Review: 'The Big New Yorker Book of Cats' with foreword by Anthony Lane

V.S. Naipaul, who wrote one of my two favorite novels, "A House for Mr. Biswas," is not exactly known for his winning personality — even many of his admirers find him arrogant, vicious, racist and misogynist. But a beautiful interview with him in The New Republic begins like this:

"It was calamitous for me. I feel a deep, deep grief." Sir V.S. Naipaul is talking about his dead cat. ... "Now that Augustus has died, I want to spend more time in London," he continues. …"It is too painful to be (in Wiltshire). I think of Augustus. He was the sum of my experiences. He had taken on my outlook, my way of living."

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The interviewer asks when Augustus died; Naipaul replies, "This last September." It is early October, and the interviewer offers "a cliché about time healing all wounds." "No, no, the previous September 26th," Naipaul explains. "A year ago. The terrible part of it is that people suggest to me that I get a new cat, that I invite this new cat into the home I shared with Augustus. As if this one should just be replaced so soon. It shows a lack of understanding."

It does, indeed. In my other favorite novel, Frederick Exley's "A Fan's Notes," the protagonist's brother-in-law, Bumpy, shoots stray cats for sport, which always puts me in mind of the great passage in James Boswell's "Life of Johnson":

I never shall forget the indulgence with which he treated Hodge, his cat; for whom he himself used to go out and buy oysters, lest the servants, having that trouble, should take a dislike to the poor creature. … I recollect him one day scrambling up Dr. Johnson's breast, apparently with much satisfaction, while my friend smiling and half-whistling, rubbed down his back, and pulled him by the tail; and when I observed he was a fine cat, saying, "why, yes, Sir, but I have had cats whom I liked better than this;" and then as if perceiving Hodge to be out of countenance, adding, "but he is a very fine cat, a very fine cat indeed." This reminds me of the ludicrous account which he gave Mr. Langton, of the despicable state of a young gentleman of good family. "Sir, when I heard of him last, he was running about town shooting cats." And then in a sort of kindly reverie, he bethought himself of his own favourite cat, and said, "But Hodge shan't be shot: no, no, Hodge shall not be shot."

For Naipaul and Johnson (and for Augustus and Hodge), I possess an inordinate amount of affection, a kind of fellow-feeling. Bumpy and the young gentleman of good family I could have murdered with my bare hands.

So as someone who not only loves cats (my Perdita is sprawled along the bookcase in a pool of sunshine as I write this, extruding her bright pink tongue for some reason) but loves reading about cats and about people who love cats, I'm in the target audience for "The Big New Yorker Book of Cats," a collection of cat journalism, cat fiction, cat poems, cat cartoons and cat covers that have appeared in the magazine over the decades. The anthology even includes a reproduction of Mark Ulriksen's cover for the Jan. 12, 2009, issue, which marked my New Yorker poetic debut. It depicts, with a serendipity appreciated by my friends and family, an orange cat perched on a roof, staring out at the New York skyline, the Empire State Building prominent in the foreground. (This fellow bears no slight resemblance to my sister's cat, whose name, not coincidentally, is Hodge.)

Of course, like all coffee-table productions designed for ailurophiles, the book is also aimed at those for whom cats are primarily a totem of cuteness. The kitschification of the cat — housecats, lions, tigers, snow leopards, cheetahs — is probably inevitable. I imagine the ancient Egyptians had a hieroglyphic equivalent of lolcats. That's a corny joke, but this is a book whose idea of humor is a cat stuck in a tree talking into a cellphone: "I've done it again." (He's calling the fire department, get it?)

Well, they are adorable, as I am reminded daily. And with writers such as James Thurber, E.B. White, J.F. Powers, Jamaica Kincaid, Weldon Kees, Paul Muldoon, Margaret Atwood, Peter Matthiessen, Susan Orlean, George Steiner and Elizabeth Bishop, this big cat book isn't exactly Cute Overload. Some of the pieces are downright harrowing, and several — Matthiessen's 1997 account of tracking Siberian tigers in Primorski Krai, Ariel Levy's 2013 profile of cat breeders, Vicki Hearne's attempt from 1986 to answer the philosophical question "What is it about cats?" — are thoughtful and moving. Sally Benson's short story "The Pet," from 1955, has a decidedly Naipaulian protagonist. And many of the cartoons and illustrations are masterful, especially those by Anthony Taber, Jules Feiffer, Saul Steinberg and Roz Chast.

Not that I read the whole thing. This is a book to browse in. And, as Anthony Lane says in his foreword, recalling that Boswell is "unluckily, one of those who have an antipathy to a cat," it's a book for "serious cat people," those capable of "grasping what Hodgeness means."

Michael Robbins is the author of the poetry collection "Alien vs. Predator" and a forthcoming book of criticism, "Equipment for Living."

"The Big New Yorker Book of Cats"

Foreword by Anthony Lane, Random House, 352 pages, $40

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