James Joyce, The Cats of Copenhagen

(On the question of dogs vs cats in literature, this might be relevant)

From last weekend’s column:

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Recently Maria Popova of the website BrainPickings brought the existence of a children’s book by Sylvia Plath to the internet’s attention. The It-Doesn’t-Matter Suit tells the story of a little boy called Max who comes into possession of the perfect suit. It’s always a little strange, and rather nice, to find literary figures known for their writing for adults show that they could be pretty good children’s writers as well. Like many people I was introduced to Ted Hughes not through his poetry, but his children’s books The Iron Man and (this one was a little after my time) The Iron Woman. And James Joyce wrote two children’s books- The Cat and the Devil and, published for the first time last year along with illustrations by Casey Sorrow, The Cats of Copenhagen.

Both of these books are in the form of letters sent to Joyce’s grandson Stephen—there was some controversy upon the book’s publication over whether all of Joyce’s writings or only those previously published, belonged in the public domain once the copyright had expired in 2012.

Apparently, along with The Cat and the Devil Joyce had sent Stephen a toy cat filled with sweets, a filling of which the grown-ups in Stephen’s life would probably have disapproved. The first lines of The Cats of Copenhagen are possibly an apology for his inability to send another cunningly concealed cache of candy: “Alas! I cannot send you a Copenhagen cat because there are no cats in Copenhagen”.

Joyce appears to have loved cats. There’s an episode in Ulysses in which Leopold Bloom, also clearly a cat person, feeds and speaks lovingly to his pet, who answers with an evocative “mkgnao!”, far more catlike than the more traditional “meow”. It’s fitting that he should have dedicated two books to the creatures. Children’s literature is full of faithful hounds and naughty pups. Cats (except in rare works like Anushka Ravishankar’s I Like Cats) tend to get short-changed; the only iconic figure they have is Puss-in-Boots.

If there are no cats in Copenhagen, Joyce’s book seems to suggest that the city would be vastly improved by the introduction of some. The Copenhagen invoked here is a city in thrall to its policemen, who sit at home reading and smoking in bed and drinking buttermilk (how does one apply for this job? I am very well qualified), sending out boys in red to carry out their orders. Meanwhile the citizens depend entirely on these orders, apparently lacking the ability to do such basic things as cross roads without instructions.

Casey Sorrow’s art lends another layer to this odd little account of the city. There are no cats, we’re told; but Sorrow’s illustrations are full of them. Cats crossing roads, cats on bicycles, policeman-cats lying in bed and gorging themselves. Is the author lying to his grandson? Would cats, were they introduced to the city, behave like humans? What does it mean to be a cat?

A cat, of course, being independent sort of creature, can “cross a road without any instructions from a policeman”. There’s an element of anarchy in the book’s proposed plan, which is to introduce cats to the city so that they may teach by example, render the policemen obsolete, and eat fish. Copenhagen, we’re told, has many fish.

Joyce’s insistence on the city’s abundance of fish has created, for me, a nice little linguistic mystery. “There are lots and lots of fish/ and bicycles but/ there are no cats,” he says. For most people the bringing together of fish and bicycles will recall a famous feminist statement. “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle” was popularised by Gloria Steinem, but she credits it to the Australian writer Irina Dunn, in 1970. Long after Joyce, then; The Cats of Copenhagen was written in 1936. But Dunn in turn credits the fish-and-bicycle wording to an unnamed philosophical work; perhaps Joyce read the same book? Or the whole thing is a complete coincidence.

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