Some facts, by way of disclosure: I am a single woman who lives with a cat. This is the prerequisite for any Cat Lady, but there’s more: I’ve built Tucker a cat tree that reaches to the ceiling; I keep him lolling in feathered and furry toys; I feed him a mix of gourmet and health-store food. In my defense, I can only say that I have never worn a piece of cat jewelry in my life. No one has seen playful kittens dangling from my ears or neck.
“Don’t be sentimental about anything,” my toughest-minded friend reminds me, “except your cat.” Quite a few otherwise intelligent and uncompromising people turn soft and silly in the presence of pets, which might explain why we prefer to do it in the privacy of our own homes. But Susan Fromberg Schaeffer has done it in print. When I found The Autobiography of Foudini M. Cat on my editor’s desk, I assumed it was just a sentimental bid for readers. My editor was equally dubious about the value of reviewing such spun sugar (though visitors to Washington City Paper will see more pictures of his cats than of his family). Call me a sucker, but I was touched by the first paragraph and those that followed. The book simply outwitted my expectations.
Schaeffer is not the first serious writer to go cooing after her kitties; T.S. Eliot comes to mind, as does May Sarton. Yet Foudini soon emerges an interesting creature in his own right. In the preface, Foudini declares: “I came into the world like everything else that is born, willy-nilly, but books are not born in this way. There is always a reason for the existence of a book, and let us hope it is a good one.” Foudini intends his story for the edification of Grace “the Most Petted,” the latest and youngest addition to his household. “The story of my life from now on will be, to a great extent, her story, and since she is such a precipitous and foolish cat, it cannot hurt her to know what to expect from existence so that she can begin to resign herself and to adjust, as all housecats must.”
Foudini’s bittersweet life consists of continual readjustments. Like many alley cats, he was orphaned as a kitten and reluctantly rescued from the brink of starvation by human hands. After a brief stint in a basement laundry room, he’s held by a veterinarian who becomes convinced that he is incurably vicious. “The doctor said that if no one came for me, he would have to put me to sleep,” Foudini recalls. “I thought how unnecessary that was, since I put myself to sleep countless times a day, but of course now I understand that he meant something altogether different.” At the time, Foudini’s greatest fear is being eaten, “Because this is what most cats expect of people.” Even after his adoption by a humane couple, whom he dubs “Warm” and “Pest,” he is not dissuaded of that possibility. Yet he is fairly convinced that their dog will beat them to it.
What develops between the pets is an interspecies friendship unrivaled since The Incredible Journey. Oddly enough, Sam the Dog is far and away the most heroic figure in Foudini. The dog saves the cat from careless housesitters, drowning, and a vicious woodchuck. When the dog grows old and infirm, Foudini brings him food from the kitchen and sleeps around his neck. Over the years, the dog teaches the cat about the rights and responsibilities of house pets. Each one has an Assigned Person to protect. The man (Pest) is assigned to the dog, the woman (Warm) to the cat. Above all, though, Sam and Foudini are assigned to each other.
The one thing Foudini begrudges the dog is his freedom. When they stay at “Cold House,” the cat’s captivity is not such a hardship. There are only city streets below. But in the summers at “Mouse House,” all wildlife taunts him, and the dog’s frequent jaunts outside add injury to insult. Though he knows the natural world is hostile to him, Foudini cannot immediately surrender his desire to enter it. “Cats are willful and stubborn creatures,” he explains. “They do not like to learn from experience. They are optimists who say to themselves, If the world is not a wonderful place today, tomorrow it will be transformed….Every day the entire world is created all over again….I cannot wait to get out into this day and see if the world has been made over as I want it to be.”
Of course, Foudini’s world is never remade; its entirety is bounded by the two houses, which he maintains are connected by a secret door. “Clearly, people do not know everything, because if they did, they would not get in a car and drive around the world one hundred times over, simply to get from Cold House to Mouse House…” the cat tells the dog. “They would simply go through the door!” His forbearance of human foibles is occasionally taxed; he cannot understand the lure of the television, for instance, or the telephone. Nor can he understand why Pest “would say things about ‘my side of the bed’ and ‘Aren’t I entitled to a little space of my own?’”
Foudini tells the story of its hero’s attempts to make the most of his little space, to extend it through meditation and imagination. The appearance of the “ghost cats” of Cleopatra and Freud trespasses the limits of whimsy, but mostly, Foudini’s dreamy feline life is beguiling. “If other cats are like meand I am not sure they are, but I think they must beI would say that cats in general are contemplative animals who are easily satisfied and perhaps overly preoccupied by their own thoughts,” Foudini posits.
PETA types will find this anthropomorphic characterization repugnant, and some mainstream readers may as well. Since movies are now obligated to carry such notices, I should tell you that animals are harmed during the course of this story. Some even die, and just try to stop the waterworks then. Foudini’s limited comprehension of death makes it all the more wracking. “You think, especially if you are a cat, that everything will forever be as it is when you look about you,” he tells Grace. People are awfully feline in that regard.
It may remain an eternal mystery why animals allow us such a depth of unguarded affection and grief. The best explanation I can offer is that they remind us of our universal captivity in creature lifethat anything beyond eating and sleeping, playing and nuzzling is often just as transient and considerably less rewarding. “You see how difficult it is to pass on knowledge? To pass on even one single thing?” Foudini asks. “But I never give up.” For his part, Tuckerwhom I’ve inexplicably taken to calling “Bubba”is pacing behind the computer screen, meowing at me. He wants to play, and so do I. CP
Schaeffer will read from Foudini on Dec. 4 at 7 p.m. at Borders, 18th and L Sts. NW.