Belfast Telegraph

Why feline friends have made great subject matter for many fine writers down the years

By Mary Kenny

Many writers have featured cats in their prose (or poetry): TS Eliot, Colette, PG Wodehouse, and a beguiling little cat appears in the first pages of Joyce's Ulysses. But maybe the most chilling feline story was written by the Gothic novelist Edgar Allan Poe, The Black Cat. It is a truly terrible tale - but also a gripping one - about a very disturbed man who is in the power of a "gin-nurtured … fiendish malevolence".

One night, after an evening of debauchery, he takes a penknife from his pocket and, grasping his pet cat, cuts the eye out of the creature. Poe wrote horror stories and they are about the horror that is inside the psyche as well as the dreadful deeds described. The tormented cat recovers but the narrator - who is in part Poe himself, for he had a desperate drinking problem, and a damaged personality - goes on to a worse act of violence. For this, he will be hanged, and it is the meowl of another afflicted black cat which leads the police to find the evidence.

But the attack on the black cat has revealed to the narrator the presence of evil, and perversity, within the heart of humankind: "Who has not, a hundred times, found himself committing a vile or a stupid action, for no other reason than because he knows he should NOT?" Edgar Allan Poe's cat story is about the torture of cats, but it is also about the torment of the alcoholic, who carries out crazed acts in drink which are afterwards a source of heart-scalding remorse.

One of the best-known cat stories is Saki's Tobermory. Saki (real name Hector Hugh Munro) was a homosexual and concealed his identity probably for that reason: he died on the Western Front in 1916, where, apparently, his last words were to a fellow soldier - "Put out that bloody cigarette!" His renowned cat story may reveal Saki's anxiety about the secrets of his inner life being disclosed.

A certain too-clever-by-half Cornelius Appin boasts to a circle of friends that he has achieved an amazing scientific breakthrough: he can teach cats to talk. He had experimented with other animals but cats "have assimilated themselves so marvellously with our civilisation while retaining all their highly developed feral instincts". And so, for the entertainment of the assembled company, the talking cat, Tobermory, is produced and is invited to speak.

Catastrophe! Tobermory indeed gives voice - and with devastating candour, reports what he has heard one acquaintance say about another. Social collapse follows and Tobermory is consigned to the doghouse, as it were. Later his corpse is found, having been savaged by the tom from the rectory. The experiment of teaching cats to speak will never be repeated and the animal experimenter fittingly meets his own death from an avenging elephant.

It is implied teaching cats to talk goes against the natural order: although 100 years after Saki's death, I now receive emails informing me that the Japanese have researched a new cat-to-human form of communication.

Cat stories are often autobiographical: Poe, the drinker, and Saki, the concealed gay man, express their anxieties through the cat. Kipling's story The Cat That Walked By Himself is about his fascination with the wild and the jungle of humankind's origins. All the familiar animals come within the ambit of human domestication, but the cat remains ambivalent: he likes the fireside, and nourishment and caressing - but he walks alone. Are we, like the cat, domesticated within the cave or do we retain our instinct for the wild and the jungle?

Maeve Brennan's poignant little tale I See You, Bianca is another autobiographical essay, about a man, Nicholas, who lives alone and precariously in New York City, as Maeve Brennan did herself (she was gifted, beautiful and witty, but became alcoholic and destitute, dying in 1993). An inscrutable white cat, Bianca, is Nicholas' only companion. Bianca is agile, fastidious and companionable too, waiting for him on the stairs when he gets home. But she also has a mysterious life elsewhere. Where does she go? Nicholas knows not. One day she doesn't return. Nicholas searches for her, advertises for her, but to no avail. He almost forgets her, yet the ghost of the lost waif lingers. Prophetic? Did Maeve Brennan herself become the cat who lost her way?

Doris Lessing's story An Old Woman and Her Cat illuminates Lessing's concern with social justice and her compassion for those marginalised by respectable society. A lonely old woman, Hetty has been abandoned by her four grown children, who are ashamed of her half-gypsy heritage and, perhaps, her mild eccentricity.

But she takes in a little trembling kitten who brings her into contact with people, and becomes her only companion as she sinks lower and lower on the scale of survival, ending up homeless, and finally dying alone but for Tibby. It's a cruel world out there for those who don't conform, but the cat understands.

There are many more cat stories brought together in the Everyman series of pocket classics - brainboxes can tackle Ursula K Le Guin's Schrodinger's Cat, a riff on quantum mechanics and the paradox of whether Schrodinger's cat is dead or alive. It's far beyond my limited comprehension of particles and wave functions, but it does contain the wise observation: "Cats look out for Number One."

Cat stories make sweet summer reading for feline fans.

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