Review: Wyatt Mason on Bohumil Hrabal’s “All My Cats”

While cats are serious business in children’s literature—the beheaded Cheshire Cat in Alice in Wonderland; the evil Ginger in the Narnia books; the pride of cats in Old Possum’s Book of Practical ones; the cat of all cats that’s The Cat in the Hat“serious” literature hasn’t had much truck with them. Along with throw pillows and afghans and vases full of flowers, they have furnished scenes with tangible traces of human civilization. “A cat on the rooftops, walking slowly, arched its back to the pale rays of the sun,” we read, in Madame Bovary, the creature apparently falling from the roof to its death, never to land in Emma’s lap. The best Tolstoy can do with one is use it, clichédly, as a simile in War and Peace (“but still wanted to play with him as a cat plays with a mouse”), and George Eliot, too, can only skin a cat for a simile (a girl’s complexion looked “like a tiger-cat ready to spring on him”). James Joyce does give them one a good scene in Ulysses, where Bloom pours out milk and thinks about cat nature (“They call them stupid. They understand what we say better than we understand them”), offering the best transcription of cat voice on record (“Mrkgnao!”).

A whole other order of phenomenon is Czech writer Bohumil Hrabal’s All My Cats. If you love cats, please don’t read it; if you hate cats, please don’t read it. If you are confused by the degree to which human beings are contradictory in nature to the point of metaphysical implosion, try to. Written in 1965, just before Hrabal’s work was banned in his country by the Communist government, and published last year in English for the first time in a translation by Paul Wilson, All My Cats is filed under memoir but I suspect that the reader would prefer to think of it as fiction. Although there is a mural in Prague that depicts Hrabal and “his beloved cats,” the account of his love in this slim book raises doubts. The ten short chapters—the book runs 89 pages—document Hrabal’s movements from his apartment in Prague to his country house an hour outside the city in Kersko. Stray cats live all around the house, and Hrabal and his wife feed them, and let some in. Much love, real love, is lavished on these cats, and Hrabal is fascinated by them and grateful to them, for their unselfconscious play, their essential sweetness.

But they leave him torn. When he is at the house, surrounded by them, he often thinks of Prague, and the pubs where he spends much of his time; and when he is in Prague he feels a desperation to be back in Kersko, in large measure because he worries about the cats. Once there, he is overwhelmed by the great and increasing number of them, by the females that deposit litter after litter. “What are we going to do with all those cats?” his wife asks repeatedly. Unfortunately, that question has an answer. There are simply too many cats. When two of the females each have litters of five kittens, Hrabal decides that something must be done. There is an old mail bag in a shed; there is a river a march away from the house. There is a willow tree with extravagant branches where Hrabal had long supposed, one day, he would commit suicide. There are too many creatures in the world, all fighting for space, for food, for life. Hrabal does the unthinkable, and for the rest of this slim book becomes a Raskolnikov more plausible than Dostoevsky’s own: he remains surrounded by cats, and by guilt.

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Cruelty: kindness; love: barbarity; moral choices: immoral acts; All My Cats gets at the confusing mix of human impulse. It’s easy to condemn Hrabal, but hard to find a different resolution. Though written a half century ago, All My Cats invokes all sorts of contemporary situations where the demands of love seem to lead to impossible commitments, where moral self-admiration is a preamble to the narcissist’s reprisal.  As in many works of its place and time (by Klima; by Skvorecky), a casual humor clothes dark questions.

What All My Cats reaches for as a piece of literature—beyond a reckoning with the complications of coexistence—is myth. By the final section of the book, once Hrabal has been punished for his acts, the world having reared up to strike him down with furious vengeance, the site of his crimes becomes a place of new horror and unknown beauty, the beauty of the world further aligning itself with the inner life, the questioning one, the one that asks, as so many of the saddest, truest pieces of art do: Must it be? Hrabal enters a scene on the same river where he is confronted by another creature, this time a swan, toward whom misguided solicitude once again lurches towards violence, a violence which in this case is also a blessing. The swan and Hrabal’s pas de deux becomes a rune written by God, or by whatever power you might have a different name for. It is written clearly, but we cannot read what it says. Hrabal transcribes it, in all its terrible force.

Wyatt Mason is a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine and teaches at Bard College.

Book notes
America’s bookstores, where we come together in search of ways to be larger than ourselves, are providing a window of a kind on the country’s existential strain as we reckon with the next stage of the coronavirus pandemic. During the different forms of lockdown, many bookstores closed altogether, with some keeping a retailing presence alive by signing up as a partner, where they could still offer recommendations and a sense of welcoming, if virtual, presence, while offloading order fulfillment and shipping. At other stores only the owners or a small cadre of staff were going in to wrap packages for their faithful online and phone customers, some grown cranky from unrealistic expectations stoked by dubious e-commerce business practices. Some offered curbside pickup and home delivery (see how they handle it in car-centric LA; Mercer Island in Washington created special retail pick-up parking zones); some instituted bookmobiles (even horses!) to reach remote readers, especially out-of-school children stuck at home, and to take advantage of the relative safety of outdoor encounters (see our story on the history of bookmobiles). A London book barge was eligible for early opening as an “outdoor market.”

Many worked to create a virtual presence that satisfies readers’ hunger for reading communities. The bilingual Washington Heights (NYC) bookstore Word Up, for example (which we wrote about in our notebook on Spanish-language publishing and bookselling), has been developing a virtual, reading-based children’s summer camp and a book club for teens, and using its space, when possible, to support coronavirus mutual aid and George Floyd protestors. Though grateful for the persistence and loyalty of their customers, booksellers have been wistful at the transformation of their business from community hubs to basically mini-fulfillment centers. “Removing the actual experience of putting a bookseller with a customer has been a challenge,” said Meg Wasmer of Copper Dog Books in Beverly, Massachusetts. “We do this work for a reason and seeing what our industry looks like when we’re not actually involved, and how people buy books is absolutely bizarre.”

Yet as retail now gingerly opens up (and closes again), bookstores wrestle with how and how much to return to normal life. They do not want to endanger their staff or their customers but they cannot afford to stay closed. Suz Orchard of Key West Island Books told her numerous elderly customers not to come in—she is delivering to them in person—and she is paying her one, seventy-year-old employee to stay away. Stores are offering masks and hand sanitizer at the door; installing plexiglass “sneeze guards” and touchless checkout; wearing masks and face shields themselves; taping and painting social-distancing instructions on the floor, creating outdoor waiting areas and witty signage and hall-passes to limit the numbers coming in; hiring bouncers; limiting small children; collecting books that have been touched to quarantine them for seventy-two hours; and creating private browsing appointments. In light of a growing awareness of the importance of circulation and air quality, some are installing new air purifiers, some lamenting the lack of clear guidelines from authorities. (Publishers Weekly recorded some of their creative solutions.)

Bookstores have been grateful for the sustained business, but in recent days there has been a series of reports of booksellers speaking out about the strains of their situation. In addition to black-owned booksellers, as we reported last week, being harassed by customers unsatisfied with the pace of the independent retail experience in the midst of a historic upheaval, booksellers have had to remind customers of what they have to gain from contact with a human retailer: such as direction to a cheaper or better edition, or an explanation of what a book’s reprint schedule might be. In addition to impatience, a number of bookstores have reported intolerance from in-person customers who refuse to wear masks, particularly in vacation towns where out-of-town visitors don’t seem to feel the same sense of responsibility for the well-being of the locals that regulars do. Devina Horvath, co-owner of Print and Page Booksellers in Crestline, California, said her staff were called ‘communists’ and there were claims the store would be fined for violating the ADA (false) for requiring customers to wear masks. Booksellers report that when the state mandates mask-wearing it takes the pressure of enforcement off them. Bookseller Jessica Peterson White pointed out in a Medium post that this unwillingness to inconvenience oneself for the sake of others shows signs of the white privilege that readers have supposedly been educating themselves about with their burst of anti-racist reading in recent weeks. “For most people, I venture,” she wrote, “it’s really not the physical discomfort, the fogged-up glasses, the annoying loops rubbing on your ears. It’s the expectation you didn’t choose for yourself, a new requirement that gains you entry into your favorite spaces—the ones where you are treated as a welcome guest, where the customer is always right, and where the needs of those serving you are never, ever brought to your attention.”

If you would like to outfit yourself with a book-friendly mask, the American Booksellers Association is selling book-themed masks to benefit the Book Industry Charitable Foundation, and proceeds from buying this black-book-themed mask are going to organizations improving diversity in publishing and bookselling.

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