April 5, 2012 | by Sadie Stein
Out of Print is a new series in which we feature our favorite library discards, used-bookstore finds, and family hand-me-downs.
Circa 2002, I forced my eighteen-year-old brother to drive me to a church basement in the outer suburbs of Chicago to watch a community-theater production of a play about the life of poet Stevie Smith. As I recall, we got into a screaming fight on the way there, and he further enraged me by falling asleep during both acts and leaving the theater several times for cigarette breaks. In truth, the show was abysmal, and in retrospect–given the number of soliloquies by a lead with a highly unconvincing British accent and very distracting Dutch-boy wig–his behavior was downright saintly.
All of which is to say, I was obsessed with Stevie Smith. I liked her idiosyncratic verse and her strange novels; I was interested in her latter-day career as a beatnik cult figure; I loved the book of her collected sketches, Some Are More Human than Others. But the root of my obsession was a little-known text I’d picked up in a London charity shop, 1959’s Cats in Colour.
Cats in Colour (or, Color, if you have the Viking edition) was part of a series of picture volumes published by Batsford, a press dedicated to genteel subjects like horticulture. It was doubtless intended as a pleasant gift book for cat fanciers: pretty pictures of fluffy kitties such as one might find nowadays on a wall calendar. Why Stevie Smith was approached about writing the book’s texts is one of the great publishing mysteries of the twentieth century, but the result is nothing short of brilliance. The introduction alone is worthy of cult status.
Here, the “game,” though not to my mind entirely removed from a hidden tartiness, is the game that human beings have been playing with the animal world since the first dog owned a human master and the first cat settled down upon a human hearth. It is we who have made these little catsy-watsies so sweet, have dressed them and set them up, in their cultivated coats and many markings, and thrown our own human love upon them and with it our own egocentricity and ambition.
This barely concealed contempt—for humanity, for the cats themselves—is present throughout the book, although the captions themselves range from the whimsical to the surreal to the unambiguously bizarre. What Smith has created here is really a hyperliterate form of proto–LOL Cat, playing perversely with notions of animal agency, ownership, and human identity. And ultimately, she is benign: as she ends her introduction, “It is an amiable part of human nature, that we should love our animals; it is even better to love them to the point of folly, than not to love them at all.”