-legged and aren’t known for calmness of temperament; they don’t drool or bark too much and they are intelligent, handsome, and aristocratic in bearing. Their high level of energy requires several hours of walking and exercise a day. But they become devoted to their masters and very affectionate by nature.
Humphrey’s most cherished dog in terms of compatibility, temperament and affection was Charlotte, but, in the vacuum created by Charlotte’s death, she felt strongly that she needed another Vizsla companion. Bravely she took on Fig as a puppy, forgetful of the fact that Vizslas are biters and require almost constant attention in their early months while they grow out of their puppy frenzy and adapt to their new owner and home.
Humphreys reports that she often looked like she had been in a fist fight when her cuddling with Fig led to facial nippings from his razorlike teeth. On one level the book is a memoir of Humphrey’s day-to-day attempts to train Fig during the winter months when cold weather meant limited opportunities to encourage him to do his business outdoors.
During these months she had little time for writing, but at the same time she realized that she had discovered a new book project. Fig and his two Vizsla predecessors became the core of a book-length study.
The book is chalk full of interesting, if understated, observations. Humphreys recognizes and celebrates “a continuum (in her own literary life) — “love, writing, dogs.” Regarding Fig’s frenetic resistance to training as a puppy, she wonders, “Can a bad dog help to make a good writer?” Or, perhaps better, ‘Can a good dog help to make a better writer?’ In Humphrey’s case the answer is yes. Her stories about Hazel and Charlotte are proof-positive. We sense over the course of the book that Fig will soon become an excellent companion for her work.
As a careful observer of her own experiences, Humphreys asserts that “Being with any young animal (and I include babies in this) is an excellent way to study character.” When things are going well, she observes that “Walking the dog became the punctuation in the writing day.” Necessary attention to the dog’s need of exercise can be salutary to the rhythm of writing; the walks provide refreshing breaks from the dull and sedentary routine of creative effort.
Increasingly over her career and in large part because of her canine companions, Humphreys became much more attentive to nature and the natural world. Writing In the present moment she asserts, “I don’t want to leave the world of nature, where so much of my imagination and senses are satisfied, where my curiosity is endlessly rampant.”
In a recent novel “The Evening Chorus” (2015), she reports that she used “My real experiences of nature to fuel the story, so even though the characters were fictional, all the bits about the natural world were taken by my own forays there when out with the dog.”
Humphreys leaves us with some challenging queries. “Are dogs of a more noble nature than humans?” she asks. Or, paraphrasing here, do they help to improve us in our own lives, even as we are looking after them? In her words, “After a lifetime spent with dogs, when they have been the single biggest influence on my work and my life, do they make us better, or do they simply return us to who we are?” Both possibilities can be seen as true.
One thing is clear. In Helen Humphrey’s case dogs are a crucial part of a creative and life-enhancing partnership. They have come increasingly to inform her writing, her outlook and her well-being. Her musings take us deep into the human-canine relationship.
Like her and in part through her, I daily recognize the important place of dachshunds in my own life and writing. Our latest companion, a miniature long-haired dachshund named Mac, fills a large presence in my life; he is a kind of Charlotte or Fig to me.
Reach Michael Peterman, professor emeritus of English literature at Trent University, at email@example.com.