Sylvie Simmons on Doris Lessing's Particularly Cats
It began with the Great Uncluttering - the fourth stage of lockdown that followed Bewilderment, Grand Ambition and Sloth. Struck by a desire to impose some kind of order over the world of my apartment, I set about the heaving, overspilling shelves of records and books. But Hell will freeze over before I cull my record collection. So, books it was. Eventually, and not without pain, I had ten large bags to take to the thrift store.
But the thrift store was in lockdown.
So the bags just sat there, reproachful, like a boyfriend you broke up with but who’s still there in the corner of the bedroom and it’s lockdown and you’re lonely. I really did try to ignore them, but I broke. I pulled out one book after another. And so I made a deal with myself. If I wanted to keep a book, I would have to read it first.
I’ve just finished Virginia Woolf's A Room Of One's Own. It’s fascinating rereading her argument – that a woman writer needs an income and personal space – during the pandemic, with my income plummeting and my personal space feeling more like solitary confinement. But if I’m to choose just one book to recommend, it’s this: Doris Lessing's Particularly Cats. It’s a short book – 121 pages; you can read it in one sitting – and it’s not one you’re likely to see on any Best of Lessing lists. But it really is quite strange and wonderful.
“If a fish is the movement of water embodied, given shape, then cat is a diagram and pattern of subtle air.”
When Lessing was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, they praised her for the “scepticism, fire and visionary power” with which she had “subjected a divided civilization to scrutiny.” Well, here she scrutinizes Cat, based on the many felines that have entered or left her life, interweaving their stories with memoir. Sometimes it’s poignant, though rarely sentimental. Often it’s dark, funny, frank and perceptive.
“The cat bit and scratched and yelled. A contraction expelled the kitten, and at once the half-demented cat turned around and bit the kitten in the back of its neck and it died. That cat had six litters. She killed the first-born kitten in each litter. Apart from this, she was a good mother.”
Given Lessing’s own history of motherhood, it’s hard not to see in this at least some fellow-feeling. I put the book back on the shelf.
P.S Since my old copy of the book didn’t smell so good, I looked to see if it was still available. There’s a newish paperback with 13 ratings. I checked the 1-star reviews first.
I got through 3 pages before throwing the book against the wall in anger. The beautiful cover and intro are completely misleading. The author writes graphically about cats being killed in horrible ways. The most disturbing part is that she writes these passages with no emotion at all. It's very hard to understand how she can so matter of factly write this stuff. I see no redeeming or artistic value in this trash. What an unusual and creepy woman this author is.
NOTE: If you buy Sylvie Simmons' New York Times bestselling Cohen biography here, you're supporting independent booksellers and Journal of the Plague Year. Not that we're pushing. But we'd buy it for the cover photo alone. Lessing's Particularly Cats is available at The Evil Empire. (Yes, Amazon.)
Playlist: Brian Cullman Flings the Cat
Big Cat, Little Cat ::: Dan Burley
Dead Cat On The Line ::: Tampa Red
Cat Called Domino ::: Roy Orbison
Leave My Kitten Alone ::: Little Willie John
Kitty Cat Blues ::: The Mississippi Sheiks
Pussy, Pussy, Pussy ::: The Light Crust Doughboys
Black Cat Bone ::: Mr Airplane Man
The Cat’s Got The Measles ::: Papa Charlie Jackson