Like Gaul I am divided into three parts, and each part is owned by a cat. This state of sanguine slavery makes me something of an expert on the literature of the feline. Then why can't I find anything good to say about "Algonquin Cat"? Believe me, I've tried. I have chewed my eraser and looked to heaven for inspiration. For one desperately demented moment I even considered having Mitzi, a black-and-white who cannot type more than 20 words a minute, knock out this review. But I can't do that to Mitzi and I'm tired of feeling guilty for hating this book. Why should I feel guilty? I'm not Val Schaffner.
To write about cats is no trivial matter, as Doris Lessing and T. S. Eliot have proved. Yet it would be unfair to compare "Algonguin Cat" with those, any more than to use "Madame Bovary" or "Sense and Sensibility" as the yardstick for it. What "Algonguin Cat" does have to measure up against is "The Silent Miaow," by Paul Gallico and "The Fur Person," by May Sarton. And that nonpareil of pussycat literature, "My Lives and How I Lost Them," by Christopher Cat as told to Countee Cullen. And, compared, "Algonguin Cat" does not belong on the same library shelf.
Briefly, the lobby of New York's famous Algonquin Hotel, haunt of the literary and show-biz crowd, is the home of the domestic shorthair named Hamlet, who bestrides his narrow world like a furry Colossus. That's fact. But the world that Shaffner has created in this diminutive fable has nothing else to do with fact. It is peopled (and catted) by whimsical figments -- people with names like Cyrus Mandrake, Percival Baskin, Pluto McKindle, Priscilla Loper-Merkie (the humans have more catlike names than the cats) -- and repetitive fragments: The plot concerns a missing gold piece, a missing manuscript and a missing diamond called the Mandalay Blue, all of which you know will be retrieved, like so many balls of aluminum foil, by our hero, Hamlet, in the final reel.
Like Little Nemo, Hamlet spends all his waking hours asleep, in a hallucinative dream state comparable to an opium eater's. My pusses spend most of their time trying to break the digital code on the refrigeratgor lock, and when they twitch in their sleep, it's because they are stalking cockroaches. Never Hamlet. His dreams are of the Temple of the Mother Cat, where humans are the servitors and acolytes, and cats the deities. In the rare moments when he is awake, Hamlet is busy scarfing morsels of smoked salmon and spoonfuls of caviar, befriending the lowly and solving all the world's problems with one backpaw swipe. Or at least, all the Algonquin's problems. Most of the writing is arch enough to make your back arch in response.
The illustrations by Hilary Knight are comparable to the work he has done before, such as for "Eloise," Kay Thompson's tale of the little girl who lived at the Plaza Hotel. If they haven't the vitality of "Eloise," you can probably attribute it to the lack of luster in "Algonquin Cat."
So far, Katharine M. Briggs, an expert on British folklore, has explored the world of fairyland, brownies, Puck and other mystical wee folk, through the oral and written traditions of the British Isles and elsewhere. Since the magic and mystery of cats has held fascination for humans over the millennia it is only natural that Briggs would turn her attention to them in this serious volume. "Nine Lives: The Folklore of Cats" can be read for pleasure, as can her other books, but it is also a long record of the superstition, fear, awe and reverence in which the cat has been held by people since the dawn of time.
These are tales of benevolent cats, malevolent cats, tricky cats, murderous cats, witches and familiars, shape-shifters, cats in prose and cats in rhyme, in luck and out of it. You'll meet a cat under enchantment, who becomes once more a beautiful princess; a cat who forms a partnership with a mouse that ends when one partner is swallowed by the other; and the cat who, upon hearing of a darkling feline funeral, cries, "Then I am the king of cats!" and vanishes.
The evocative nature of the cat -- charm and cleverness, aloofness and affection, the wild rover and the purr-by-the-fire -- are all explored here in song and story, a delight to the intelligent reader. John Ward's subtle pencil drawings are like the cat itself, to the point yet somehow elusive, as if more is going on than meets the human eye.