In her monthly column, Re-Covered, Lucy Scholes exhumes the out-of-print and forgotten books that shouldn’t be.
“If you want to write, keep cats,” Aldous Huxley famously said. As I read Bohumil Hrabal’s haunting but strange slip of a memoir, All My Cats, I wondered if the Czech writer would have agreed with him. Hrabal’s book was originally published in 1986, as Autičko—which translates as “the Little Car,” the nickname Hrabal gave first to his Renault 5, a small white car with ginger-colored seat covers. He later gave the same name to one of his cats, a kitten with “white socks and a white bib, and the rest of it had a tabby pattern, but in ginger.” The volume has only recently been translated into English, excellently so by Paul Wilson. Do not be fooled by the cuteness of the book’s original title, though. In it, we encounter a cat lover trapped in a hell of his own making, driven to the brink of madness.
Hrabal, who was born in 1914 in Morovia, began writing poetry in the forties, and by the following decade switched to prose. Little of what he was writing made it into print—instead he read his work aloud at meetings of an underground literary group, attended by the novelist Josef Skvorecky and run by the poet Jiri Kolar. Some of Hrabal’s stories appeared in samizdat editions, but his first officially published work, Lark on a String, was withdrawn in 1959, a week before it was due to be released; his formally inventive style regarded as the antithesis of the realist works glorified by the Communist regime. (It eventually appeared, four years later, as Pearl on the Bottom.) In the early sixties, Hrabal’s émigré friends helped distribute his work abroad, where it found a success that allowed him to write full time. He’d worked, before then, as a railway laborer, an insurance agent, a traveling salesman, a laborer at a steelworks, a compactor of wastepaper at a trash plant, and a theater stagehand. Those odd jobs inspired certain of his novels, such as Closely Observed Trains, a story about a Czech railway worker who defies his Nazi oppressors, and Too Loud a Solitude, in which the narrator builds his own library from books he’s salvaged, as Hrabal did during his time at the trash plant. The publication, in 1963, of Pearl on the Bottom launched Hrabal’s career properly in Czechoslovakia. This was followed, only a year later, by Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age—a book that, like Lucy Ellmann’s recently lauded Ducks, Newburyport, unfurls in a single, rambling sentence—and the year after that by Closely Observed Trains, which further cemented Hrabal’s success when it was adapted into a movie. Directed by Jiří Menzel, Ostře sledované vlaky won the 1968 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, and remains today one of the popular works of the Czech New Wave.
Although by the mid-’60s Hrabal was famous, this didn’t mean he had carte blanche to publish whatever he wanted. After the Prague Spring in 1968, his work was once again banned until the late seventies. It’s thanks to people like Skvorecky—who had left Czechoslovakia for Toronto, where he published the works of his friends—that Hrabal’s writing still reached readers. Not that the years of censorship did much to dim Hrabal’s fame. In 2008, his fellow countryman Milan Kundera called Hrabal “our very best writer today,” and with each new translation of one of his works, Hrabal continues to find new admirers further afield.
That it has taken thirty-odd years for All My Cats to join these translations perhaps isn’t surprising. Although it showcases many of the same stylistic elements that distinguish Hrabal’s fiction—such as the near stream-of-consciousness, meandering soliloquizing of his narrator—this memoir is a trickier beast to wrangle with. Although All My Cats starts out as an enchanting account of a cat lover’s feline-filled existence, the book soon transmogrifies into something much darker, becoming a meditation on love, loss, genocide, and guilt.
Writing in the New York Times three years ago, Parul Sehgal memorably described Hrabal as “one of the great prose stylists of the twentieth century; the scourge of state censors; the gregarious bar hound and lover of gossip, beer, cats and women (in roughly that order).” In 1983, when Hrabal sat down to write All My Cats, he was sixty-nine years old and recovering from a serious car accident. The cats in his life, he admits at the very beginning of the book, had by this point replaced the women of his youth: “Somehow I had reached an age where being in love with a beautiful woman was beyond my reach because now I was bald and my face was full of wrinkles, yet the cats loved me the ways girls used to love me when I was young.”
The cats he’s talking about live at the country cottage Hrabal shares with his wife in Kersko—about an hour’s drive east of Prague. They’d bought it back in 1965, when Hrabal was reaping the first financial rewards of his writing. It was a weekend getaway from the city; somewhere Hrabal could supposedly write undisturbed. At first, all was wonderful. The cats—of which there were initially five—eagerly awaited Hrabal and his wife’s visits. “I’d gather them, one by one, into my arms and press them to my forehead,” he writes, “and somehow or other, those cats cured me of my hangovers and depressions.” As if to corroborate Jean Cocteau’s assertion that cats are “the visible soul” of a person’s home, Hrabal describes the early morning “meshugge Stunde”—the “crazy hour”—during which the cats, warmed against the cold night air by the covers of Hrabal’s bed, would take off, running wild around the house in joyful excitement, swinging on the curtains, pulling clothes off chairs, fighting over slippers and “winding themselves into little balls and knocking everything off the table.” Before long, the cats become a responsibility weighted round Hrabal’s neck, turning his former bucolic idyll into “a hell,” a “house of horrors and humiliations.”
When he’s in Prague, he worries that the cats are cold, hungry, and lonely without him. Thus, unable to concentrate on his writing, he’s drawn back to Kersko—in the winter, he travels by bus, which is safer, he thinks, than driving himself, for who would feed his cats if he was hurt in an accident? But once there, his writing again eludes him: “The typewriter would clatter away but there was never enough time to attend to stylistic niceties, I had to write quickly so I could spend time with the cats because, though they lay there with their eyes closed, they’d be watching me through tiny slits, lulled by the clacking of the machine.”
Soon enough, distraction turns to anger. Hrabal forcefully boots a particularly annoying feline out into the garden, and then is immediately overwhelmed with regret: “I couldn’t write because I had struck a cat that I loved, I had kicked an innocent creature who meant everything to me.” This oscillation—between exasperation, rage and violence, and contrition, love and self-reproach—is what drives the narrative. Hrabal is trapped in a limbo. His distinctive “palavering”—Skvorecky’s translation of what Hrabal himself termed his “pábení” style—or, in other words, his free-flowing monologue (as James Woods helpfully elucidates, an “anecdote without end”) lends itself particularly well to such undulations. Repetitions become a considered stylistic element, most notably Hrabal’s wife’s exasperated protest, “What are we going to do with all those cats?” It’s the very first line of the book; foreshadowing the actions Hrabal will eventually find himself forced to take. She herself is a vague figure, this is the only thing she says, but it’s echoed as a refrain throughout the volume.
What, indeed, is Hrabal going to do about all those cats? When two of Hrabal’s cats produce a litter of five kittens each at the same time, enough is enough. Acting “in a kind of fever,” he sends his wife to the neighbors before picking three kittens—still blind, and as tiny as “transistor radio batteries”—from each litter and bundling them into an old mail bag. As if “in a trance,” he carries the sack into the woods and “battered” it “against a tree, again and again and again.” It’s a scene of shocking violence, leaving him feeling “crushed, suffocated by what I had felt compelled to do”:
I was trembling all over but I had to keep going so I bent over and felt those tiny heads and realized to my horror that the kitten were still stirring and so, just like that time in the winter, I took the axe I used to split wood…
The reality of what Hrabal has done terrifies him. Looking down at the “mishmash” of what’s left of the dead kittens, now lying in the hole in the ground he’s dug for them, they remind him of “images from Nazi mass graves.” Later that day, stroking the kittens he left alive, he realizes “that this was just like those photographs from the ghetto, where an SS officer or an executioner squad would have their pictures taken standing over a pit filled with corpses.”
It’s an appalling comparison, but one that befits the gravity of the deep rumination on guilt that follows: “Nothing could calm me, and I suddenly knew that the crime I had committed was greater than that of Raskolnikov, who beat two old women to death only to test the foolish notion that it is possible to kill and escape punishment.” Hrabal is “racked with self-loathing,” plagued by remorse, yet at the same time, he can feel his face turning “pale and ashen” at the thought of his cats producing more kittens. He doesn’t want to live without his beloved pets, but neither can he exist peaceably alongside so many of them. The only real solution would be for both him and the cats to “simply cease to exist,” but instead he has to keep killing them, which in turn tortures his conscience.
The torment he suffers is so acute that he comes close to committing suicide. But, contemplating the act, he realizes that he doesn’t want to die: “I wanted to be in the world. There were still things I wanted to write.” All the same, he’s completely preoccupied by the crimes he’s committed, likening his anguish to that of “all those who had taken part in wars and had killed millions of innocent people.” His feelings of guilt intensify when he wonders at his “audacity in comparing the life and death of cats to the life and death of people”:
Yet having realized that, my feelings of guilt for the death of those kitten and cats did not go away, because in the end I came to the conclusion that one cannot even kill a cat, let alone a person, with impunity, nor can one with impunity expel a person, let alone drive away a cat, without consequences.
When Hrabal began writing, he was drawn to the work of the French Surrealists. Although he departed from that model relatively early on in his career, he remained a writer always able to see—as Seghal so perfectly puts it—“the strangeness in ordinary life.” As such, All My Cats is both a simple tale about a man and his many pets, and a powerful metaphor. It’s a book that forces us to reckon with the idea that to be human and to be alive is also to be guilty and to suffer for it. This is a book about what one does when existence becomes untenable, and how guilt—as it gnaws relentlessly through us—must be carried for a lifetime.
In the epilogue, Hrabal is out walking one cold winter’s day when he comes across a swan, trapped in a frozen river. He inches out across the ice to try to rescue the bird, but she’s wild with rage, raining jabs as sharp as axe blows down on his hands with her beak. Distraught and bleeding, he retreats. He returns though, the next day with thick leather gloves, only to find the bird has perished in the night. It’s not just a coincidence, he thinks:
the swan who refused to let me save her had been placed there by my destiny, which comes from outside of one, a part, a fragment, of a message from elsewhere and that in fact, since I was capable of beating to death those cats who had so passionately desired nothing more than to be with me in the world, so this swan, whom I had wanted to help survive and be in the world, instead sacrificed herself, preferring to die, to deny herself life, to show me, not that the opposite of everything is true, but on the contrary, that the opposite of everything is not true and that once again, I was guilty, just as I had been guilty all my life, even though I did not know why or what could have been the cause.
Hrabal died in 1997, at the age of eighty-two, after falling from the fifth-floor window of a hospital in Prague, where he was being treated for severe arthritis. It was officially declared an accident—he was supposedly reaching out of the window to feed the pigeons outside—but in the run up to his death he’d become increasingly obsessed with jumping from the fifth-floor window of his own apartment. Regardless of whether the fall was an accident or Hrabal intentionally took his own life, it’s a tragic story, but in the light of the torments recounted in All My Cats, I can’t help but find something serene and consoling in the knowledge that Hrabal finally found release from the burdens of his conscience.
Lucy Scholes is a critic who lives in London. She writes for the NYR Daily, The Financial Times, The New York Times Book Review, and Literary Hub, among other publications.