The Book, Cat, & Cat Book Lovers Almanac

of historical trivia regarding books, cats, and other animals. Actually this blog has evolved so that it is described better as a blog about cats in history and culture. And we take as a theme the advice of Aldous Huxley: If you want to be a writer, get some cats. Don't forget to see the archived articles linked at the bottom of the page.

August 5, 2012

August 5, 1850

Guy de Maupassant, (August 5, 1850 to July 6, 1893) the French master of the short story, wrote one which was more an essay on cats, than a story, and it was titled "On Cats." Let's do something a little different from the almanac style, let's just quote the entire story. We are transcribing it from The Complete Works of Guy de Maupassant, translated by Frederick Caesar de Sumichrast, (1917). This story, really an essay, was probably written between 1880 and 1890. It contains some cliches and some fresh perspectives on -- Templar castles. Read the whole thing if you like.

I was sitting, the other day, on a bench outside of my door, with the sun shining full upon me, a basket of blooming anemones in front of me, reading a book that had recently appeared, a good book, a rare thing, and also a delightful book, Le Tormelier, by Georges Duval. A large white cat, which belonged to the gardener, jumped on my knees, by the shock of its impact closing the book, which I laid beside me, to caress the beast. It was hot; the odor of young flowers, a shy, light, intermittent odor, floated in the air, and I also felt passing breaths of cold coming from those great white peaks that I saw in the distance. But the sun was scorching, penetrating, with that heat which digs down into the earth and makes it alive, which splits the seeds in order to animate the sleeping germs within, and slits the buds, so that the young leaves may come out. The cat was rolling on its back, on my knees, with its paws extended, clawing the air, showing its pointed teeth inside of its lips, and its green eyes peeping out through the slit of its half-closed lids. I patted and caressed the soft and nervous animal, supple as a piece of silk, gentle, warm, delicious, and dangerous. She was purring delightedly, and ready to bite, for she likes to claw, as well as to be caressed. She stretched and turned her neck, and when I stopped touching her, she sat up and passed her head under my raised hand. I made her nervous and she made me nervous, too, for I both love and detest these charming and perfidious animals. It gives me pleasure to touch them, to pass my hand over their silky, crackling fur, to feel their warmth through the fine, exquisite texture of their coat. There is nothing softer than the warm and vibrant hair of a cat, and nothing imparts to the skin a more delicate, refined, and rare sensation. But this living coat makes my fingers itch with a strange and fierce desire to strangle the beast that I am caressing. I feel in her the inclination that she has to bite me and to tear me. I feel and I catch this inclination, like a fluid which she communicates to me; I catch it from this warm skin through the tips of my fingers, and it creeps along my nerves, along my limbs, up to my heart, up to my head; it fells me, it runs along my skin, and it makes me clinch my teeth. And all the while I feel at the tips of my ten fingers the light, lively tickling which penetrates and suffuses my body. And if the beast begins, if she bites me or claws me, I take her by the neck, give a turn, and fling her away like a sling-stone, so quickly and so brutally that she never has the time to get even with me. I remember that, even as a child, I loved cats, but yet with the brusque desire to strangle them in my little hands. One day I suddenly saw, at the far end of the garden, on the edge of the woods, something gray that was rolling over in the tall grass. I ran down to see; it was a cat caught in a trap, that was strangling, with the death-rattle in its throat. It was twisting its body, clawing the earth round it, jumping up, and falling down; and then it began all over again, and its quick, hoarse breathing sounded like the noise of a pump, a dreadful noise that is still ringing in my ears.I might have taken a spade and cut the trap; I might have run for our man-servant, or I might have gone to tell my father. But, no; I did not stir from the spot, and with beating heart and trembling and cruel joy I watched it die; for it was a cat. Had it been a dog I should have cut the wire string with my teeth, rather than let it suffer a moment longer. And when the cat was dead, quite dead, and still warm, I went up to touch it and pull its tail. Yet they are delicious, especially when, in caressing them, they rub against our skin, purr, and roll over us, looking at us with their yellow eyes which never seem to see us, and it is then that we feel the insecurity of their caresses, the perfidious egoism of their pleasure.Women also give us this sensation, charming, gentle women, with clear and false eyes, who have chosen us in order to get a taste of love. With them, when they open their arms, with pursed-up lips, when one presses them close, with beating heart, when one tastes the sweet, sensual joy of their tender caress, one feels very well that one is holding a cat, a cat with claws and nails, a perfidious, sly, amorous, hostile cat, who will bite when she is tired of kissing. All the poets have loved cats. Baudelaire has sung of them divinely."Les amoureux fervents et les savants austeres." One day I had the strange sensation of having lived in the enchanted palace of the White Cat, a magical chateau, where ruled one of these sinuous, mysterious, troublous beasts, perhaps the only one of all the beings whose footfall one never hears.It was last summer, on the same coast of the Mediterranean. There was a fierce heat at Nice, and I asked if the people here did not have somewhere in the mountain above a cool valley, where they could go for a breath of fresh air. They told me of the valley of Thorence. I wanted to see it. I must first go to Grasse, the city of perfumes, of which I shall speak some day, describing how they make those essences and quintessences of flowers, which are worth up to two thousand francs a liter. I passed the evening and the night in an old hotel in the city, a second-class inn, where the quality of the food was as doubtful as the cleanness of the rooms. I left in the morning. The route lay through the mountains, skirting deep ravines, with sharp, sterile, and wild peaks rising up on the sides. I was wondering to what a curious summer place I had been sent, and I was on the point of turning back to get to Nice that same evening, when I suddenly perceived in front of me, on a mountain which seemed to shut off the entire valley, an immense and splendid ruin, with its towers and crumbled walls outlined against the sky, a curious heap of a dead fortress. It was the remains of an ancient priory of the Knights Templars, who formerly held sway in the country of Thorence.Skirting this mountain, I suddenly discovered a long green valley, fresh and restful. In the bottom there were meadows, running water, and willows, and on the slope pines were climbing up to the sky. Opposite the priory, on the further side of the valley, but lower, there stands the Chateau of Quatre Tours, which was built about 1530, and is still inhabited. Its architecture does not yet show any trace of the Renaissance.It is a heavy and well-built pile of masonry, very strong in appearance, and flanked by four watch-towers, as its name indicates.I had a letter of introduction to the owners of this manor, who would not let me go on to the hotel.The whole valley, which is really delightful, is one of the most charming summer places that one can imagine. I went first through a kind of salon, the walls of which are covered by old Cordova leather, then through another room, where, by the light of my candle, I caught a glimpse of old portraits of ladies on the walls, those pictures of which Theophile Gautier has said:

"I love to see you in your oval frames,
Yellow portraits of the beauties of old,
Holding withering roses in your hands,
As is fitting for century-old flowers."

Then I entered the room in which I was to sleep.I turned to examine it as soon as I was alone. It was hung with old painted tapestries, showing pink towers against blue backgrounds, and large, fantastic birds under foliage of precious stones. My dressing-room was in one of the towers. The windows, which were cut large into the wall on the inside, sloped through the masonry, narrowing as they went out toward the daylight, being, in fact, nothing more than portholes, openings through which men on the outside were killed. I closed my door, lay down, and went to sleep. And I dreamed; one always dreams somewhat of that through which he has passed during the day. I was traveling; I entered an inn, where I saw at a table before the fire a servant in gala livery and a mason, a curious fellowship, but which did not astonish me. They were talking of Victor Hugo, who had just died, and I took part in their conversation. I finally went to bed in a room whose door did not close, and suddenly I saw the servant and the mason tiptoeing toward my bed, armed with bricks.I started out of my sleep, and it took me some minutes to collect myself. Then I recalled the events of the day before my arrival at Thorence, the chatelain's amiable reception. ... I was about to close my eyes when I saw—yes, I saw in the darkness of the night, in the middle of my room, at about the height of a man's head, two fiery eyes looking at me. I reached for a match, and while I was striking it I heard a noise, a slight, soft noise, like that of the dropping of a damp roll of cloth, and when I had made a light I saw nothing but a large table in the middle of the apartment.I got up. I went through the two rooms, looked under my bed and into the closets, but found [nothing and] thought, therefore, that I had continued to dream for a few seconds after being awake, and I went to sleep again, not without some difficulty. Again I began to dream. This time, also, I was traveling, but in the East, the land that I love, and I came to a Turk who was living in the open desert. He was a splendid Turk; not an Arab, but a Turk, large, amiable, charming, dressed in Turkish fashion, with a turban and a whole assortment of silks on his back, a real Turk of the Theatre Francais, who made me compliments in offering me sweets, on a delicious divan.Then a small negro boy led me to my room—so all my dreams finished there—a perfumed, sky-blue room, with skins on the floor, and before the fire —the idea of fire pursued me even to the desert— sat a scantily clad woman in a low chair, who was expecting me.She was of the most pure Oriental type, with stars on the cheeks, the forehead, and chin, immense eyes, an admirable body, a little brown but warm and captivating.She looked at me, and I thought: "This is what I call hospitality, it is not in our stupid land of the North, our land of inept prudishness and odious shamefacedness and imbecile morality, where one would receive a stranger in this fashion." I went up to her and spoke, but she replied only by signs, not knowing a word of my language, which my Turk, her master, knew so well. All the more happy in that she would be silent, I took her by the hand and led her to my couch, where I lay down beside her. . . . But one always awakens just at that point! So I woke up, and I was not very much surprised to feel something soft and warm under my hand, which I caressed amorously.Then, on gathering together my thoughts, I saw that it was a cat, a large cat, snuggled up against my cheek, which slept undisturbed. I let it lie, and, following its example, went to sleep once more.When day broke it was gone, and I really thought that I had been dreaming, for I did not understand how she could have come into my room and gone out again, the door being locked.When I told my adventure (not all of it) to my amiable host, he began to laugh, and said: "He came in through the cat-hole,'' and, lifting up a curtain, he showed me a small, round black hole in the wall.And I learned that almost all the old habitations in this country have such long, narrow passages through the walls, which go from the cellar to the garret, from the maid-servant's room to that of the master, and which constitute the cat the king and the master of the house. He goes about as he likes, visiting his domain at his pleasure; he can sleep in all the beds, see everything and hear everything, know all the secrets, all the habits, and all the shame of the house. He is everywhere at home, and can enter everywhere, the animal that goes about noiselessly, the silent prowler, the midnight promenader of hollow walls. And I thought of a stanza of Baudelaire's:

"He is the homely spirit of the spot;
As judge he sees us all, and doth inspire
All things that pass in his domain;
Perhaps he is a fay—perhaps a god
."

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