A Dog's Head


"A Dog's Head is an excellent joke in the worst possible taste, and its author, M. Jean Dutourd, is a satirist of the first rank."—The New Yorker

"A Dog's Head is one of the most curious, most beautifully conceived and written fantasies you've ever come across."—J. H. Jackson, San Francisco Chronicle

"A tiny masterpiece in the French classical tradition.…Stylish, elegant and witty, and told with an apparent lightheartedness that points to rather than obscures the hero's essential tragedy."—P. L. Travers, New York Herald Tribune

"Dutourd is a fine craftsman, whose work has the classic virtues of brevity, lucidity, and concentration. He has written a sardonic divertissement that concerns itself with fundamental problems of man's existence—a tale that is sad-eyed, witty, and often very funny."—Charles J. Rolo, New York Times Book Review

An excerpt from
A Dog's Head
Jean Dutourd

Chapter One

When she was told, as tactfully as could be, that she had just given birth to a child with a dog's head, Mme Du Chaillu fainted. After twenty years of sterility, it was a severe blow. M. Du Chaillu was, if possible, even more distraught. For fifteen minutes he seriously felt like killing his spouse, but one glance at her innocent face made him blush for his hideous suspicions. He contented himself with sighing: "My poor Henriette! We might have been spared this."

Mme Du Chaillu burst out sobbing.

"It's ghastly! How could it have happened? I don't ever want to see it. Do you feel as miserable as I do, Léon?"

M. Du Chaillu pressed Mme Du Chaillu's hand, whereat she redoubled her tears. Blushing, he inquired in a choking voice: "Did you think of a dog while you were pregnant?"

"Never!" cried Mme Du Chaillu. "Not once!"

"And . . . before?" murmured M. Du Chaillu, in a still more broken voice.

"Before?" asked Mme Du Chaillu in surprise.

The child snuffled in its cradle. The head of a puppy, frail and endearing, surmounted the swaddled body of this newborn human being. Its pink muzzle, its unopened eyes and its soft fur wrung from M. Du Chaillu his first tears.

"What will people say?" wondered Mme Du Chaillu.

"Quite likely it'll die," said the midwife.

"We'll have no such luck," said M. Du Chaillu sadly.

"Anyway, we can't call him Pierre," said Mme Du Chaillu.

They called him Edmond. Mme Du Chaillu could not bring herself to give him her breast, nor would the curé administer baptism.

"Let us wait till he talks," said the curé. "Suppose he has a dog's soul and barks? Ah, it is a great trial that the Lord has sent you, my friends. Prayer will help you to bear it."

Edmond's tongue was examined: it was flat. A real dog's tongue. He would bark, there was no doubt. The unhappy parents became desperate. Contrary to the curé's assurances, prayer brought them no solace; one would rather have said that it bored them. Then, at the age of six months, Edmond distinctly pronounced the word "papa," which gave ground for much rejoicing. He had the soul of a man!

In two years Edmond's head reached its definitive shape: it was a spaniel's, with long, flapping ears, wide, gaping jaws, and long hairs, masses of yellow and white hairs. For the rest, he was built like an ordinary human being. He was quite a charming child who talked, walked, filled his father's pipe and played with his mother's slippers. His parents could not help having some affection for him. One day, on his own initiative, he went to fetch the paper from the newsvendor and carried it home in his mouth.

"Little wretch!" cried M. Du Chaillu. "Aren't you ashamed of yourself?"

Edmond received a whipping which made him cry a great deal.

"Never try to repeat that joke," said M. Du Chaillu.

The first six years of Edmond's life slipped by much like the first six years of any small boy. Sometimes his mother cast him a look full of pity and sorrow, but he paid it no attention. His father did not like to see him in the proximity of dogs and was always chasing them away. Edmond would hear him say to his friends: "That child had a canine predestination."

Edmond understood that these words referred to him. Full of pride, he ran to the kitchen and confided to the cook: "Madeleine, I have a canine predestination. Papa said so."

"Run away to bed," replied the cook. "Don't bother me. I've my washing to do. Really! Your bite is worse than your bark!"

Edmond roared with laughter. He loved the girl's joviality.

The second whipping he was to remember was administered to him by his father one day when the latter caught him stroking a young poodle in the street. M. Du Chaillu, the chastiser, seemed to suffer more than Edmond, the chastised.

"Ah, Edmond," he said, panting, "what a difficult child you are! Hardly is my back turned before you're up to some dirty trick. Let me catch you at it again, and you'll see! My own son! Me, Léon Du Chaillu! In the middle of the street!"

Edmond could not comprehend his father's indignation. What could be reprehensible in stroking the nose of a playful poodle? But parental spankings have a strange power. The more Edmond was whacked on the behind, the more he felt covered with shame. He had indeed stroked a dog, and in the street, too. There must definitely be something very wrong with him to have felt neither embarrassment at the time nor any sense of guilt later.

"I confess I cannot understand you," declared M. Du Chaillu. "You are quite beyond me. What are children coming to nowadays? When I was a boy. . . Edmond, listen to me: I'm not an unkind man. I'm your father. I'm prepared to forgive anything, but not that. If I ever find you again with a dog, I'll send you straight to a reformatory."

Edmond went without dinner and was sent to think things over in his room. He spent an hour regretting that such an amusing occupation as stroking a dog in the street should make his father so unhappy and earn him a beating. After which, he fell asleep and dreamed of savage dogs, which disturbed his slumbers.

M. Du Chaillu, for his part, said to his wife: "That child distresses me. He is unquestionably attracted by dogs, and we must avoid that at all costs. What can we do, Henriette? What can we do?"

Mme Du Chaillu was no less worried. "Do you really think it's bad for him to be with dogs?" she queried.

"Bad? No! Catastrophic! Besides, there's the question of morality. Understand me, Henriette. That boy has a canine predestination. We must do everything in our power to fight it. As far as I'm concerned, I shall be inflexible on that point."

It was decided not to speak of dogs before Edmond. When that couldn't be avoided, they would shower abuse on these animals. They would depict them as terrible, cruel, treacherous brutes, etc. Might it not even be a good thing to have Edmond bitten by some mangy cur so as to imprint their hatred in his flesh? This last suggestion, however, upset Mme Du Chaillu and and was provisionally abandoned. Two china King Charles spaniels which adorned the mantelpiece were locked away in a cupboard, and a picture in the drawing room representing a St. Bernard rescuing a stray mountaineer was taken down—a rather second-rate painting, anyway. In three months dogs lost all their fascination for Edmond; he began to hate and fear them. They filled him with extraordinary repugnance. In order to frighten him, it was enough to say: "I'm going to fetch the dog. . ." and he would flee, shrieking. Nevertheless, his parents had not enough courage to carry their scheme through to its logical conclusion and inspire in Edmond a horror of himself as well. On the contrary, they did all they could to make him forget his spaniel's head. "I don't want my son to develop any complexes," declared M. Du Chaillu, who had heard talk of Freud. But in the long run it is rather difficult not to "develop complexes" when one has a dog's head. The friends of the family had all been cautioned. They behaved just as if Edmond had an ordinary child's face. They spoke to him of his chubby cheeks, they referred to his fur as hair, to his fangs as milk-teeth, and so on. An old aunt said to him one day, without meaning any harm: "Wipe your muzzle, it's covered with chocolate." The word "muzzle" made M. Du Chaillu jump several feet. He ordered the old lady to clear out and never come back.

Despite these admirable precautions and discretions, Edmond cherished no illusions as to his appearance. He examined himself ten times a day in the mirror. It must be admitted that his head did not displease him, nor was he at all self-conscious about it, as was believed. Once, when he had been particularly naughty, his mother in a fury cried: "You little monster!" He was quite unmoved by this. Wasn't this what all naughty children were called? His dog's head provided him with a thousand ways of amusing himself differently from other children. His range of games was far more extensive than theirs. For example, when his parents went out, he spent entrancing hours pretending to be a watchdog, until he even frightened himself. He barked more realistically than anyone. When, carried away by the excitement of the game, he chanced to bite somebody, this prank was straightway forgiven and concealed from M. Du Chaillu.

Edmond doted on the cook, Madeleine, a country girl accustomed to living with animals. She treated Edmond as he loved to be treated—with rough tenderness. When she was in a bad temper, she didn't hesitate to chase him out of the kitchen with a few hearty kicks. But she also had her good moods, and then she would take Edmond on her knee and scratch the crown of his head with such skill that she drew growls of delight from her little master. She would say: "There's my sweet little bowwow. There's my little pet. What beautiful ears he has, and what lovely big teeth! Oh, la la!"

Edmond had a wonderful time in Madeleine's arms—she was the only person who treated him without affectation. Usually these sessions ended with great lickings. Edmond would sweep his flat tongue over Madeleine's plump cheeks while she laughed and struggled against it.

"Wherever did I get such a dog?" she would gurgle. "It's not a dog, it's a little pig. Stop it! Now please, Master Edmond! Look! I'm getting all wet!"

Master Edmond would straighten his blue velvet suit and lace collar, pull up his white socks and lick his dry chops. His heart pumped in his chest. Of course, M. Du Chaillu happened one day to witness one of these scenes. Madeleine was dismissed and Edmond reprimanded.

Mme Du Chaillu raised several objections when the time came for Edmond to be sent to school.

"The other boys will laugh at him," she said. "He'll be unhappy, poor child."

"He must learn to rub along with the outer world," replied M. Du Chaillu. "We can't always keep him at home with us, shut away from other men. One day he'll have to take to his own wings, and the sooner the better." In educational matters M. Du Chaillu always won the day. His wife soon submitted to his judgement; in fact, she had abdicated ever since Edmond was born. Bringing a child with a dog's head into the world had delivered a mortal blow to her character. Edmond, for his part, could not see why his parents should keep him shut up all his life. He greatly longed to take to his own wings, as his father put it, although this metaphor puzzled him. Standing before the mirror, he took his ears between finger and thumb, raised them horizontally and flapped them. He was surprised that this did not make him fly. The next morning he went off to school. He had been rigged up in a ridiculous manner: a Balaklava helmet, a cap pulled down to his eyes, dark classes and a muffler wound high. The master then spoke up: "Boys, from now on you have a new comrade. As you can see, he has a dog's head. It is not his fault; he was born like that. Besides, I would draw your attention to the fact that his dog's head is a very handsome one indeed. Your classmate has a very fine dog's head. He has no reason to be ashamed of it, and you have no reason to tease him. I rely on your good manners, your charitable natures and your kind hearts never to persecute him."

Nothing could have been more prejudicial to Edmond than this homily. Though he was only six years old, he realized this perfectly. The longer the teacher droned on, the more he was seized with fear. He would gladly have dispensed with this friendly welcome, which singled him out for all eyes and all malice.

"If anyone tries to tease you," concluded the master in a severe tone, "you have only to tell me, Du Chaillu, and he'll have me to reckon with. Is that clear?"

These final words were disastrous. To invite a schoolboy to tattle is to wreck his career forever. Edmond heard a murmur of censure ripple round the classroom, and shuddered. His stout little heart, however, bore no rancor against the master who was thus trying to protect him. He merely told himself that enemies are always cunning and allies always clumsy.


Copyright notice: Excerpt from pages 1-12 of A Dog's Head by Jean Dutourd, published by the University of Chicago Press. ©1951, 1998 by Jean Dutourd. All rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that this entire notice, including copyright information, is carried and provided that the University of Chicago Press is notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of the University of Chicago Press.

Jean Dutourd
A Dog's Head
Translated by Robin Chancellor. With a Foreword by Wendy Doniger and a new Preface by the author.
©1951, 1998, 168 pages
Paper $12.00 ISBN: 0-226-17492-1

For information on purchasing the book—from bookstores or here online—please go to the webpage for A Dog's Head.

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