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The Literary Cat

While casting about for something a little out of the ordinary with which to salute the end of the summer, I was lucky enough to receive in the mail an unusual cassette: “The Literary Cat: A Celebration of Cats in Poems and Stories,” read by Jere and Sharon Martin.

Cats have a long history of endurance in the company of humans, and though most of them are unhappy about immediate change, they can adapt in their own highly independent and individual ways. The Martins obviously had a lot of fun putting together their selections, which range from the Greeks and Persians up through the centuries right into our own, which is represented hilariously by Adlai Stevenson’s splendid reaction to the Illinois legislature’s misguided efforts to control “feline delinquency.”

With allowances for an occasional curiously individual pronunciation of a French or Greek or British English word, these catlike oddities are pleasures that only the most rabid dog lover would cavil at. The listener encounters both the pleasantly familiar, as with Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear, and the attractively exotic, as with Baudelaire and Ibn Alalaf Alnaharwany (c. 899). In the middle come Wordsworth (“The Kitten and Falling Leaves”), Shelley (“Verses on a Cat”) and Keats (“To Mrs. Reynolds’ Cat”), to mention only a few of the 28 selections.

After this session, I felt moved to hunt out other cat cassettes. (When it comes to cats and dogs, I am a middle-of-the-roader. My first pet was a Shanghai alley cat, my second, a pedigreed Pekingese. Each was peerless of her kind.) The most obvious name to look for was T. S. Eliot’s. As one of the unhappy few who found the solemn treatment of his light verse tiresomely heavy in “Cats,” the musical, I was pleased to find that the poet’s own voice can be heard reading Old Possum’s lines with characteristic panache in “The Poet Speaks.” Eliot is one of 11 poets heard here, the other readers including such names as Auden, MacNeice and Plath, who may or may not have been cat lovers.

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Turning to prose, I found Lilian Jackson Braun’s “Cat Who” series, with four titles narrated by George Guidall, featuring two Siamese cats with Savoyard names, Koko and Yum Yum. In the latest of these to be issued on cassette, “The Cat Who Knew Shakespeare,” we find ourselves in Pickax, Moose County, where “The Big One” innocently means the first snowfall. Koko keeps knocking his owner’s edition of “Hamlet” to the floor, and one soon suspects there is something rotten in Pickax after a leading local citizen dies in a car crash. No one familiar with the Siamese will be surprised to learn that Koko and Yum Yum are finicky about their food and do not suffer fools gladly. These stories are for true mystery and Siamese buffs, but the rest of us could easily acquire a taste for them.

Roving farther afield, and using both Eliot and Shakespeare for an artificial transition, I can recommend enthusiastically Bill Kelsey’s reading of “A Quartet of Cornish Cats” by A. L. Rowse, who is saluted as “the greatest living Shakespearean scholar and student of the Elizabethan age.” The academic cats are, I’m forced to admit, howling rudely, as only an academic cat can, at this description. But there’s no disputing that Rowse is a patron of the Cornish Cat Society, and his classic story of Peter, the White Cat of Trennaren, is joined here by accounts of Peter’s successors. Rowse was moved to write these tales by Virginia Woolf’s “Flush.”

I stop here. Flush, after all, was Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s jealous spaniel, happy to decoy an unwary listener away from cats and into who knows what sort of complications.

WHERE TO ORDER TAPES:

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“The Literary Cat”: Audibles, 115 El Camino Real, Berkeley, CA 94705 (415-655-0750); $9.95, including tax and shipping.

“The Poet Speaks” (Eliot et al.): Poets’ Audio Center, P.O. Box 50145, Washington, D.C. 20091 (800-366-0105); $12.95.

“Cat Who” Series: Recorded Books, Inc., 270 Skipjack Road, Prince Frederick, MD 20678 (800-638-1304); four cassettes, each title purchase $29.95, rental $10.50.

“A Quartet of Cornish Cats”: Books on Tape, Inc., P.O. Box 7900, Newport Beach, CA 92658. (800-626-3333); five cassettes, purchase $40.00, rental $14.50.

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