Book review — “The Hound of Florence” by Felix Salten

Chances are you are not familiar with this book. But you may be familiar with at least one of the FOUR movies this book has inspired, three of them theatrical, one of them made-for-television. Three of the four all have the same title: The Shaggy Dog. (The author of the book, Felix Salten, has done all right by Disney. He was also the writer who gave the world Bambi.)

The book is very different from the movies. (Not surprising, given the Disney Studios’ track record over the years with adaptations.) Set in Renaissance Florence, Italy, it follows an aspiring young artist named Lucas Grassi. There are no Borgias, no In Canis Corpora Transmuto, no ring.

Actually, I take that last back. In the book, Lucas observes a procession which includes an Archduke and his dog. And Lucas says “I even envy that dog!” As he watches through a window, he bangs his fist on the windowsill and says “If I were allowed to be myself every other day , only every other day, I wouldn’t mind a bit … I shouldn’t mind being that dog if I could go with them on their journey.

“Whereupon in the twinkling of an eye he found he was a dog running along by the side of the Archduke’s coach.”

What happened was “When he struck the windowsill with his fist,Lucas had not noticed that there was a ruddy-looking metal ring sunk into the dirty old wood work. Indeed, in his excitement, he was quite unconscious of the violent movements of his hand. How was he to know that the thin yellow loop which cut a circle in the wood, was of pure gold? How was he to guess that the spot where it was imbedded possessed the virtue of fulfilling for anyone a wish expressed while his hand lay on the magic circle?”

And so, Lucas spends one day as a man, the next as a dog, a hound named Cambyses, and so on, back and forth, as the days go by.

Lucas, as Cambyses, being punished by one of his master’s servants.

The book is a bit of a slog, with Salten deciding it his duty to do a travelogue of Renaissance Florence. And the book is brutal in places, with Cambyses being kicked and beaten in several scenes for disobeying his master or his master’s servants, not the least of which is the dog’s disappearing every other day. Many characters are carrying daggers, which you sense will not end happily for Cambyses.

On the right, Lucas,admiring the pottery of an artisan he meets during his travels.

There is no warning or sensation for the transformation. One moment, Lucas is a man walking on two legs, learning from the hands of one of the great artists of the time, the next he is a dog on all fours. The book is a little confusing in that Lucas, when he turns canine, is once again with the Archduke, where he was when he changed.

Instead of Annette, Lucas and Cambyses meet up with Claudia, a courtesan with many admirers, some of whom she treats as good friends and lovers, others to whom she is, yes, a bitch. (I’ll admit, I would have loved to have seen Lucas’ transformations suddenly transferred to Claudia. Alas, it doesn’t happen.) It is while Lucas is with Claudia that one of the darker scenes of the book, the murder of a rival by a man spurned by Claudia, takes place, leading to many of the victim’s friends looking for his killer.

Lucas in a garden with Claudia.

I’m lucky enough to have an edition of this book from 1930, when it had illustrations by an artist named Kurt Wiese. Modern editions of this book, at least the one I got for the cover art at this review’s beginning, do not have the illustration.

The original German-language edition of this story, I’ve heard, has a much darker ending than the English translations. The latter leave Lucas/Cambyses’ fate more up in the air.

It isn’t the greatest book, even for transformation lovers. But you might want to give it a look. And, for now, you can wonder: Why doesn’t Disney do a female version of this book? And maybe they could’ve done it after the original version came out? It might’ve been fun to see Annette transforming.

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