Literary Cats by Judith Robinson & Scott Pack

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Reviewed by Annabel

This super hardback book from Bodleian Library Publishing has ‘Christmas gift for the cat lover in your life’ written all over it. Who would have thought that there were so many cats in literature? From classics and children’s books, world literature and fairy tales, to Bob the Street Cat, you are bound to find both favourites and new feline reads in this book, for it proves that cats are ubiquitous in the literary world.

The book is split into themed sections, but the introduction gives us a little of the history of humans and cats, and when they first appear in print – well hieroglyphs – in the world of the ancient Egyptians and coming to be represented in Roman myths and legends also. Aesop’s fables were also collected BCE including ‘The Fox and the Cat’, in which ‘the cat’s relaxed cleverness is celebrated,’ amongst many others. Many cultures around the world also included cats in their folklore and daily lives, Muhammad is said to have been very fond indeed of his cat:

He was once saved from a snake by his cat; the tale goes that he rewarded the animal for this selfless deed by giving it the ability to always land on his feet.

Cats haven’t always been so feted. In the thirteenth century, Popes Gregory IX and Innocent VIII believed they came from the Devil, (particularly black cats), and this led to witch hunts and burnings. But cats were able to regain their position as beloved pets in later centuries as beliefs and superstitions ameliorated.

Audrey and Orangey

The next selection comprises many notable felines that don’t really fit in subsequent chapters, or as a taster of what’s to come. These ‘Felines of Note’ go from the fairy tale of Puss in Boots to Holly Golightly’s ginger tom in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (Orangey in the film winning a Patsy, the animal Oscars equivalent), before taking a turn towards the horror genre with Poe’s Black Cat, and the demon cat Church in Stephen King’s Pet Sematary, leading to Jonas in Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always lived in the Castle. But in between there is maybe one of the most notable cats in literature – I’m talking Behemoth, the giant black cat who walks on his hind legs, swigs vodka and eats with a fork in Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita.

What makes the character of Behemoth so fascinating throughout this whirlwind of a novel is the juxtaposition of the monstrous and shocking with the often entertaining dialogue which Bulgakov assigns to the cat. […]

Behemoth also appears as a parody of these mythical creatures [witches’ familiars] – far less frightening when he opens his mouth to enter into one of his monologues or feign innocence, and even becoming the butt of jokes of his companions.

Subsequent chapters concern ‘Classic Cats’ and ‘Poetic Cats’ and then we reach one that I was particularly looking forward to – ‘Books for Kittens’ – cats in children’s literature. Immortal creations featured include Beatrix Potter’s ‘Tom Kitten’, Kathleen Hale’s ‘Orlando’ and Judith Kerr’s wonderful ‘Mog’ are all present and correct. I was particularly delighted, however, to discover that my daughter’s favourite when young was there. Lynley Dodd’s naughty Slinky Malinki (1990 onwards), who goes out at night stealing things, is a wonderful character whose stories are told in brilliant rhythmic rhyme.

Many other cats written for children get mentions, picture books, rhyming tales, and beautifully illustrated cats, moving onwards to middle-grade books where we meet Crookshanks, Hermione’s cat in the Harry Potter books, and beyond.

There are chapters on ‘Talking cats’, ‘Astro cats’ in Science Fiction, but the authors also make room for a section on ‘Authors and their cats’. This was fascinating, as it seems that cats make ideal companions for writers. One of Hemingway’s cats, Snow White, had an extra toe, and today her descendants who still live at his former home in Key West have inherited that polydactyl trait.  Doris Lessing, Jean Cocteau, William Burroughs, Charles Bukowski and Bohumil Hrabal were all noted cat lovers, just to pick out a few that were mentioned, and Kerouac wrote about the death of his favourite cat Tyke in Big Sur. This chapter ends with the story of Spider, Patricia Highsmith’s cat who had to stay in Italy when she moved to England, ending up with Muriel Spark in Rome. The two authors never met, but corresponded, mostly about their shared feline.

The last section is on ‘Cats in Translation’. Knowing that co-author Scott Pack is a fan of Japanese literature and that cats feature strongly there, I was pleased to find a good selection discussed, many of which I have read and enjoyed. They do cover some cats from other countries’ literature too.

Harry checks out the book © A Gaskell

Complete with notes, further reading lists, and a good index, the text is packed full of quotes from the books and authors featured and the writing is breezy and entertaining. This book will add countless titles to any cat lover’s wishlist – it did to mine! An ideal Christmas gift recommendation.

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Annabel is a co-founder and editor of Shiny New Books.

Judith Robinson & Scott Pack, Literary Cats (Bodleian Library Publishing, 2022). 978-1851245734, 202pp., hardback.

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