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.
Sōseki 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)
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)
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.