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Orwell by Way of Langley, and Other News

November 7, 2014 | by

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A still from the British film adaptation of Animal Farm, 1954.

  • Fact: the New York Public Library has among its possessions a letter opener with a handle made from the paw of Charles Dickens’s dead cat. (“The story is that he had trained his cat to put out his night candle with his paw.”)
  • “Genre doesn’t have to be vexing. It can be illuminating. It can be useful for writers and readers to think in terms of groups and traditions. And a good genre system—a system that really fits reality—can help us see the traditions in which we’re already, unconsciously, immersed.”
  • Sixty years ago, the CIA helped to bankroll England’s first-ever animated film: an adaptation of Animal Farm. They thought it would make for great anti-Russian propaganda, especially if they changed the ending, and they knew it would be cheaper to make it in England. “The CIA agent who bought the film rights supposedly promised Mrs. Orwell that he would arrange for her to meet her favorite star, Clark Gable.” Did such a meeting ever occur? When will our government finally tell us the truth?
  • Oops: “Do you remember when the Authors Guild sued Google over Google Book Search, which is basically the right to make an index of stuff in books? They said to Google, ‘If you’re going to do this, you’re going to do it on our terms, and you’re going to have to give us a whole $70 million.’ … Google said, ‘$70 million? Let’s shake the sofa and find some change for you.’ Meanwhile, you are guaranteeing that nobody else in the future history of the world will be able to afford to index books, which is one of the ways people find and buy books. Now Google owns that forever, for a mere $70 million! Nice work, Authors Guild. You’ve just made us all sharecroppers in Google’s fields for the rest of eternity.”
  • The latest battle in the Usage Wars is really heating up: “If you say ‘It’s not you, it’s me,’ you are probably a native speaker of English or someone with a good command of how native speakers actually speak. If you say ‘It’s not you—it’s I,’ you will quickly achieve the goal of making the other person not want to spend any more time with you. Yet this bizarre formulation is just how Nathan Heller of The New Yorker would have you speak.”

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Tiny Books About Cats

October 22, 2014 | by

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From Adlai Stevenson’s Veto 1949, illustrated by Alice Garman.

Given the passionate nature of bibliophiles, the fanatical devotion of cat fanciers, and the obsessive tendencies of miniaturists, it only stands to reason that when the three join forces, it is to form the most powerful coalition in the world. (Or the least powerful, I suppose, depending on how one quantifies these things.) In any event, what you end up with are miniature cat-themed books, a prominent subgenre.

I fell down this particular rabbit hole when I ran across the miniature bookstore on Berlin’s Torellstraße. It’s affiliated with Freundeskreis Miniaturbuch Berlin, one of many associations of miniature-book collectors; there are miniature-book societies around the world. (The best museum for miniature books is said to be in Baku.)

As Louis Wolfgang Bondy, an enthusiast, wrote in his 1988 book Miniaturbücher von den Anfängen bis Heute (Miniature Books from the Beginnings Until Today),

In this small world, books occupy a place of honor. They join to the great skill lavished on their creation the crowning glory of man’s spirit enshrined in their text. Small wonder then that the ranks of collectors who specialize in them and who cherish, nay adore, them is forever growing … An increasing number of people are convinced of the dictum that small is beautiful.

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Pati Hill, 1921–2014

September 24, 2014 | by

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An illustration by B. Whistler Dabney for Pati Hill’s essay “Cats,” from our ninth issue.

The Paris Review was saddened to learn that Pati Hill, a frequent contributor and longtime friend of the magazine, died last Friday at ninety-three. A native of Kentucky, Hill worked during the forties and fifties as a model in France, where she was part of the same community of expats that included George Plimpton and the founders of the Review.

Over the years, beginning with our second issue, Hill published six stories and an essay with the Review; her last contribution, part of a series of sketches, came in Spring 1981. She wrote a pair of well-regarded books—a novel and a memoir—in the fifties, but today she’s probably best known for her art, which made early and innovative use of an IBM photocopier, as an obituary in the Times says.

To celebrate Hill, we’re posting her essay “Cats,” from our Summer 1955 issue, in its entirety, with a pair of illustrations by B. Whistler Dabney. It begins:

I like cats as far as creatures go. I like almost any animal that does not have horns or scales on it for that matter, but I especially like cats. Any sort and denomination: spotted or solid, fat or thin, with and without fleas. I like them and admire them and almost anything they do is a pleasure to me.

The way they can walk around the rim of a bathtub, for instance, without falling in and the way they can get comfortable in any old place. There is nothing better than a cat looking out from behind a pot of geraniums on a windowsill or walking slowly down a country road of a summer evening. There is something at once comforting and disquieting about a cat which makes him attractive.

They are wonderful when they stick their noses cautiously into a hole and then back out again, and when they flatten down their ears the tops of their heads look like giant bumblebees. Also they have marvelous feet. When a cat puts his paw on the head of a half eaten fish it is at once delicate and dainty and fierce and when he retracts his claws again he is most beautifully innocent like firearms in a shop window or a pin-cushion with no pins in it.

Read the rest here.

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To Serve and Protect

August 4, 2014 | by

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Not, alas, an actual archival photo.

Cats Hate Cops” is a tidy black-and-white pamphlet from Research & Destroy, a “radical zine collective” based in New York. Its title may seem, to the casual observer, like an editorial statement, but make no mistake: it’s a fact. The zine’s sixty-two pages comprise 150 years of cat-on-cop violence, all of it diligently chronicled by our nation’s newspapers—hard evidence, in other words. The first report is from 1805, when, in Edinburgh, a man attempting to police his dairy met with a cat bite on the neck; the latest is from the Melbourne Age, which last January ran a sidebar called “Anatomy of a Cat Attack.” (“Police close one lane and engage Scratchy, who resists.” Attaboy, Scratchy!)

Whether these are disconnected incidents or the enactment of a kind of feline political philosophy remains to be seen, but my money’s on the latter. It just makes sense. Cats and humans are coevolved; the Scratchys and Tigers of the world have had ample time to form opinions about authoritarianism and the police state. And think about it: Have you ever seen a cat driving a cruiser? Have you even once seen a cat with a badge? These animals want Friskies, not frisking.

Of course, the media tends to side with the state. “A mad cat upset the general routine of things last Friday morning at a grocery store,” reads a 1939 blurb, failing thereafter to give the cat’s point of view. Time and again, “Cats Hate Cops” describes a world in which the humane treatment of animals is not a going concern, and in which the police are generally assumed to be competent executors of the public will. The prose is often blunt: “After clubbing the animal into insensibility they shot it through the head,” one story ends.

The zine is available from Brown Recluse Zine Distro; below are two of my favorite entries. Read More »

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Maude

May 6, 2014 | by

Feline as memento mori.
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Franz Marc, Kater auf gelbem Kissen, 1912

I was in New York for a book talk, staying at a friend’s house in an industrial area of Brooklyn, when I awoke to a sound somewhere between a teakettle’s whistle and the creak of an ancient floorboard: my friend’s cat, Maude, meowing piteously at the edge of the bed. She was tiny, the color of ivory, with half crescent moons for claws and bright green, bloodshot eyes.

I’d been warned that Maude meowed in the mornings when she wanted the faucet turned on—she drank from the tub—so I walked to the bathroom and twisted the spout until cold water trickled down. Maude leapt into the tub and began lapping away, her tongue bright as chewing gum. I went about my slow morning routine: coffee, Twitter, fussing with hair, scrutiny of encroaching crow’s-feet, etc.

It was noon by the time I was ready to leave, and I returned to the bedroom for my laptop. There, in the middle of the white room, on the white bedspread, was the white cat, covered in blood. It seeped out from her in clouds, watery and pale red like a nightmare sky. But when I bent over and touched her she was still breathing, alert, looking at me with those science-fiction eyes. Read More »

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The Cat Came Back

April 9, 2014 | by

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Detail from the poster for Disney’s The Incredible Journey, 1963.

Yesterday, a dog raced a Metro-North train from the South Bronx into Manhattan. The train slowed down at several points so the dog, an adorable shepherd/collie mix, would not risk injury. Passengers feared for her safety during the mad dash—and cheered lustily as she was collected by two transit cops, who took her to animal control to treat her injured paw.

We love to see pets going to great lengths for our companionship, or whatever it is they’re doing. It’s hard enough to know what your dog or cat is thinking as it goes from room to room—and no one can divine the thoughts of these heroic specimens who follow their masters across continents, Incredible Journey–style. We usually choose to regard this as proof of pure devotion. But in other cases, we see these antics—especially by cats—as slightly sinister. Consider the case of “The Cat Came Back.”

Written in 1893 as a minstrel song with a very different title, “The Cat Came Back” tells of a malevolent cat who won’t stay away—until he’s killed. It’s not the sort of enlightened fare we usually associate with modern elementary education. And yet, a sanitized version of the song is a staple of nursery schools and day camps, where it’s seen as a useful tool for teaching young children about rhythm and harmony. For whatever reason, kids love the minor-key tune and the story of the grim, Mephistophelean cat.

There’s a G-rated modern version in which the owner tries to pawn the cat off on Santa Claus and an air balloon; and then there’s an earlier iteration, in which said owner clearly wants to see the feline dead. Kids laugh at both, because this cat will not be ruled by man. He defies adult authority—to say nothing of the laws of physics and geography—and this is as reassuring as it is terrifying. He “couldn’t” stay away, we are told—but not because he so loves the beleaguered Mr. Johnson, or Wilson, or whatever the owner’s name happens to be. He is a law unto himself. And the glee in telling his story has little to do with affection, and much to do with things dark and unexplained.

If no owner claims that train-loving dog, animal control is going to put her up for adoption, even though her heart is clearly wild and free and her thoughts inscrutable. But maybe for someone, that will be an adventure. Maybe they’ll like the minor key of its small mysteries. And why take on another life, if not for that?

 

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