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Cats, Doris Lessing, and Me

Vivian Gornick
Some months ago, late on a winter afternoon, I picked up Particularly Cats again. This time, I read it through in a single sitting, hardly able to believe that I had once held this book in my hands and not been similarly compelled.

Philadelphia Museum of Art/Gift of Seymour Adelman, 1968/Bridgeman Images

Thomas Eakins: Cats, 1880–1890

Some years ago, after having lived alone for decades, I found myself yearning for something alive in the house besides myself and, to my own great surprise, decided on adopting a cat. My mother’s fear of anything that moved on more than two legs had infected me quite early, and for most of my life I, too, have been either frightened of, or repelled by, animals—dogs, cats, sheep, cows, frogs, insects: you name it, if it came near me, I shuddered. But now the yearning carried the day, and out I went in search of the affectionate creature who would purr in my lap, sleep in my bed, and at all times enliven the apartment with its antic presence.

It was late summer, and everywhere in the city, there were cages full of rescue cats being attended to by one animal rescue person or another. Soon enough, I spotted an exceptionally beautiful pair of twelve-week-old tabbies, each streaked in a different pattern of black and gray, both possessed of exquisite little tiger faces dominated by great green eyes perfectly outlined in pencil-thin black. I said to the woman minding the cages, “I’ll take one of them.” No, she said, they’re females from the same litter, they can’t be separated; it’s either both or neither. Why not, I thought, and said yes, I’d take the pair.

No sooner done than anxiety of a high order set in. Suddenly, there they were: in the apartment. Like Gulliver among the Lilliputians, I stared at the cats, and they stared back. What did I do now? I hadn’t a clue. What did they do now? Obviously, they hadn’t a clue, either. If I made a move toward either kitten, both shrank; a second move and they scurried away. Then one of them hid for three days behind the couch, during which time the other one meowed piteously, all the while keeping a steady watch at the exact place where Cat One had disappeared. After that, there were days when they both hid themselves so thoroughly that I ran around the house like a lunatic, flinging open closets and drawers, pulling furniture away from the walls, calling out desperately. I was sure they would both die of asphyxiation and I’d be brought up on charges of animal cruelty.

I tried going about my business as usual—working at my desk, keeping appointments, meeting friends for dinner—but a black cloud hung over me. If I was out, I dreaded coming home. If I was home, I wandered around the apartment feeling homeless. What had I done to myself? It was as though I had longed for a baby, then had one, only to discover that neither I, nor the baby, had any talent for the relationship.

The worst of it was my keen sense of disappointment: it consumed me. I walked around mentally wringing my hands. I was never going to get what I wanted from the cats! They were never going to cuddle up to me, purr in my arms, sleep in my bed. Never! Never! And indeed, for a good few years, they did not.

Meanwhile—exactly as though I were a new mother—well-meaning friends began inundating me with cat trivia: books and toys and DVDs arrived daily, all offering advice, mostly of the kind the sender considers humorous, on how to get on with the creatures. This development startled me; I experienced it as juvenile and more than a little tiresome.

Among the detritus, however, was a book by Doris Lessing called Particularly Cats. A devotee of Lessing’s since my college days—for my generation of feminists-in-the-making, The Golden Notebook was scripture—I thought there was nothing she wrote that could not be of interest to me. So I began reading this slim little volume of hers about cats. But the book wasn’t giving me what I needed—concrete advice!—and as I was too nervous to concentrate on anything else, I soon flung it away: “Another celebrity writer being cute about cats!”

For years afterward, almost all I remembered of the book was that Lessing had had a cat she referred to as “gray cat” and another as “black cat,” and that one of them slept behind the bend in her knee, while another had been wrapped in a warm towel when it had fallen ill. In short: nothing. One thing about the book, however, did remain indelibly imprinted on my memory: the tone of its prose. That remarkable voice of Lessing’s—cold, clear, level to a fault, richly reflective of her signature lack of sentimentality—there it was, even in a book on cats.


And speaking of sentimentality, it was the cats who, during this distressing period, taught me how low my own level of the stuff had sunk by revealing the ruthlessness with which my subconscious sought relief. One day, while traveling in a poor country where stray cats and dogs abounded, I saw a mother cat and her kittens taking shelter from an afternoon downpour under a palm tree. As I stood there, enchanted in the rain, one of the kittens looked directly at me, and in its eyes, I was certain, I saw the plea, “Take me home with you.” I remember thinking, If only one or both of my own cats would die—maybe one of them is doing so right now, back in New York?—I could start all over with the little beauty in front of me, and this time around, I’d get it right. Immediately after this thought, came another: so, after all, you are capable of the same cold-blooded calculation with which you have so often charged others.


Then, one day, just like that, it was over. Boredom with my own disappointment set in, and suddenly I was tired to death of thinking about what I was not getting from the cats. From that moment on, I looked at them as creatures apart. And then began my long, steady practice of watching them become themselves in my presence, through their relation not to me, but to each other.

After seven years together, they still lick, bite, chase each other daily with as much interest and purposefulness as if they had just met. Whether as allies or enemies, they are always aware of one another. Should an unusual sound occur or a movement seem to threaten, instantly, even magically, whether they were awake or asleep, they are up on their haunches, sitting side by side, making sure they’ve got at least one friend in this crisis. On the other hand, once a day like clockwork, each assumes a stalking position, facing the other across the living-room rug as though they’re miniature tigers and the rug the floor of a jungle. At some mysteriously agreed upon moment, both spring at the same time and are quickly locked together—hissing, biting, clawing—as though each one means, once and for all, to vanquish this deadly foe, her sister. A few, terrifying seconds of this free-for-all and they fall apart, clearly bored by the game, each walking off, head high, tail swishing, in the opposite direction. Together or apart, six times a day they make me laugh. 

Then there is the ongoing amazement of their separate personalities. Cat One eats like a pig and lost her shape early: her belly now nearly touches the ground. She is secretive, sullen, and passive-aggressive, but all I have to do is catch her eye and she flips over on her back, paws tucked in, eyes fixed on me, commanding me to caress her belly; which, of course, I never fail to do. Cat Two remained sleek and slim (a picky eater), and wildly active, regularly racing through the house. She is also remarkably delicate—when she wants me to caress her, she extends a tentative paw in my direction and looks imploringly into my eyes—and a terrible coward as well: no sooner does someone come into the apartment (especially if that someone is a man) than she’s under the bed or up on top of the highest kitchen cabinet. Nevertheless, she rules my affections because when she stretches herself along the wall or the window, her body resembles one long exquisite column of gray and black velvet, and invariably, the sight of her takes my breath away. I remember thinking, the first time I saw her thus elongated: “Now I understand the power of a beautiful woman. One forgives her everything!”

Although it remains the lifelong need of these cats not to accommodate me, neither can they bear for me to long forget their existence. They are always with me. Wherever I am, they are. If I am working, one or the other plops herself down on the desk between me and the computer. If I lie down to read, they are both soon sprawled or curled on the bed beside me. Then again, if I’m watching television, there they are: curled on the couch or sprawled on a nearby chair. Of course, they do not remain stationary during the many hours we are together. Sooner or later, one or the other runs into the kitchen for a quick bite of dry food, or circles the room as though on the prowl, or sniffs insistently at her sister’s rear end; whereupon the attention is either accepted or rebuffed and both cats instantly fall to licking and purring or hissing and spitting. I don’t think I’ve ever in my life wondered as much about the mercurial motivation of a living creature’s behavior as I have watching the cats. It runs constantly through my mind: Why do we do what we do when we do it? Why does Cat One lick Cat Two madly for a few seconds, then sink her teeth into her sister’s neck, then raise her head looking wildly suspicious, and flounce away as though she’s been attacked? Why indeed. It’s just like sex, I sometimes think. How many times has a man said to me, ‘Why now, why not an hour ago?’ A question for which I have had as good an answer as the cats would have, should it be asked of them.


I still envy the people I know whose cats drowse in their laps and sleep in their beds, but (to quote the famous alley cat, Mehitabel) what the hell.


Some months ago, late on a winter afternoon, I picked up Particularly Cats again. This time, I read it through in a single sitting, hardly able to believe that I had once held this book in my hands and not been similarly compelled. It was a clear instance of my having had to grow into the reader for whom the book was written, and for whom it had, all this time, been waiting.

Only 126 pages long, Particularly Cats was published in 1967, when Lessing was close to fifty. The book begins with an account of when she was growing up, in the 1920s, on a farm in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe); it ends with her, some thirty years later, living in a spacious house in a good neighborhood in London; and all the way through, there are cats: cats domesticated and wild, cats friendly and dangerous, cats beautiful and ugly, smart and stupid. Cats.

At the start, on that farm in the middle of the veldt, the natural world has pride of place. Before we are introduced to a human soul, there are birds, snakes, insects, beasts of all sorts that, each in its own way, is a working problem for young Doris and her parents. The most intractable is the one posed by the many cats about the place, which are forever getting pregnant and dropping one litter after another. It is Doris’s mother who regularly drowns the kittens from each new litter in order to keep the cat population down to a manageable size. But when Doris is about fourteen years old, her mother falls into a depression and stops getting rid of the kittens. In no time, there are forty cats on the farm. Now everyone is depressed. One weekend, the mother takes a trip, and it is decided in her absence that the cats must go: now. Together, Doris and her father herd all but a single favorite into a spare room and, one by one, the father shoots all the cats.

As I’m reading, my mouth opens wider and wider, until I feel it dropping nearly to my chest. Mainly, I am shocked because the mature Lessing relates this grisly tale with extraordinary equanimity—not a blink, not a gulp, not a syllable of distress in a single sentence. What we have instead is that cold, clear, unyielding gaze of hers trained on a piece of domestic grand guignol as it might be on the most harmless of accidental occurrences, and then reflected upon with almost laughable imperturbability: “I was angry over the holocaust of cats… but I don’t remember grieving.”

Twenty-five years later, we are in the house in London and we are introduced to the cat she calls “grey cat.” As a kitten, this is the most beautiful cat she has ever seen: “grey and cream, her front and stomach a smoky gold, with half bars of black at the neck… [her face, too] penciled with black—rings around the eyes, streaks on the cheeks… an exotically beautiful beast… not at all afraid… stalked around the house inspecting every inch of it, climbed up on to my bed, crept under the fold of a sheet, and was at home.” This was Cat with a capital C: “Cat like a soft owl, cat with paws like moths, jeweled cat, miraculous cat! Cat, cat, cat, cat…” But just in case you, the reader, might think she’s become uncharacteristically besotted, Lessing adds, “[T]here’s no glossing it, she’s a selfish beast.”

Then, into the house comes black cat, who, though the incomparable grey cat dominates the household, must be given her due. Grey cat (“selfish beast”) had proven not only an indifferent, but a downright hostile mother: she kills the firstborn of her first litter and repeatedly tries to desert the rest. Black cat, on the other hand, comes into her own with motherhood: “When she is nested among her kittens, one slender jet paw stretched over them, protective and tyrannical, eyes half-closed, a purr deep in her throat, she is magnificent, generous—carelessly sure of herself.”

These cats do not bond with each other, but they, like mine, are always aware of themselves in relation to one another. Unlike mine, which display a variety of attitudes, Lessing’s cats, somewhat like the principals in many marriages, she seems to imply, engage almost exclusively through the arousal of hissing, spitting jealousy. The uniformity of this behavior, given the delightful volatility of my own cats, began to seem puzzling as the examples mounted up. Finally, it was this passage that made me sit up: “When black cat gives birth and is lying, luxuriant, among her kittens, grey cat, even though she herself loathes motherhood, sits across the room, envious and grudging, and all her body and her face and her bent back, ears saying: I hate her, I hate her.” Something here felt inauthentic.

Of a sudden, I found myself not trusting Lessing’s account of the relationship between the cats. In it, she seemed always and only to see at work the kind of power struggle that is driven solely by the drama of the negative, but never that of the playful or the flirtatious or the harmlessly transgressive. With all the Lessing prose I have absorbed, never—before reading Particularly Cats—had I seen so clearly what that deadly serious sensibility of hers serves: the self-protective certainty of a writer who gives no quarter as she stares down her own disappointment with the is-ness of what is. I thought then of the unforgiving portraits of men in The Golden Notebook, as well as in countless short stories in which they are all are cookie-cutter unreliable, their unreliability, in service to Lessing’s single-minded purpose, brilliantly instrumental. It was the self-protectiveness of her hard-edged clarity that had suddenly come into focus for me. It was, I saw, the source of her strength as a writer—and her limitation as well. If she’d been able to cut the world a little slack, it now occurred to me, step back on occasion into a bit of comic outrage or even warm exasperation, her view of animal relations—those of man and beast alike—might have expanded to include more nuance. Certainly, her sentences would have given more pleasure.

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