The first time I read On Cats, I was in a sentimental mood. I had just returned home after seven months in Germany, where I’d left behind two cats belonging to my host family, two small piebalds to whom I’d grown rather attached and whom I was missing terribly. This was, however, the first of Doris Lessing’s books that I’d read, so I did not know how patently unsentimental it was sure to be.

It may be difficult to find a writer more allergic to sentimentality; perhaps this is why so many people are surprised to learn that Lessing wrote about cats. I was unprepared for the first chapter, a nightmare montage of violent feline deaths, portrayed with disquieting frankness. On the farm where Lessing grew up in southern Rhodesia, in the mid-1920s, domesticated cats are under constant threat from snakes, predatory birds, and wildcats, who, Lessing writes, “lured peaceful domestic pussies off to dangerous lives in the bush for which, we were convinced, they were not fitted.” Cats disappear; cats go feral; cats die. Mostly, though, they die at the hands of humans, who carry out these murders with callous necessity. The cats produce litter after litter of unwanted kittens; it falls to Lessing’s mother to drown the newborns. When at last she begins refusing to continue this dismal task, the violence only multiplies. Within months, the farm is overrun with cats and kittens, many of them deformed from inbreeding. “Something had to be done,” writes Lessing:

In the end, the cats were rounded up and put into a room. My father went into the room with his First World War revolver, more reliable, he said, than a shotgun. The gun sounded again, again, again, again. The cats that were still uncaught had sensed their fate and were raging and screaming all over the bush, with people after them. My father came out of the room at one point, very white, with tight angry lips and wet eyes. He was sick. Then he swore a good deal, then he went back into the room and the shooting continued.

Revisiting the scene now, I feel the same revulsion I felt then, not only at the brutality of the scene, but at the calm, measured quality of her tone as she recounts it. It is the tone of someone well-acquainted with death.

Living with those two piebalds in Germany should have prepared me for the violence of these early chapters. My memories of those cats left me wistful—their warm, puddingy bodies curled up on my stomach or stretched out elegantly in a sunbeam—but I conveniently overlooked the more unsavory aspects of their presence: mounds of fresh vomit behind sofas, blood from eviscerated rabbits splattered across the living room furniture, bird feathers covering our bedrooms as if there’d recently been a pillow fight. Once, I walked into the aftermath of a massacre: at least a dozen mice, slaughtered, dismembered, and strewn about in so many pieces on the white marble floor that they seemed to spell out some pattern of satanic significance. The cats looked up at me from the carnage innocently, expectantly.

Lessing fixates on the boundary between wildness and domesticity—its flimsiness and permeability—even as she departs from the farm and settles into a London flat. Cats have illnesses, accidents, territorial disputes, difficult pregnancies. (One murders the firstborn in every litter she produces.) In one episode, not so dissimilar from my experience that morning in Germany, a hungry cat steals cooked sausages from some unfortunate neighbor and lays them out in patterns at Lessing’s feet. “Perhaps this gesture originated in hunting ancestors,” Lessing speculates, “who were trained to catch and bring food to humans; and the memory of it remains in her brain to be converted into this near-human language.”

Environment, Lessing seems to argue, is in many ways irrelevant; the survival instinct persists, whether in the bush with its myriad predators or in the human-dominated cities. In the absence of venomous snakes and vultures, cats must contend with neglectful owners, feline rivalries, and harsh winters. The humans they encounter in London may not wield their First World War revolvers as freely as Lessing’s father did, but they have other—more efficient—methods of killing. After a stray has an accident on the landing of Lessing’s apartment building, the disgruntled caretaker takes it to the R.S.P.C.A to be killed. “Bad enough cleaning up after us lot,” Lessing writes, “he wasn’t going to clean up after cats as well.”

It is with this eye toward survivalism and the porousness of domesticity that Lessing recalls the two stars of the first book: the first cats she owned as a young adult in London. One that she calls “grey cat” is “a delicate fairy-tale cat,” flirtatious and graceful, who weaponizes her beauty. “She was as arrogantly aware of herself as a pretty girl who has no attributes but her prettiness,” writes Lessing, no less ruthless in summing up the character of a cat than she would be for a human. The second, whom she calls “black cat,” is a “steady, obstinate, modest little beast” whose presence threatens grey cat’s comfortable dominance.

The dramatic vignettes that follow are devilishly funny and speak to one of the great benefits of cat ownership (or pet ownership more broadly): the endless entertainment of their little micro-dramas, which play out like soap operas. “The two cats never fought, physically,” Lessing writes. “They fought great duels with their eyes.”

Lessing’s walled-in gardens serve as the stage for flirtation, rivalries, and illicit trysts with the neighborhood tomcats. Lessing places the story squarely within the feline world; humans are conspicuously absent, as are historical events, details about her personal life, and anything that feels like narrative transition. The narrative darts between places the way it seems animals sometimes do, giving the book a dreamlike illogic. “In childhood,” Lessing observes, “people, animals, events appear, are accepted, vanish, with no explanation offered or asked for.”

I wondered if this dreamlike quality was what drew me back to the book. In those earliest, most anxious days of the pandemic, when we were suddenly all shut up like house cats, my days, too, lost their narrative logic. I identified with Lessing’s cats and their distress at being shut up for a long journey. “[Grey cat] was miserable. All the way out of London she sat shivering and miaowing, a continuous shrill complaint that drove us all mad. Black cat’s plaint was low and mournful, and related to her inner discomfort, not to what was going on around her.”

Now, I live with two cats again, both of whom belong to roommates. One of them, Lucy, has developed asthma over the last year, which sends her unpredictably into bouts of coughing that shake her whole body. Twice daily, one of us cradles her in our arms while another covers her mouth and nose with a plastic funnel, through which she reluctantly breathes steroids. The medication costs hundreds of dollars, and her owner has not had a steady income in over a year. “What nonsense,” Lessing writes early on, “that one should have all this trouble and worry on account of two small animals.” And yet each night, trapped in our little apartment, afraid to go outside, my roommates and I, the suckers, tended to little Lucy and her poor, finicky lungs. None of us ask why the medications continue to be purchased, or why she must be lured out from under couches and beds with treats one, two, sometimes three times per day just to alleviate—not even cure—her ailment. We do it because how could we, in good faith, see her suffer and not act?

Lessing’s cats exasperate her with their various whims and neuroses. Memories of the rugged and self-reliant cats on the farm cast an air of absurdity over the neediness of London house cats. And yet Lessing indulges them. Grey cat needs a specially prepared litter box and fresh meat. Lessing devotes months nursing black cat back to health after an illness, funneling medicine down her throat, refusing to accept her looming death. “For a variety of reasons,” writes Lessing, “all of them human and irrelevant to her, she must not be allowed to die.”

In a 1972 interview with Joyce Carol Oates, Lessing recalls that “everyone had guns when I was a child, on the farm…it seemed quite natural, to kill. No one ever seemed to ask: Why? Why kill?” This question isn’t dealt with in On Cats as much as its inverse: Why save? In the latter part of her collection, she writes about Rufus, a roughed-up street cat who finds refuge in Lessing’s home and who lives in a perpetual cycle of illness and recovery, worn down by an unlucky life. El Magnifico is a cat who develops cancer and must have his leg amputated, forcing him to reevaluate his self-image as a proud and domineering creature. These are stories about the trouble and worry of cat ownership, about the various “human reasons” to care for others past the point of pragmatism.

Early on in the pandemic, we confronted an ominous question: should we accept shuttered stores, job loss, and slow economic growth in order to protect the elderly and the chronically ill, or should we leave the most vulnerable among us at the mercy of the virus and carry on with business as usual? It was surreal to see how many believed that usefulness, self-sufficiency, and profit were the only true measures of the worthiness of human life.

On Cats is a comfort to me in the face of this debate, which rages on even now. It is reassuring to hear from Lessing, a woman whom no one can accuse of being impractical or overly sentimental, a woman who has seen cats killed, and who has killed them herself—who holds no fanciful beliefs about the angelic purity of animals, nor illusions about the reality of pain and suffering and death. And yet, here she is, extending empathy and compassion to her little companions. “Knowing cats,” she writes, “a lifetime of cats, what is left is a sediment of sorrow quite different from that due to humans: compounded of pain for their helplessness, of guilt on behalf of us all.”

Lily Houston Smith

Lily Houston Smith is a freelance writer and audio producer based in Brooklyn. She co-edits the Letters section for Laid Off NYC and is currently pursuing an MA in cultural reporting and criticism at NYU.

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