I can’t remember exactly how it came about – begging, borrowing, or stealing (or, y’know, a present), but when I stayed with Thomas in Washington D.C. about 18 months ago, he gave me The Fur Person by May Sarton. That was not even amongst the nicest things he did – he’s a great guy, y’all – but it was definitely very exciting to get. He has been keen for me to read May Sarton for ages, and the one I did read (As We Are Now) never made its way to Stuck-in-a-Book – so, rather than strike out two for two, I’ll be talking about The Fur Person now. Full disclosure: I loved it.
How was I not going to love it, considering that it’s about a cat? Well, some cat-centric books have failed with me, one way or another. I wasn’t enamoured by Jennie (Paul Gallico), and – while I did adore Dewey, it was for all the wrong reasons. But The Fur Person (1978) combines a strong understanding of cats with a complete lack of sentiment – in the best possible way. So, although the novella undoubtedly includes cat-lovers, the narrative is presented from the cat’s perspective (albeit in the third person, if you see what I mean). He – Tom ‘Terrible’ Jones, no less – is pragmatic and selfish (like all cats) but willing to exchange affection and loyalty for the correct ‘housekeeper’, having realised that one cannot be a footloose, fancy-free young tom forever.
The story is simple, and supposedly based on the real life adventures of Sarton’s cat. He experiments with various housekeepers, before settling on the admiration and respect of Sarton and her partner. In a chilling warning to such as me, Tom is not interested in the cloyingly affectionate:
The trouble was, as he soon found out, that as soon as he came into reach, the lady could not resist hugging and kissing him with utter disregard for the dignity of his person. There are times when a Gentleman Cat likes very much to be scratched gently under his chin, and if this is done with savoir-faire he may afterwards enjoy a short siesta on a lap and some very refined stroking, but he does not like to be held upside down like a human baby and he does not like to be cooed over, and to be pressed to a bosom smelling of narcissus or rose.
Which is understandable, but there is a certain pathos in the way Sarton presents the scene. Tom is intent merely on getting out of the house – by the common feline method of standing silently by the door until obeyed – but, in the background, this would-be owner is mournful:
“You’re not a nice cat at all,” she said, and she began to whimper. “You don’t like me,” she whimpered, “do you?”
In another sort of novel, this might have been a tragic moment in her life – but, in The Fur Person, it is one of many instances that occur while Tom is finding his way to the idyll at the end of his journey.
The Fur Person bounded up the stairs, and at the very instant he entered the kitchen, the purrs began to swell inside him and he wound himself around two pairs of legs (for he must be impartial), his nose in the air, his tail straight up like a flag, on tip toes, and roaring with thanks.
It’s quite a sweet ending, but it doesn’t fall over the boundary into saccharine. And the reason for that, I believe, is because Sarton has observed the behaviour of cats so precisely. Everything she described rang true. Perhaps not the ten commandments for cats (individually they were accurate, but I suspect cats do not repeat these mantras by rote), but certainly the movements of tail and paws, the stretching, the staring and waiting – everything it described with such precision and accuracy that any cat-lover (particularly those of us who love cats but don’t live with any) will thrill to the reading experience.