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BOOK REVIEW: ‘Cat Stories’
Question of the Day
Edited by Diana Secker Tesdell
Everyman's Library, $15, 400 pages
The thing about cats is that it's not clear that we domesticated them. Humans colonized dogs and horses for hunting, guarding and transportation. They rounded up sheep and cows for wool and milk and meat. But cats can't be rounded up and are not trained to give useful services. More likely, as settled dwellings attracted mice and rats, cats came a-hunting of their own volition. Perhaps at first they were merely tolerated for their part in keeping food supplies safe, but cats and people found they also could share companionship around a fire.
Nowadays, cats rival dogs as companion animals, and while some people love both (or neither), others are partisan. Dog lovers cite the friendliness of their animals and the trainability that makes them essential in policing as well as useful in farming and for guarding homes. Cat lovers see all that useful trainability as the stupidity of a creature that lets itself be shanghaied for human purposes. Dogs are messy, too. They can't look after themselves.
Cats keep themselves clean, and they can be left on their own for a night or two when their owners go away. Dogs utter frighteningly loud barks and growls, but cats talk to people in gentle meows and chirrups and purrs. Dogs love their owners, yet are pally with everyone else, too. Cats tolerate other residents of their homes but generally prefer just one person and have little truck with visitors. When the domestic situation takes a downturn, a dog may pine a bit, but a cat takes things into its own paws and walks away to find another home or simply to live in the wild, where it is perfectly capable of surviving.
All these feline characteristics give cats much more literary potential than dogs. Yes, there are dog stories featuring Lassie and Rin Tin Tin, and legendary dogs such as Cerberus, guardian of the Greek underworld, and Gelert, the Welsh dog who saved his master's baby only to be mistakenly killed as the perpetrator of the attack. But cats feature more often in legends. Typical felines are clever, like Dick Whittington's cat and Puss in Boots, who manages to marry his impoverished master to the king's daughter. Then, too, over the past couple of centuries, scores of writers have dabbled in cat stories. Nineteen of these have been collected, edited by Diana Secker Tesdell and published as "Cat Stories" in the Everyman Pocket Classics series.
Many classic cat stories are now dated. Rudyard Kipling's "The Cat That Walked by Himself," an allegory of feline taming, is too faux-legend for most modern tastes, and Saki's "Tobermory" and P.G. Wodehouse's "Cats Will Be Cats" seem mannered in uninteresting ways. On the other hand, Edgar Allan Poe's "The Black Cat" survives with all its horror intact, and Walter de la Mare's "Broomsticks" is still a readable tale about cats and witches.
Algernon Blackwood's "Ancient Sorceries" also mines the cat-witch theme. Although it peters into misogyny, its first few pages compellingly describe cats in human form. This is achieved almost entirely through observation of movement and aspect. "She took him in with a single comprehensive glance that was polite without being cordial" sums up the regard of a cat, though a landlady is being described. This cat-lady is "heavily sleepy yet at the same time prepared for instantaneous action," her eyes "betrayed the fact that in reality she was both vigorous and alert." The townspeople are similar, "their indifference and inattention just feigned."
However, the most successful stories in this collection ignore superstitious connections to witches and devils and focus on the relationships of humans and their cats. In "An Old Woman and Her Cat," Doris Lessing describes a woman happiest wandering the streets of London, and her tomcat, which is also a loner and helps support her by capturing pigeons for her supper. In "The Islands" - one of the strongest stories in the book - Alice Adams describes the difference between ordinary affections and enduring love in a tale of a beloved cat called Pink. Another candidate for the strongest tale is Patricia Highsmith's "Ming's Biggest Prey," which tells of a cat that comes to the defense of his mistress.
Highmith's Ming is nothing if not an intelligent cat. So, too, is "Puss-in-Boots," Angela Carter's clever retelling of Charles Perrault's amoral fairy tale. In contrast, Gummitch, the kitten at the center of Fritz Lieber's entertaining "Space-Time for Springers," has the world weighed up entirely wrongly. He is convinced that as he grows he will become a human with the privilege of being served coffee, while the obnoxious children of his household will turn into cats. As for the cat in "Cat 'n' Mouse" by Steven Millhauser, he leads the hectic life of a cartoon cat in probably the funniest story of this book.
Taken together, these stories show the fascinated, slightly fearful, often respectful feelings most of us have for cats. We treat them as if they were temperamental lovers. This collection is a must-read for cat aficionados and therefore a perfect Christmas present. The smallness of the volume, its unfussy design and the dark-red ribbon that serves as a bookmark make it an attractive physical object. An introduction and brief accounts of the authors would have been welcome additions. At the very least, the dates of the stories should have been included.
• Claire Hopley is a writer and editor in Amherst, Mass.
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