Category Archives: Fiction

Novels as Written by Cats: Hoffman & Sōseki

A year ago we traveled to Hamburg, and in looking for what to read to learn more about the town I stumbled across the extraordinary book by E.T.A. Hoffman (1766-1822): The Life and Opinions of Tomcat Murr. Hoffman was a splendid author of books filled with horror and fantasy you see, and he created a character, a musician, called Kreisler who was a favourite of both Schumann and Brahms (who did grow up in Hamburg). I wrote more about the romantic ideals of genius and music here, based on the chapters about the enigmatic Kreisler found within The Life and Opinions of Tomcat Murr. The tomcat, however — whose autobiography sits ensconced within the Kreisler manuscript given the cat recycled the papers for his own purposes — Murr himself I saved for later. Because at almost the same time I started reading Hoffman, I received as a gift Sōseki’s I am a Cat, a rather wonderful coincidence. It did take me a year to get through the second — a novel read just before going bed and put aside during my many travels and travails of 2016. But having some overlap between the two was rather wonderful, as they share similar views of just what a cat might say when it is granted the ability to write and use them in similar ways to satirise human society. From Murr’s own introduction to his work:

With the confidence and peace of mind native to true genius, I lay my life story before the world, so that the reader may learn how to educate himself to be a great tomcat, may recognize the full extent of my excellence, may love, value, honour and admire me — and worship me a little.
— Berlin, May 18–

Above all I loved the playfulness of the language, the mockery of the romantic sublime:

My new friendship had made a deep impression on me, so that as I sat in sun or shade, on the roof or under the stove, I thought of nothing, reflected on nothing, dreamed of nothing, was aware of nothing but poodle, poodle, poodle! I thereby gained great insight into the innermost essence of poodlishness which dawned upon me in brilliant colours, and the profound work mentioned above, to wit, Thought and Intuition, or Cat and Dog, was born of this perception.

He’s quite an author, Murr, reflecting on the purpose of life, the limitations of friendship, and of course, love:

‘I have made inquiries,’ continued Kitty, ‘into your circumstances, and learnt that you were called Murr and that as you lived with a very kindly man, you enjoyed not only an extremely handsome competence but every other comfort of life, comforts you could well share with a pretty wife. Oh yes, I love you very much, dear Murr!’

Poor Murr, she would, of course, betray him. It is a brilliant counterpoint, however, to the grand tragedy of the figure of Kreisler and the aristocrats surrounding him.

SōsekiSōseki Natsume (1867-1916) wrote a different sort of book, more focused on the banal philosophies of an eccentric band of friends centered around the middle-aged figure of teacher of English literature (just like Sōseki). It, too, mocks the characters and the mores and fashions of the times fairly remorselessly as they are related through a feline indifference.

Nor does it fail to highlight the self-esteem and self-centredness of cats:

However, by virtue of felinity, I can, better than all such bookmen, make myself invisible. To do what no one else can do is, of course, delightful. That I alone should know the inner workings of the Goldfield household is better than if nobody should know. Though I cannot pass my knowledge on, it is still cause for delight that I may make the Goldfields conscious that someone knows their secrets. In the light of this succession of delights, I boldly dare to believe my brain is delightful as well. (103)

Sōseki I am a catThe cat has adventurous with friends and lovers, but above all it is satire on the very human condition. Here a laugh at his master:

every evening he makes a point of going to bed with a book which he does not read. Sometimes he makes a positive beast of himself and shuffles in with three or four boos tucked under his arms. For several days until a little while ago, it was his nightly practice to tote in Webster’s whacking great dictionary. I suppose this behavior reflects some kind of psychological ailment. (154)

His friends:

And who should it be but our old friend Beauchamp Blowlamp. With his arrival the entire cast of the eccentrics who haunt my master’s house was gathered on stage. Lest that should sound ungracious, perhaps I could better emphasize that sufficient eccentrics are gathered to keep a cat amused… (213)

But still, I know that what I love most is the absurd voice of the cat. This, I confess, made me laugh out loud:

Postponing my sea bathing to some later date, I have anyway decided to make a start on some sort of exercise. In this enlightened twentieth century, any failure to take exercise is likely to be interpreted as a sign of pauperdom. … [a long list of absurd cat activities] … Perhaps my most interesting exercise is jumping suddenly from behind onto the children’s backs. However, unless I am extremely careful about the method and timing of such exploits, the penalties involved can be uncommonly painful. Indeed, I derive so very little pleasure from having my head stuffed deep in a paperbag that I only risk this splendid exercise three times, at most, in a month. … Yet another form of exercise is clawing the covers of books. (225-6)

Stuffing a cat’s head into a paper bag! Rare punishment indeed. In these pages there is a mockery of fashion, nudity, masculinity, marriage, neighbour rivalries, love, wealth, ambition, the exploits of school children at the neighboring school and more. Through it all the cat remains above looking down, supercilious:

If we don’t watch out, even cats may find their individualities developing along the lethal crushing pattern forecast for these two-legged loons. It’s an appalling prospect. Depression weighs upon me. Perhaps a sip of Sampei’s beer would cheer me up. (467)

There is even a delightful tribute to Hoffman:

I have always thought myself unique in my knowledge of mankind, but I was recently much surprised to meet another cat, some German mog called Kater Murr, who suddenly turned up and started sounding off in a very high-falutin’ manner on my own special subject. … If such a feline culture-hero was already demonstrating superior cat skills so long as a century ago, perhaps a good-for-nothing specimen like me has already outlived its purpose and should no more delay its retirement into nothingness. (467)

But this foreshadows the — in retrospect the only possible and maybe rather funny — ending, which I found so horrifying to read I do wish I had not read it at all, only read about it. Which is why this sort-of spoiler is here, in case you are thinking of reading it yourself. It’s not a book of dramatic arc so this hardly ruins any of it.

Anyway, two amazing books by cats. Seems that cats offer a good mirror through which to observe ourselves.

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Language and Violence — The Meursault Investigation

The Meursault InvestigationI quite loved The Meursault Investigation, an evocative and angry wrenching away of anonymity from those murdered under colonial rule. A stinging refusal to allow the focus to remain on the problems and tragedies of the murderer to search them out instead in the man murdered, the hole he left behind, the impact of those who we were close to him. The very power of Camus’s words rendered the violence he inflicted on the stranger all the greater.

It’s simple: The story we’re talking about should be rewritten, in the same language, but from right to left. That is, starting when the Arab’s body was still alive, going down the narrow streets that led to his demise, giving him a name…So one reason for learning this language was to tell this story for my brother, the friend of the sun. Seems unlikely to you? You’re wrong. I had to find the response nobody wanted to give me when I needed it. You drink a language, you speak a language, and one day it owns you…(7)

The Meursault Investigation is about how we understand things, how we construct naratives around events. How European narratives erase non-whites, push them into the background, into the scenery, into simple provocations or plot twists that facilitate the drama experienced by white males.

The way counter-narratives must be constructed.

Without realizing it, and years before I learned to read, I rejected the absurdity of his death, and I needed a story to give him a shroud. (21)

There is so much here about language, the differences between Arabic and French, the limitations and liberations of each. In this it shares space with Assia Djebar, though from such different perspectives I love how they each grapple with the same questions.

Language and the construction of narrative.

For a long time, not a year passed without my mother swearing she’d found Musa’s body, heard his breathing or his footstep…And for a long time, that would make me feel impossibly ashamed of her–and later, it pushed me to learn a language that could serve as a barrier between her frenzies and me. Yes, the language. The one I read, the one I speak today, the one that’s not hers. Hers is rich, full of imagery, vitality, sudden jolts, and improvisations, but not too big on precision. Mama’s grief lasted so long that she needed a new idiom to express it in… I had to learn a language other than that one. To survive…Books and your hero’s language gradually enabled me to name things differently and to organize the world with my own words. (37)

She tells and retells, invents and reinvents narratives around his brother — they are so strong they smother him, contain him so that he cannot be himself, must always live in his brother’s shadow. One aspect of the violence of language, brought to life through loss and longing and obsession.

This explores another violence that can be found in words, in silences, in storytelling:

But Musa’s body will remain a mystery. There’s not a word in the book about it. That’s denial of a shockingly violent kind, don’t you think? As soon as the shot is fired, the murderer turns around, heading for a mystery he considers worthier of interest than the Arab’s life. (46)

A violence possible only through the construction of other, through conquest. What the colonised share in common around the world conquered by whites:

Arab. I never felt Arab, you know. Arab-ness is like Negro-ness, which only exists in the white man’s eyes. In our neighbourhood, in our world, we were Muslims, we had given names, faces, and habits. Period. The others were “the strangers,”… (60)

These strangers for the narrator are the Meursaults, the numberless faceless figures of occupation and oppression.

And reminiscent of Fanon, there is yet another kind of violence, what could be a redemptive violence:

On that hot night, nothing had suggested that a murder was about to happen. You’re asking me what I felt afterward? Huge relief. A kind of worthiness, but without honor. Something deep inside me sat down, curled up into a ball, took its head in its hands, and sighed so profoundly that I was touched and tears sprang to my eyes. Then I raised them and looked around me. Again I was surprised by the extent of the courtyard where I had just executed an unknown person. It was as if perspectives were opening up and I could finally breathe. Whereas I’d always lived like a prisoner until then, confined within the perimeter established by Musa’s death and my mother’s vigilance, I now saw myself standing upright, at the heart of a vast territory: the whole nocturnal earth, the gift of that night. When my heart regained its place, all other objects did the same. (78)

But it is not that simple of course, just as the competing narratives, the claims on identity, the nature of family, the complexes existing between a man and his mother, nothing is simple.

Well, after I’d killed a man, it wasn’t my innocence I missed the most, it was the border that had existed until then between my life and crime. That’s a line that’s hard to redraw later. The Other is a unit of measurement you lose when you kill. (90)

After the murder he is imprisoned, will possibly be executed through the new state’s state-sanctioned violence for killing outside of the liberation struggle he is despised for not having joined.

Algeria lives in a different way in this story, Algiers both concrete and abstracted:

…but I loved the virile, almost comforting roar of the engine that was snatching us, my mother and me, out of an immense labyrinth made up of buildings, downtrodden people, shantytowns, dirty urchins, aggressive cops, and beaches fatal to Arabs. For the two of us, the city would always be the scene of the crime, or the place where something pure and ancient was lost. (21)

Funny the way that this is specific and yet non-specific, belonging to a national and urban geography, yet individuals have been erased from them.

…there’s no point inn your going to the cemetery, or to Bab-el-Oued, or to the beach. You won’t find anything… This story takes place somewhere in someone’s head, in mine and in yours and in the heads of people like you. In a sort of beyond.

Don’t do any geographical searching — that’s the point I’m trying to make. (57)

There is much more to The Meursault Investigation, more on language and identity, sexuality and relationships, nation and colonialism and struggle. Much of it is not at all subtle. A book that repays rereading I imagine, a good book for teaching. At the same time it has an intellectual feel, an abstracted feel not entirely due to the form of tales told a researcher in a bar. I am not quite sure why, in some ways the violence is as abstract as it is for Camus, as removed. It does not have the emotional power of Djebar’s Algerian White, cannot touch Mouloud Feraoun’s recollections before his assassination, or even the more rigorous incandescence of Fanon.

[Daoud, Kamel. 2015. The Meursault Investigation. London: Oneworld Publications.]

 

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Margaret and GDH Cole, Crimewriters

Margaret and GDH Cole Death of a MillionaireNot being an English-raised Marxist, I didn’t really know who GDH Cole was, not until hearing Thee Faction’s hit single ‘(Don’t Call on Rock’n’Roll) Call on GDH Cole‘. So I knew the name, and that he was worth calling on. I trust those guys. Shortly thereafter Mark explained that he was Oliver Postgate’s uncle and the inspiration for Professor Yaffle in Bagpuss. Pretty damn swoony.

So I thought of him fondly, though still in great ignorance. Uncovering Death of a Millionaire in one of Mark’s many boxes of books, I pulled it out to read. And now that I am writing this, I thought perhaps I’d find out a little more…but life is a little busy, so I am just going to lazily quote from Thee Faction’s website. It starts out interesting with the description of GDH Cole as a ‘Bolshevik soul in a Fabian muzzle’.

They continue:

GDH Cole was born in 1889. Between then and his death in 1959, he effectively did all the things you’d expect a man of the British Left to do. He wrote for the Guardian, the Left Book Club and the New Statesman, he ran the Fabians, he was huge in the cooperative movement, he was a Professor at Oxford…

Why do they love GDH Cole apart from being the inspiration for Professor Yaffle? Not for the Fabian bit thank god. No, they’re all about Guild Socialism:

A million and one blueprints for socialism exist. Most lead unavoidably to Stalinism, because they hand everything over to the State. Guild Socialism doesn’t. That whole area of life that exists between the individual and the state is what needs to be democratised: Civil Society. So where Stalinism destroyed all the space between the individual and the State, ensuring that the State was everything, Guild Socialism offers a path to a socialism where the State is almost nothing.

That sounds interesting. I won’t quote any more at you, I will wait until I have read some GDH Cole for myself.

It is too late to take their advice and stay away from the detective fiction though…I did, however, really love the gossipy bit about Beatrice Webb thinking he had no sense of humour.

There were a handful of things I really liked about the novel — and it wasn’t absolutely terrible, especially as it helped me to sleep and I needed that. It wasn’t too didactic either, and I learned of the existence of hotels without signs for the right kind of people.

The driver was a small, wizened old man, looking somehow ridiculously out of place in his taxi-driver’s uniform. You realized why, when you heard him speak. Then you knew that he was an old horse-cab driver, driven to a change of occupation that the times should change. He glanced, with small, suspicious eyes, at the two police officers… (61)

I read that and suddenly a window opened up to me, the change from horses to cars, the cost to human beings. I like sentences that do that.

The next one actually made me snort:

“I began,” said Pasquett, “as you know, by getting myself into the confidence of the Bolshevik fellows down here. That was easy enough, I found, where I showed them letters from Lenin, and a few other things like that. (149)

And the grand finale, the moral of the tale?

The trouble about you, Arthur, is that you’ve been badly brought up. You think you’re a bit of an iconoclast; but away down in your mind you’ve a profound veneration for property, and law and order, and middle-class morality, and all the other things you criticise in those funny little books of yours. I had all of that knocked out of me quite early…It’s only that I’m not civilized, and you are. (287)

I can’t quite imagine Professor Yaffle saying that, but possibly just imagining what the world would be if he could…

Writing Worlds

The end of my holiday in the Peak District

Day 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 (morning) | 4 (afternoon) | 4 (night) | 7 | 11 | the end

I am so finished with those men and their delusions. When M. starting singing Kate Bush I knew we were done, I don’t know what Sprake did to those poor trees or what M. was seeing up there, or why he thought we were trapped and couldn’t get out because I got out easy enough, or just where Charteris and everyone else went or when the police cordon went up that I had to cross or if it’s rehab M. needs or if the old ones really have returned but honestly, life is too short to stay in a damp mouldy house with no food and someone channeling Maurice Denham. That’s just not okay in real life.

The real M. would never have done that to me…would he?

But I’m pretty sure it will all be just fine once Jeremy Corbyn is elected. Then M. will return safe and sound, happily babbling the old nonsense of before and not the new post-Charteris nonsense.

I’m not even scared of the old ones now…

My Holiday in the Peak District, day 11

Day 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 (morning) | 4 (afternoon) | 4 (night) | 7 | 11

My god we are still here, and this mist has come down and M. insists we can’t get out and Sprake has come back and he’s being disgusting — I mean properly disgusting. Did I ever at any point evince any kind of desire to see his penis? No. No woman (or man) wants to see that. He’s been wandering around in nothing but some kind of stupid cape and I just…I am so done. It’s over. Sprake has clearly escaped from the hospital and Dyson says he can’t find the farm and there is nothing to eat here and Dinah quit days ago because her food kept going rotten and because the men are all being weird assholes.

If only I’d come to the end of my tether a day or two earlier.

Let the mist rise and I will be out of here, I can feel the hysteria rising in the air, the strange mix of testosterone and fear and over-intellectualization of everydamnthing, and I don’t like it. I am going to hit M. over the head with the proverbial frying pan and drag him home if he gives me any fuss. With love of course.

If only I could un-see Sprake. If only I didn’t have the feeling I am living through a Lovecraft story without all of the repressed bits — and really wishing them repressed. If only I didn’t have the feeling that something is actually terribly wrong.

Not tentacles-out-of-the-mist wrong. But very wrong indeed.

Until the mist goes, I’m off to play with the cat.

The last day…

My Holiday in the Peak District, day 7

Day 1 | Day 2 | Day 3 | Day 4 (morning) | Day 4 (afternoon) | Day 4 (night) | Day 7

I couldn’t convince M. to go.

Almost I left without him, but to abandon him here? It seemed an impossible decision.

Especially because after that terrible night where I began to feel all that he was experiencing creep over me, things have seemed to get better. I have tried to return to my walks in this beautiful country, my books.

The best thing is that the white cat followed me home from the ruins. I found it on the doorstep the morning after that terrible night spent huddled and starting at shadows. I gave it some milk and it twined around my ankles. It curls up purring on my lap now, purring. But only when M. — and all of the men for that matter — are away. It hates them, slinks into hidden corners before I even know they are approaching.

It is how I know they are approaching.

M. has stopped overthinking his translations of that old manuscript, seems much more cheerful and has stopped muttering to himself. He’s stopped scribbling in his journal as well — until today. I shall have to try and get him to share it with me, but he refused to say anything when I first asked him. Normally I would respect his need to keep some privacy in our relationship, I told him, of course I would.

But not when I fear something is terribly terribly wrong.

And it still is, I can feel it creeping up on us again.

He is spending his time in that cave, trying to translate the inscriptions on the steles though he has also brought scans of them home. He took me once when Charteris and the others were away, the one time they were all busy with some other task… sometimes I feel they watch him. M showed me the bare place in the rock where the face had been.

I don’t know what I think about that place, don’t like it, don’t like M. there. Or us continuing here. M. refuses to join me in my walking, even after I described the miraculous pies of Bakewell.

He has no time for pie? Impossible. Steak and Stilton, I said. Lamb and Leek. Real Bakewell tarts. He has refused to join me. And something new has happened this morning, but he just shakes his head when I ask him and says everything is fine.

I can see it is not. I found him shaking, muttering about squirrels again, and I am afraid.

Day 11

My Holiday in the Peak District, day 4 (night)

Day 1 | Day 2 | Day 3 | Day 4 (morning) | Day 4 (afternoon)

I can’t sleep, can’t sleep at all. My mind beset with worries, all kinds of worries, but most of all that I too am infected. Poisoned. Hallucinating like the rest.

I too have started seeing things.

Flurried movements at the edge of my vision.

M. has been tossing and turning beside me, I know his sleep is restless as well.

I am determined tomorrow that we shall just go home.

Day 7

My Holiday in the Peak District, day 4 (afternoon)

Day 1 | Day 2 | Day 3 | Day 4 (morning) | Day 4 (afternoon)

So it turns out there used to be a secret military establishment up in the ruined upper village. WWII shenanigans, all hush hush and top secret and so, Bob’s your uncle, whisperings of plot, murder, conspiracy and other dark imaginings.

I think Charteris just sits in this cottage and spins out conspiracies by the yard — he’d do better to take a turn down in the cotton mills just a little further along the lane.

M. finally opened up a little to me after we got home, after I’d taken my tea upstairs in disgust to read a bit more of Bateman’s fascinating Victorian studies of the local Iron-Age tumuli scattered about that have filled my heart with delight.

M. read me his latest journal entry in whispers — the bright white light that had engulfed the ruins, the cordoning off by the authorities — now that was interesting. I know the hills around here are full of lead, I wonder that there is not uranium as well? Or phosphorous perhaps? I wonder what they had stored up there, and just what they were doing in such a remote location during the war…

It is mysterious, I confess. Rather thrilling in fact. But far more wonderful was M.’s revelation that underneath the village there are a series of tunnels dug by the miners, connecting one public house with another, one church with another (connecting churches is more puzzling, I confess). He and Charteris actually went in one of them without me, and I tell you, I have never been so hurt and angry in my life.

M. knows how much I love tunnels and caves. He still has not forgiven me for the time I dragged him to Nottingham, ‘city of caves’, and a succession of tours led by characters in costume, a sublime sandstone made sadly shmaltz. It crossed my mind that perhaps this was all just one long, drawn-out attempt at revenge.

But he was shaken, I knew this wasn’t about me at all and tried to let go of my anger as he hoarsely whispered of the cold damp tunnels and the scabrous stones and the growing feeling of evil and then…he could barely speak as he told me of the throbbing. Of the face.

The face.

I can only think that Charteris has somehow been feeding him shrooms. ‘Mycological abominations’. ‘Vile mycelium’. Call them what you will.

At least, I hope he has. M., I fear, is beginning to believe in its reality though at least he is now becoming doubtful of Charteris’s intentions. I need to get into the tunnels and see what Charteris is really up to, and how he is drugging my dear M. It might just be the mouldy miasma that Charteris carries with him like a cloud, poisoning his blood and his brain.

Mothers, don’t let your sons grow up to be dirty bastards who don’t know how to wash their clothes.

So tunnels… I’d make every effort to get into those tunnels regardless. But Charteris and those two lackeys of his are certainly up to no good there…

Day 4 (night)

My Holiday in the Peak District, day 4 (morning)

Day 1 | Day 2 | Day 3 | Day 4

The men have continued to act as though we do not exist, and indeed, today it was as though I myself were alone with them as Dinah busied herself in the kitchen and left early. I see how she is invisible to them, though she is the only thing that prevents their collective descent into absolute filth and squalor.

They are increasingly strange but no longer all strangers, as I have finally learned the names of the other two — MacReady and Dyson.

Over breakfast M. kept staring into the orchard — a wonderfully ancient place full of twisted and wizened apple trees. He was seeing things, I know he was, but I saw nothing. I am more and more worried about him. About us. That might even extend as far as all of us. In fact, a man came to take Sprake away. A grumpy and jaundiced-looking ‘transcendentalist doctor’ — whatever the hell that means.

Alas poor Sprake, but that I hate thee deadly I would lament thy miserable state.

I have finally manged to catch a glimpse of M.’s journal, and at first it made me laugh — there is a whole section on his equable temperament, how his Protestant upbringing contributed to his work ethic, thrift and abstemiousness…worthy of a chuckle I thought. But a fond one. It felt like catching someone preening themselves in front of a mirror, I felt a twinge of guilt. Almost put the thing down. I’m glad I didn’t.

The rest is the stuff of nightmare.

Particularly the bit about Charteris interrupting him while he was in some kind of fit working over his translations, claiming he had been sputtering on in some strange language, insensible to the world… M. thinks it is a joke but I have seen him do something like it before. I don’t know what to do, don’t know where to turn. I feel as though Charteris is somehow encouraging it.

Then I heard M. returning and hurriedly hid all evidence of my spying, well-intentioned as it was.

Almost I turned down the offer of a walk around the ruined upper half of the village, but could not bear the thought of my poor M. alone with Charteris. I also love ruins. Love. Them. So we walked up the steep hill and boredom overcame my good intentions (and Charteris has shown no sign of strange behaviour) so I soon left them to explore for myself. They stopped in the first room we came to and stayed muttering to themselves. Even when I crept alongside of them on the other side of the wall I could not hear them or get a sense of the mystery they were concocting between themselves, so I had to put a stop to it.

Still, in those stolen moments of a holiday I could actually enjoy I found a cat! A white one. I resolved to ask Dinah why the upper village had been abandoned as it had, the beauty of the ruins only made me more sad.

When I finally and somewhat unwillingly returned to the two men, M. was white and shaking. I don’t know what that damn Charteris told him. M. won’t say anything. I’m going to have to get my hands on that journal again…

Day 4 (afternoon)