The Ideal Friend

My Dog Tulip

by J.R. Ackerley, with an introduction by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas
New York Review Books, 190 pp., $14.00 (paper)

My Dog Tulip

a film directed by Paul Fierlinger and Sandra Fierlinger
Paul and Sandra Fierlinger/New Yorker Films
A scene from the film My Dog Tulip, based on J.R. Ackerley’s memoir

J.R. Ackerley’s My Dog Tulip was first published in England over fifty years ago, when I was three, and I can hardly imagine the startled and awed response of a reader in 1956 encountering this little book for the first time. Ackerley had long been a familiar figure in London literary circles. He was the literary editor of the influential BBC magazine, The Listener, from 1935 to 1959, and a long-standing friend of E.M. Forster. He was also a familiar figure on the seedier streets, which he cruised in search of young working-class men. He was looking, he wrote, for his Ideal Friend. It wasn’t until he was over fifty that he finally found that Ideal Friend, and she was, improbably, a dog. Queenie (Ackerley’s publishers insisted that her name be changed to Tulip in the book) was an eighteen-month-old German shepherd who belonged to one of Ackerley’s infatuations, a young man who asked him to look in on his dog while he was in jail. Ackerley did look in, and neither he nor Tulip ever looked back. My Dog Tulip is the story of their relationship, of their mutual commitment to love, honor, and attempt to understand.

Over thirty years later, in a review of Peter Parker’s biography of Ackerley, Alison Lurie wrote: “Even today his uncensored descriptions of his own, his father’s and his dog’s sex lives can cause a shiver of surprise.” Twenty more years have passed in which uncensored descriptions of sex are our daily bread, practically our mother’s milk, and yet Ackerley’s intimate, elegant memoir of his bond with the one great and true love of his life is still and will always be, I think, disquieting. For that shiver of surprise comes as much from the respectful delicacy of Ackerley’s accuracy, from the tender precision of his observation, from his simple, open interest, and ours, as it does from the actual couplings of Tulip and her suitors or the frank examinations of her many excretions.

Thankfully, and almost magically, that shiver of surprise is very much a part of the experience of watching My Dog Tulip, a new animated film based on Ackerley’s book. Like the book, the film is fiercely intelligent, funny, tender, and delightfully scatological. It is so thoroughly and naturally a film for adults that it makes live-action movies seem almost childish in comparison.

The second chapter of My Dog Tulip is called “Liquids and Solids,” two essential and familiar categories for any dog owner. It begins:

In the journal of General Bertrand, Napoleon’s Grand Marshal at St. Helena, the entry occurs: “1821, April 12: At ten-thirty the Emperor passed a large and well-formed motion.” …I sympathize with General Bertrand.

Like the general, Ackerley observed the motions, well…

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