The Master and Margarita
The inspiration behind The Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil,” The Master and Margarita satirizes Stalinist Moscow in the 1930s by means of rather direct symbolism: quite literally, the devil has come to town (and his evil doings stand in for the USSR’s, by which millions of citizens disappeared). The most unforgettable member of the devil’s retinue is Behemoth, an elephantine, demonic black cat who walks on two legs, downs vodka like it’s water, and initiates mayhem wherever he goes. He’s an articulate villain, though most of what he says is terribly obnoxious—and even if it wasn’t, he’d be an undesirable conversational partner, given his fondness for firearms. The story surrounding him, on the other hand, is a hilarious and devastating one.
Fellow fantasy author Andre Norton notes that “what (Richard) Adams did for rabbits in Watership Down, (Tad) Williams more than accomplishes for cats”—high praise for a novel that debuted in an era when “about six billion and three cat fantasies” were swamping the genre. A reviewer compared it to Steven Spielberg and George Lucas movies, writing that “if you can envision a PG-13 cross between The Secret of Nimh and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, that should also give you a good idea of what to expect.” Translation: although this tale features anthropomorphized cats, it shouldn’t be conflated with ’80s kitty pulp or today’s cutesy critter literature. Good and evil clash messily, and these felines are out for blood.
The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle
Murakami makes no secret of his love for cats: he’s written movingly of the passing of his own pet, and feline appearances in his fiction are as predictable as professional writers, home-cooked pasta, and whiskey. One could argue that The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle’s cat—Noboru Wataya, named after the hero Toru’s brother-in-law—is Murakami’s most notable of all, as his disappearance sets the magical, mind-boggling novel in motion. Toru’s cat-search leads him to an abandoned house full of strays, down a well, and to an eventual reunion with his pet a full year later. As cat people (and Murakami people) know, following a four-legged friend can lead one in strange directions.
The Cat Who Could Read Backwards
Lilian Jackson Braun
The first of a whopping 29 novels and three story collections featuring crime reporter Jim “Qwill” Qwilleran and his Siamese cat, Koko (a second Siamese, Yum Yum, enters in Braun’s second Qwilleran novel), The Cat Who Could Read Backwards follows Qwill and Koko as they unravel the mystery surrounding a gallery owner’s murder. Koko has a knack for uncovering clues, as when he leads Qwill on a search for his favorite toy and helps him find a stash of significant paintings. Koko later distracts a knife-wielding attacker, buying Qwill valuable time to smack him with a flashlight. Why, one might ask, don’t contemporary thrillers feature feline deputies? Bloodhounds can be useful, of course, but they’re awfully slobbery by comparison.
Most people who gnash their teeth at the disastrous relationship between domestic cats allowed to roam outdoors and the hapless songbirds they hunt would pen a strongly worded letter to the local paper. Most people are not Margaret Atwood, who made her debut in the world of comics by dreaming up Strig Feleedus, a genetic engineer who falls victim to an accident and becomes a bird/owl/human hybrid (with relevant superpowers, and insight into the struggles of both cats and birds). He’s tempted to eat birds, but he is one. He longs to mark his territory with a good spray, which would undoubtedly land him in jail. Atwood grew up reading and loving superhero comics of the ’40s and ’50s, and while her takeaways are deadly serious, her details are delightfully pulpy.
In the distant future, no spacegoing vessel is shipshape without the services of Barque Cats, creatures tasked with everything from tackling pests to subverting environmental hazards to keeping onboard morale on an even keel. McCaffrey is best known for her Dragonriders of Pern fantasy series, but in collaboration with Elizabeth Ann Scarborough, she turns her talents to the creation of Chessie, a furry sci-fi adventuress. Catnapping from a deep-space veterinary clinic: check. Intuitive and telepathic connections between humans and cats: check. Opposition to galaxy-wide multispecies extinction spearheaded by kittens: also check. Fortunately for us, Catalyst is the first of a series.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a metal band in possession of empty laps must be in want of some cats. Alexandra Crockett certainly knows this to be true: she photographed the softer side of members of (ostensibly) daunting bands like Cattle Decapitation, Murder Construct, Skeletonwitch, and Lightning Swords of Death as they posed with their adorable feline companions. Taken as a whole, her portraits offer inconvertible proof that everyone is a softie for their pet, and purchased as a whole, they support kitties that have yet to find their metal forever homes—a portion of the book’s proceeds benefit no-kill animal shelters.
The Cat Inside
William S. Burroughs
“My relationship with cats,” an elderly Burroughs wrote, “has saved me from a deadly, pervasive ignorance.” When the spiky experimental writer settled into a farmhouse in Lawrence, Kansas in the 1980s—three decades after accidentally killing his wife and publishing works like Junkie, Queer, and Naked Lunch—he developed a fondness for adopting strays with names like Ed, Calico Jane, and Ruski. Why, in his 70s, did Burroughs decide to reminisce about the many felines in his life? As he wrote in his final journal entry before he died, “Only thing can resolve conflict is love, like I felt for Fletch and Ruski, Spooner, and Calico. Pure love. What I feel for my cats present and past./ Love? What is it?/ Most natural painkiller what there is./ LOVE.”
While there’s no official explanation as to why writers appreciate felines—and why felines appreciate writers, and their books, and their laptops—theories abound. “Authors like cats because they are such quiet, loveable, wise creatures, and cats like authors for the same reasons,” Robertson Davies wrote. Cats are also excellent excuses to procrastinate: who can be expected to ignore the attentions of a diminutive familiar, even for art’s sake? In the centuries since Christopher Smart’s “Cat Jeoffry” strutted into the 18th-century poet’s “Jubilate Agno,” cats have found their way into literary endeavors of all kinds. Read on to meet our favorite (literary) feline characters.
Featured Image: CSA Images