Vladimir Nabokov was a cat lover, or at least he doted on one, May Sarton’s, a tom named Tom Jones whom he renamed Tomski. According to Sarton, when the Nabokovs sublet her house and kept the cat one year:
Tom Jones soon learned that he was welcome to install himself at the very heart of genius on Nabokov’s chest, there to make starfish paws, purr ecstatically, and sometimes — rather painfully for the object of his pleasure — knead.
The Nabokovs became so attached to him that they later arranged for a reunion tea in a hotel suite. Unfortunately, the guest of honor spent the hour hiding under the sofa.
Another temporary charge, Bandit, “a Siamese cat with a milky stare who proved more difficult than Tom Jones,” also came with a rental and may have been at least part of the inspiration for Judge Goldsworth’s pet in Pale Fire. (Unfortunately, the only photo I know of that includes both Nabokov and Bandit is under copyright.)
But my favorite Nabokov cat story? His “diagram of the themes of Bleak House”:
“I want you to copy this exactly as I draw it,” Vladimir Nabokov instructed us…. He turned to the blackboard, picked up a piece of chalk, and scrawled “the theme of inheritance” in a weird arching loop. “The theme of generations” dipped and rose and dipped in an undulating line. “The theme of social consciousness” wiggled crazily toward the other lines, then veered sharply away.
Nabokov turned from the blackboard and peered over the rims of his glasses, parodying a professorial twinkle. “I want you to be sure to copy this exactly as I draw it.”
After consulting a piece of paper on the lectern, he turned back to the blackboard and scrawled “the theme of economic conditions” in a nearly vertical line. “The theme of poverty,” “the theme of political (the chalk snapped under the pressure, he picked up another piece and continued) protest,” “the theme of social environment” — all leaping and dipping wildly across the blackboard. Some people simply can’t draw a straight line.
Again he peered at us, over his shoulder and over his glasses, in silent reminder to copy this “exactly.”
And finally he scrawled the last “theme” in a neat dipping curve, a half-moon on its side, and we suddenly realized he had drawn a cat’s face, the last line its wry smile, and for the rest of the term that cat smiled out of our notebooks in mockery of the didactic approach to literature.
I can’t find his Bleak House lecture notes online, but above are some of his (much-linked) renderings of the insect Gregor Samsa becomes in Kafka’s Metamorphosis. And Fathom has collected his map of the action in Ulysses and his diagram of the “ladies’ sleeping car” Ana Karenina occupied. Many of his butterfly drawings are posted elsewhere.
I was surprised to learn that, once, when an interviewer said he wished it were possible to film scenes from the lives of dead writers, Nabokov enthusiastically agreed and wished for a clip of “Shakespeare in the part of the King’s ghost” and “Herman Melville at breakfast feeding a sardine to his cat.” (Less surprising: “Poe’s wedding” and “Lewis Carroll’s little picnics.”)
Dorothy Parker’s cat — and bed, books, lamps, and shells.
I was actually searching for a clip of that great scene from Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle where Jennifer Jason Leigh says, to a man at a party, “Pardon my pussy.” In context it’s just about the best movie line, ever.
Marion Meade reports in Dorothy Parker: What fresh hell is this? that New Yorker founder “Harold Ross never trusted her and once referred to her, with an affectionate smile, as an alley cat.” (Um, what?) “When James Thurber had been an editor at The New Yorker, Ross cautioned him to keep an eye on Dorothy because she inserted double meanings into her copy to embarrass him. He warned Thurber to query everything.”
“God damn it,” Ross allegedly once said to her when her writings turned political, “why can’t you be funny again?”
Here’s Theodora Keogh, badass novelist and dancer, with the pet wildcat — a margay — that chewed off part of her ear one night at the Chelsea Hotel.
Joan Schenkar points out in The Talented Miss Highsmith, where this photo appears, that Keogh is one of few women whose writing Patricia Highsmith approved of. She was also Teddy Roosevelt’s granddaughter. And she was depicted in the very first issue of The Paris Review.
Despite the contemporary tone and preoccupations of her novels, she’s now all but forgotten. I’m pulling for a revival.
Is this cat Charles Bukowski is holding the “white cross-eyed tailless” tom he memorialized in “The History Of One Tough Motherfucker”?
....I took what was left to a vet who said, "not much
chance... give him these pills... his backbone
is crushed, but it was crushed before and somehow
mended, if he lives he'll never walk, look at
these x-rays, he's been shot, look here, the pellets
are still there... also, he once had a tail, somebody
cut it off..."
I took the cat back, it was a hot summer, one of the
hottest in decades, I put him on the bathroom
floor, gave him water and pills, he wouldn't eat, he
wouldn't touch the water, I dipped my finger into it
and wet his mouth and I talked to him, I didn't go any-
where, I put in a lot of bathroom time and talked to
him and gently touched him and he looked back at
me with those pale blue crossed eyes and as the days went
by he made his first move
dragging himself forward by his front legs
(the rear ones wouldn't work)
he made it to the litter box
crawled over and in,
it was like the trumpet of possible victory
blowing in that bathroom and into the city, I
related to that cat-I'd had it bad, not that
bad but bad enough
one morning he got up, stood up, fell back down and
just looked at me.
"you can make it," I said to him.
he kept trying, getting up falling down, finally
he walked a few steps, he was like a drunk, the
rear legs just didn't want to do it and he fell again, rested,
then got up....
Obviously I was going to get around to this shot of Mark Twain with his kitten and cigar sooner or later. “If man could be crossed with the cat,” he once said, “it would improve man, but it would deteriorate the cat.”
I’m embarrassed about the outpouring of cat photos, but I’ve been feeling kind of up-and-down lately — mostly down, to be honest. Writing the end of this godforsaken novel is so depressing, like I’m dredging up the worst, saddest feelings I’ve ever had about anything and putting them all in a pot and stirring them up until they fizz and smoke and mutate into even more horrible feelings I’ve never actually been aware existed but am now having to sit with. And while all this is happening, I’m trying to bear in mind Toni Morrison’s credo: “if it’s not your brain thinking cold, cold thoughts, which you can dress in any kind of mood, then it’s nothing.”
I love this David Levine illustration of Muriel Spark holding a wicked black cat. It really evokes the wit and brutal perception that made some of her detractors so anxious. Spark really was a little witchy, in the best way. Her “perfect” cat — and only trusted critic — was a Persian, “a gifted clairvoyante [who] would sit on my notebooks if what I had written was all right.”
From her 18th(!) novel, A Far Cry from Kensington:
[I]f you want to concentrate deeply on some problem, and especially some piece of writing or paper-work, you should acquire a cat. Alone with the cat in the room where you work, I explained, the cat will invariably get up on your desk and settle placidly under the desk-lamp. The light from a lamp, I explained, gives a cat great satisfaction. The cat will settle down and be serene, with a serenity that passes all understanding. And the tranquillity of the cat will gradually come to affect you, sitting there at your desk, so that all the excitable qualities that impede your concentration compose themselves and give your mind back the self-command it has lost. You need not watch the cat all the time. Its presence alone is enough. The effect of a cat on your concentration is remarkable, very mysterious.
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