‘Death is the envelope that seals the letter of life. You live when alive, but your “life” comes into force only when you are dead. Death is the last brush-mark; the one that makes the painting what it is. Without this last mark, the work is but a mess of untidy lines: random strokes of swirling, glutinous paint. Death lets your life really live. Death should not, therefore, be treated lightly.’ (Koira Jupczek)
‘Write what you know, they say. Well, all I know is not being able to write. So I guess I write, or don’t write, about that.’ (Luigi Narsceni)
As we all know, professional eccentric Hector Spinkel (see here) owned a Bornean Whoolah Bird. This bird was trained to ‘recite “scientific” speeches’, which it did so dutifully, without so much as a shadow of an idea of what it was squawking on about. Off the cuff comments there were none: the bird knew three speeches, and this was all. It could not answer questions, or respond wittily to interruptions. It was, essentially, a living tape recorder.
Talking of ‘living tape-recorders’, I believe this same analogy was employed by Swiss writer Louise Margrêta when questioned over her own relationship with the animal kingdom. In this case, however, it was she that was the recorder – and not the animals. ‘I am a device through which animals speak,’ said Margrêta, memorably: ‘I have no creative talents whatsoever, beyond the ability to record what others have created’.
Others, in this case, referred exclusively to non-human creatures, whose ‘stories’ were collected in her 1997 work, Translations: an unforgettable compendium of absorbing, moving and frequently amusing narratives. Most critics credit Margrêta for the quality of the book, but she is loath to take it. ‘These stories were written by my pets,’ she wrote in the preface, going on to describe, in slightly tedious detail, the personal histories of said scribes, amongst whom we find four cats, three pigs, two dogs, two sheep, a horse, a cow, a goat and a nightingale. Later, with more grace, she recounts the manifold difficulties of her ‘art-form’. ‘Anyone who has attempted to transcribe a moo, a meeow and an oink will understand me when I say that it is a rather complex affair. Rather complex indeed’.
Well, yes: ‘indeed’ is probably the right word.
‘The Duke of Rutland subscribed for no fewer than ten copies, since Savage had written him a poem about his wife the Duchess’s recovery from smallpox the previous year: one of Savage’s most nimble pieces of opportunism’ (Richard Holmes, Dr Johnson and Mr Savage)
One is reminded, inevitably, of the late eighteenth century poet Casimir Snook, whose stock-in-trade consisted of odes composed ‘in honour of a receding malady’. The most famous is, of course, To Maria, Whose Wart Was Successfully Removed, though I have always had a soft spot for earlier works, including the majestic To Patrick, Who Recovered from Rickets, and the sublime Ode to Lord Matherson’s Wooden Leg.
‘Pity poor Heidi Kohlenberg,’ I said, my mouth full of nuts.
Four or five wise heads nodded in agreement.
‘I refer,’ I added hastily, ‘not to the woman, but to the cat.’
The same heads continued their steady up-and-down, as I reminded them of how the Norwegian novelist Edmund Ek (aka ‘Blumin Ek’/ ‘Edmund the Honest’) had retired to the wilderness and lived in near solitude, saved from complete loneliness only by small white cat, which he had named after his ex-wife, the literary critic Heidi Kohlenberg (follow the early stages of the controversy here).
‘I pity that poor pussy for many reasons,’ I explained. ‘First, as its very name attests, it is destined to live in the shadow of the woman it was intended to replace. As if this wasn’t bad enough, this shadow-living must take place in the middle of nowhere. Cats may be quiet creatures, but a desire for peace does not always indicate a desire for complete silence. Even the most sour-faced mog needs requires a smidgen of social interaction. The cat Heidi, however, has nothing of the sort. It is a slave, quite simply, to the whims of its muddle-headed master. Like all pets, it must go wherever the owner goes. It has no say in the situation. It must merely follow.’
More nods and – dare I say it? – one or two glistening eyes. I was touching something – and who knows? – it might well have been a nerve.
‘This cat is not a cat, but a living symbol; a simple piece of writing apparatus; a physical manifestation of the writer’s warped mind. Any purpose it serves it is not the purpose for which it was intended. This is, in essence, a true pet.’
At this I stamped my fist upon the table, sending a lone peanut flying into space, to be caught, nimbly, by the man sitting on the left of me.
‘What did you say the cat’s name was again?’ asked someone.