During the peak holiday season an injured cat dominated my life. On Xmas Day my grandson’s furry pet, having ventured onto a highway, was admitted with three pelvic fractures to a vet hospital and soon underwent surgery. For most of the next fortnight, until the ‘owner’ family returned from overseas, I spent many vigilant hours each day sitting beside this invalid, trying to administer medication, coax her to eat and drink, prevent her from licking or picking at the stitched wounds, etc.
Naturally my thoughts drifted idly through various depictions of cats in books.
Sometimes other cultural media disseminate what begins as literary material. Umpteen thousands of people who never read poetry have enjoyed T.S. Eliot’s versified portraits in Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats through Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical settings.
As you probably recall, the whimsical gallery of whiskered characters includes Mr Mistoffelees the conjurer, who ‘produced seven kittens right out of a hat’; Macavity the elusive arch-criminal, ‘the bafflement of Scotland Yard’; and Gus the elderly theatre cat, who ‘suffers from palsy that makes his paw shake.’ I first met them on the page, long before Cats was devised for the stage.
Unsurprisingly, cats feature in the work of several famous writers for children – among them Terry Pratchett, Beatrix Potter, Roald Dahl and Lynley Dodd.
Some of these creatures have a repertoire of magical powers – as do Lewis Carroll’s Cheshire grinner in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, able to make itself invisible, and Dr Seuss’s Cat in the Hat, a trickster whose tale liberated early childhood language learning 60 years ago from the inanity of Dick-&-Jane primers while exemplifying the value of phonics in reading.
And let’s not forget that master of deceit who cunningly presides over one of the best-known fairy tales, Puss in Boots.
Puss in Boots is of French origin (appearing in Charles Perrault’s 17th-century compilation of traditional tales), and French writers seem to be especially impressed by cats. An example that comes to mind is La Chatte (1933) by French novelist Colette, which presents a love triangle: a woman, her husband and his Chartreux cat. The cat wins, of course.
Then there’s the 19th-century poet Charles Baudelaire, so infatuated with cats that when visiting a household he would often devote his attention entirely to the resident cat and ignore its human companions. His famous book Les Fleurs du Mal includes three cat poems, one of which I’ve just been re-reading, trying my hand at a translation of its final two stanzas, wrestling with the challenge of retaining their pattern of tetrameter quatrains, rhymed abba:
Quand mes yeux, vers ce chat que j’aime
Tirés comme par un aimant,
Se retournent docilement
Et que je regarde en moi-même,
Je vois avec étonnement
Le feu de ses prunelles pâles,
Clairs fanaux, vivantes opales
Qui me contemplent fixement.
When drawn towards this cat I love
as if magnetically, my gaze
Turns inward in obedient ways
To look upon myself, then move
The line of my astonished sight
Back to those pale but glowing eyes,
Like living opals, which surprise
And fix me in their beacon light.
Baudelaire’s American counterpart, Edgar Allan Poe, was similarly preoccupied with depression and depravity, macabre stories, unorthodox sexuality, and feline companions. As a child I read his sinister story ‘The Black Cat’ and it scared me. A Perth writer, my friend Brenda Walker, has explored some of these themes in her unusual novel Poe’s Cat.
Being over-fond of cats may make some of us seem a bit crazy, but of all animals they’re perhaps best equipped to provide solace in one’s madness. In the mid-18th century, Christopher Smart’s sole companion during years of incarceration for insanity was his cat Jeoffry, to whom Smart devoted part of his idiosyncratic pseudo-Hebraic poem Jubilate Agno. Among other attributes, Jeoffry is admired for his ‘mixture of gravity and waggery’, and for the way he enjoys ‘wreathing his body seven times round with elegant quickness.’ There is, Smart observes, ‘nothing sweeter than his peace when at rest’ and ‘nothing brisker than his life when in motion.’
I have a cat friend just like that. These days, in her maturity, she’s more often ‘at rest’ than ‘in motion.’
And she’s a suitable companion for a writer because of her bookish inclination.