Friday, June 09, 2017


Eastside Road, June 9, 2017—
Thomas McNamee:
The Inner Life of Cats
New York: Hachette, 2017
pp. 278     read 6/5/17

Carl Van Vechten:
The Tiger in the House
New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1924
pp. 367     read 6/9/17

ANOTHER BOOK by another friend, and read with pleasure. McNamee's writing is always well researched and informative in detail, and this latest title is, I think, even more gracefully written than previous books. And the subject-matter is close to my heart: not the wolves and grizzly bears of his previous books on animals, but Felis silvestris catus, the house-cat.

There are probably almost as many books about cats as there are about Abraham Lincoln, of course, and I haven't read that many of them. Some purport to be owner's manuals. Some are technical, and McNamee cites more than one of these. Some are basically literary, like my favorite, The Tiger in the House, about which more later.


Unfortunately there are a lot of mediocre cat books out there. The best way to know a good one is to see how well it recognizes the essentially wild nature of the beast… There have been, recently, some books that purport to be grounded in science but make no attempt to understand the subjective experience of cats. Without that, you will never have the slightest sense of who your cat really is.
The Inner Life of Cats is, then, by its own standards, a good cat book. I suppose it's of more practical value to a cat owner (or prospective owner) than to one who is, like me, catless; but having shared my house and home with cats — "ownership" has always seemed a problematic word and concept, to me, when applied to pets in general, cats in particular — I read this book with great interest and increasing gratitude.

McNamee's story begins when he finds an abandoned kitten in the Montana snow, adopts it, and learns to share his life with her. He alternates between Augusta's biography as it intersects with his, on the one hand, and, on the other, considerations of more general catness. He writes about whether cats think or talk (they do); whether they're wild or domesticated (wild); how they grow from kittenhood into being a cat.

He writes about how a cat can attain a good life even shared with humans, even living indoors — neither of which, I think, is truly instinctive to the cat. He writes about the cat's maturity and health, its various disorders, aging, and death.

And in a final chapter he writes, this chronicler of animals-as-they-are, about Love, which is after all the highest and perhaps the instinctive reason we humans live with cats. McNamee could have got into trouble here, I think. I've read a few reviews of The Inner Life of Cats on the Internet site Goodreads — I really must write about this site one day, it and Librarything — and more than one take him to task for bringing up the unpleasant fact of the death of cats: ours is an evasive culture, often, preferring to pretend such unpleasantness is the exclusive domain of foreigners.

(But I will never forget the death of our own first cat, the superb Loplop, who died probably of feline leukemia (oddly, an unpleasantness McNamee touches too little for other reviewers), only ten years old or so. Loplop died at home, in his favorite sleeping place, patiently, and taught me much about stoicism, a useful lesson, as it's turned out.)

McNamee's delicacy of writing runs through his entire book, and his discretion is evident from his dedication: not to Augusta, the marvelous black stray whose life and death inspire The Inner Life of Cats, but to Isabel the living cat who succeeded her in the McNamee household. Cats remind us to celebrate those gone but to attend to those who are with us.

I was particularly interested in the chapter on feral cats, which describes in some detail the recent history of the cats of the Largo Argentina in Rome. In doing so it describes also some differences I've noted between Italians and Americans:

American wildlife scientists tend toward attire somewhere between safari and thrift shop, and usually need better haircuts. Eugenia Natoli [a biologist who has organized the mostly volunteer attention to the Argentina colony] dresses with elegant flair, tailored jackets, slim skirts, silk scarves, fine jewelry, high heels, just-so coiffure. Luigi Boitani, one of the world's most renowned wildlife scientists, is given to silky tweed, chic dark shirts, cashmere sweaters over the shoulder…
The entire Largo Argentina story cleared up a mystery for me: why there used to be so many cats there, and why now there are so comparatively few. And the work of these volunteer gattari, who see to the nutrition and medical attention these cats need (including, of course, sterilization), the way the operation is funded and insinuated into the municipal government, can be taken as a model for less enlightened communities, depending as much on intelligence and research as it does on enthusiasm.

McNamee writes about the dangers our cats face. One was quite familiar to me: the over-eager neighbor who feeds your cat junk. Another danger to cats when they're out of doors (which of course is where they really want to be): predators. Coyotes are increasingly common in American cities. Here on Eastside Road, there are also bobcats. Overhead their are hawks and owls. Our neighbors have lost cats to such dangers, and of course to the road in front of their house.

I think of our Sally, another Berkeley cat of ours, who our daughter-in-law's cat the aptly named Tarantula was jealous of, and used to chase into the street, particularly if traffic was present. Sally finally took the hint and went away altogether. McNamee offers helpful guidance for such a situation, but that was in the days before microchips…

McNamee proposes a fine way for society to take care of lost cats and feral population:

Let the states pass laws mandating the licensing of all cats, using implanted microchips. The licensing fee must be very small — perhaps free if you can't afford it. Every person who takes a cat to be neutered gets a cash payment of one hundred dollars (and a license if the cat doesn't have one). … The money comes from private groups and government grants. It will not be long before governments realize they are spending less on that program than they previously spent rounding up and sheltering stray cats.
It's a fine balance of logic, pragmatics, and sympathy, this book; thankfully there's a decent index and bibliography, and I'm grateful to McNamee for the care and research he brought to writing it. I'm grateful, too, that it sent me on to another book.
Carl Van Vechten is one of my 20th-century heroes, for his wit, his intelligence, his enthusiasm, and his creative productivity. He had three careers: ten or twelve years as a music critic in New York; another ten or twelve as a smart-alec but sympathetic novelist; finally a photographer of some note. Among his many books I decided to pick up The Tiger in the House, at first simply to investigate its overlap with The Inner Life of Cats, then very quickly to re-read the entire thing, as it had been a long time since I first read it.

There is some overlap for sure, particularly I think as the subject turns to the language of cats, and their mystery, and their consequent significance as they share our own lives. But McNamee is a contemporary and, in the best sense, a journalist; he writes for today's readership and draws on today's knowledge. Van Vechten's book is a century old and belongs, I suppose, to another time.

But I think it's a time I prefer. Van Vechten is immensely erudite and has studied not only the cat — first-hand, of course, as well as through more distant examples — but also the literature of the cat. The bibliography in my edition of The Tiger in the House (third printing, 1936) runs to forty-eight pages. The many quotations and references are translated into English except those originally in French, which he mainly lets stand in that precise yet evocative language.

Like McNamee, Van Vechten introduces us to his "own" cat, Feathers, but not through a parallel structure for his book — more as a fondly observed reference point to the many other specific cats he introduces, real and occasionally fictional. He does touch on the science of felines as it was in his time, but he's skeptical:

It has long been a favourite contention of mine that nothing is more ephemeral than science; no books are sooner ready for the garret or the waste-basket than serious books. When a serious book has an artistic value, such as a book by Nietzsche, for instance, the case is altered, but the ordinary professor's or scientist's profound discoveries are absolutely worthless in a few years. They serve, indeed, only to indicate the quaint fluctuations, the ebb and flow, of human thought. The first to admit this is the scientist himself, who tells you that you must work only along the lines of the "latest discoveries."
One of the useful lessons Cat teaches is that we should attach as much importance to universal and timeless truths as to immediate and local ones. I think this is one of the subjects latent in the perennial question of Dog or Cat. I myself find ease in simple-minded dialectics, finding for Fitzgerald, not Hemingway; Vermeer, not Rembrandt; France, not England; Ravel, not Debussy; and so on: and in each of those cases I think the cat is associated with the first subject, the dog with the second. England for example is a doggy nation; France, certainly Paris, is feline, no matter how many fashionable little lapdogs are carried about the boulevards in little reticules. Van Vechten:
One is permitted to assume an attitude of placid indifference in the matter of elephants, cockatoos, H. G. Wells, Sweden, roast beef, Puccini, and even Mormonism, but in the matter of cats it seems necessary to take a firm stand. The cat himself insists upon this; he invariably inspires strong feelings.
This question of Dog or Cat can bring up amusing history. Van Vechten tells us about a minor midwest writer, Ella Wheeler Wilcox, who
wrote a song called, " Mother, Bring my Little Kitten." "It was supposed," Mrs. Wilcox explains in her priceless book, The Worlds and I, "to be a dying child asking for her pet, which she feared she might not meet in heaven. It was mere sentimental stuff, of no value, of course. But the 'Funny Man' on the Waukesha Democrat (I think that was the paper) poked much fun at me, and said I ought to follow my song with another, 'Daddy, do not drown the puppies.'" Mrs. Wilcox took the suggestion as a cat laps milk and published the new poem in one of the Wisconsin papers. The refrain ran as follows:
Save, oh, save one puppy, daddy,
   From a fate so dark and grim —
Save the very smallest puppy —
   Make an editor of him.
I think most writers will enjoy that quatrain.

A recurring image in both the books I'm discussing here is the cat who sits at the dining table. Our black cat Joe did that, in our kitchen in Berkeley. Lindsey sat on her chair at one side of the table, I on mine at the other; and Joe sat patiently on a stool between us, on the third side of the table, which stood against the kitchen wall. Now and then — rarely — he put a tentative paw on the edge of the table, in which case I had only to tap it gently and say "foot-fault" and he'd withdraw it.

Joe was an outdoor-indoor cat, and lived to be fifteen or so, dying quietly in the back yard in Berkeley, just as we were preparing to sell that house and move to the country. We brought his sister Blanche with us: she was exclusively an outdoor cat, afraid of men including me, a fine hunter and quite independent though our neighbor Mrs. Revsen insisted on giving her junk food "because she is always crying!"

We were worried that a cat so white would be easy prey for owls, coyotes, foxes or bobcats, but Blanche did quite well in the country, staying close to the house but mainly supporting herself on mice and voles. (We almost never found telltale feathers along her accustomed routes.) When she died, at nineteen, it was under a rosebush. I think Van Vechten would have enjoyed this.


Civic Center said...

Thanks for "The Tiger in the House" recommendation. I'd also recommend an obscure, short memoir by Doris Lessing called "Particularly Cats." It is an unsentimental account of her rocky relationships with a few particular felines, and ends with a satori that is all about LOVE.

louann said...

Can't resist this one. I've had cats my whole life. At one point I entertained about nine cats in my household and at the same time was host to a young French student - who I think when coming into my home and seeing all the litter boxes etc had to retreat to his bedroom of the moment where he spent his time translating the Blues Brothers movie into French. He got over it pretty quickly though.
Many cats have stood out - and yes, you learn about them from what they do. The one I loved most was Zepher - who seemed to have no physical skills whatever and managed to fall off a roof at a very young age and break her leg which cost me a bundle. She was also the only cat I had who liked to lie on my neck - there you go. Later on since she was dog-like in following me to the corner gas station to purchase cigarettes, I was so busy trying to keep her from getting hit from cars I ended up being mugged at gunpoint. Sigh. The cat that was the big inspiration was a young one named Olive delivered by another young friend of my sons who was tough as nails, sweet as could be, and also produced a lovely set of kittens, which was an ongoing process for some years with the various cats we were home for. And then there was Goldy, a red haired kitten other young guys found at the Oakland zoo and brought to me who although male we learned really loved nurturing kittens and as soon as they were born was in the box, licking and cuddling. My friend at the time, who didn't approve, called all of this "welfare cats". The big and tough guy of the bunch though was a cat my youngest son chose, and said he dreamed about before we found him - Chiyo - a white cat with three black spots on his head, which was in his dream. This was one loyal and fierce cat - I'm pretty sure he drove off most of the younger ones once he could find a discrete way to do so - meaning he wouldn't get into trouble. We did go through a bunch of cat deaths that were pretty gruesome and assumed they were either some very violent neighbor or some equally violent animal and never figured it out. Too many sad burials in the yard. Olive was a victim of that. As was Zepher.
Chiyo was never a victim of anything. At 16, and as a not neutered male, another promise to my youngest, he went through about a year or more of sickness in which I promised my son I wouldn't put him to sleep and had to keep him in his own room in my house and care for him as he slowly deteriorated - it was not fun at all, but I understood why my son wanted this because of Chiyo's nature, and just went through it with him. I hate standing next to an animal dying. I've done it a few times. So now I have for the first time a dog. Cats I think are quite something else. I had a prejudice against dogs, but this one is winning me over, at least to some extent. If I thought she could cope with a cat friend, I'd do that - but I have suspicions as a terrier mix that she would be eager to remove the new cat presence. This may all seem much lighter than your comments - but I have spent a lot of time watching and thinking about these so called domesticated animals, and I guess I am saying there is nothing about this we should take for granted.

louann said...

oh, and then I need to add a very common Montana sentiment since you mentioned a Montana cat adoption - not shared by everyone - my stepfather, when confronted with my cat population, said very clearly, "I hate a cat". Which meant he thought they had evil properties, and especially didn't like the way they looked at him. I'm sounding a but like Thurber.