Monday, June 17, 2013

A quick check of Amazon reveals, as one might expect, that there are hundreds of works of fiction that feature cats.  Yet books that purport to be written by cats are a different matter.  The first one I know, and the strangest, is The Life And Opinions Of the Tomcat Murr together with a fragmentary Biography of Kappelmeister Johannes Kreisler on Random Sheets of Waste Paper, a satirical novel by the brilliant German romantic writer E. T. A. Hoffmann (1819-1822).  Murr the cat studied the writing habits of his master, rising in the middle of the night to compose his own autobiography. Since he had no fresh sheets of paper he composed it on the backs of the pages of one of Hoffmann’s manuscripts.  A printer's error causes his story to be accidentally mashed up with the other book, which deals with the composer Johannes Kreisler, a very different personality. As conceived by Hoffmann, Murr’s story is actually a commentary on human foibles, taking its cue from the coming-of-age novels popular at the time.

Almost a hundred years later the Japanese modernist writer  Natsume Sōseki composed I Am a Cat (1905–1906).  Sardonically observing a group of middle-class characters, the house cat of the narration captures the uneasy mix of of Western culture and Japanese traditions characteristic of the Meiji era.  Originally, the author wrote only a short story for a literary journal.  It was such a success, though, that he was persuaded to add nine more installments, which were then published as a book.  The novel was filmed in 1975 in a version directed by Kon Ichikawa (not seen).

Archy and Mehitabel  is the title of a whimsical series of New York newspaper columns written by Don Marquis beginning in 1916. Archy was a cockroach who wrote in lower-case letters because he did not know how to operate the shift key.  Waiting in the office until everyone had left, the insect would climb up onto the typewriter and hurl himself at the keys.  Archy’s best friend is Mehitabel, a scrappy alley cat, who believes that she is a reincarnation of Cleopatra.  Since Archy is the writerly one, we learn of Mehitabel’s opinions through his transcriptions.  The views of the two creatures make up a satiric commentary on daily life in the city in the 1910s and 1920s.


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