Gerald Kersh on the subject of cats – no, really, it is only cats he is writing about, nothing else at all

imagesI have always been fascinated by the way Gerald Kersh describes characters. Descriptions full of loathing that very quickly slide into self-loathing. I’m currently part-way through Night and the City (1938) – the source of Jules Dassin’s rather good 1950 film with Richard Widmark and of Irwin Winkler’s rather terrible 1992 film with Robert De Niro – and cataloguing a selection I will share when I am done. But in the meantime, in one of Kersh’s rather characteristic digressions, he has decided to tackle the subject of cats in nighttime London.

I swear it is only cats he is talking about. Nothing else.

First, he obviously prefers dogs to cats. And to women from villages.

Cats may be terrible to mice, but they have no equipment for heavier game. If they had long claws, cats would be extinct: they dilate with hatred, they shriek with hatred – they want to rend, devour, torture, and obliterate each other; but they can’t. So they pour out all their venom in their voices, their howling and malevolent voices; exactly like the gossiping women of the villages. (80)

He then moves on to the subject of tom cats howling and shrieking in the night. Their motivations, their anguish. At no point is this about anything other than tom cats.

Why do tom-cats do this thing? For them, love is by no means all moonlight and roses. The genital organ of a tom-cat bristles with spikes, like a pip-scraper; it is a severe surgical instrument of reproduction, not pleasure. He loses blood and fur in frenzies of impotent rage, and almost bursts with bitterness, simply to achieve a torture-chamber.
What good does it do? It generates more cats.
Who wants more cats? (80)

But what, you ask, about the female of the species? Ah, there’s a grey female there. Let’s follow her for three pages, remembering at all times that this is only about cats, nothing else – not even the image of religious transcendence culminating in a pun you might not believe he could have got away with in 1938.

What did she not know about sex and motherhood? She had had fifty kittens and forgotten about them. Tom-cats … were all right; but for her part, she found more sensual pleasure in an empty sardine-tin…

The grey cat was unable to suppress a yawn. How monotonous, how miserably familiar, were the oscillations and outcries of these passion-intoxicated males! They were all alike…

It was impossible to embarrass this cat.
She was shameless and heartless, a cat of the city; elusive as an eel, resilient as rubber, indestructible and persistent as chewing-gum; a tile-begotten hybrid, born among salmon tins and broken bottles, whose pedigree had slunk in offal from dustbin to dustbin since Egypt. … Every muscle in her body seemed to have been designed for prowling, sneaking, ducking and running away. She lived for herself, parasitically … In hundreds of homes her presence had been suspected by a smell, proved by the disappearance of food and disposed of by hisses and blows. Ratepayers often took her in and christened her with fancy names; but in the end, they always gave her away, with false and hypocritical eulogies and regrets. She had no idea of the significance of a box of ashes, and regarded the practice of Rubbing Her Nose In It as a charming human eccentricity rather than a lesson, or punishment.

Why hunt mice? Only fools work. There is always food. The city is full of people, most of whom are mad. Poor crazed creatures – they give away food! The only proper thing to do with food is eat it all. Give nothing away. Preserve yourself! Preserve yourself! The world is your cat’s-meat. The Great Tom-Cat, who plays with the world like a ball of wool, created man to give you warmth, milk and chicken-bones, and put the sun in the sky to make you purr . . . You are the Great Tom-Cat’s Chosen Pussies. (81-82)

[Quotations from London Books edition, 2007]


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