Essay: Vanessa Berryon cats

Perec’s Cat


In the author photograph that fills the back cover of Life: A User’s Manual Georges Perec has a black cat perched on his shoulder. The cat looks out over his cloud of unruly hair, her light eyes round and watchful. Her glossy tail stripes the front of Perec’s pale, cable-knit cardigan, as he levels an amiable gaze towards his readers.

Perec had a succession of pet cats, all of which went by the name Duchat. The Duchats had an essential quality by which one could transform into another. This was echoed in their name, which means something like ‘McCat’, or more literally, ‘of the cat’: they needed no additional identity besides their feline nature.

These two complementary spirits accompany the readers who hold a copy of Life: A User’s Manual, who see Perec’s homely knitwear, and his unruly cloud of hair like uncontained ideas. Some might notice the shadows under his eyes, and how his face is both tired and lively. The night before the photograph was taken he had been up late, perhaps, at a party, or setting a crossword, or writing a description of the objects on his desk, or thinking over the events of Life: A User’s Manual. The novel traverses the lives of the residents of a Parisian apartment building through a series of short chapters that move from character to character, apartment to apartment. He plotted the novel using a grid of one hundred squares, with the story progressing in a zigzag path across it, a ‘Knight’s Tour’ of an irregular chessboard, covering all squares but one. This one untraversed space made the system forever incomplete, like life, which never goes exactly to plan.

Perec’s writing was shaped by the constraints he placed upon it. Words could be playthings, like strings are to kittens. In the preamble to Life: A User’s Manual he wrote of puzzles, and how every move the puzzler makes, the puzzle-maker has made before. The puzzle-maker guides the puzzler as the author guides the reader. The trick is to make it seem otherwise.

Duchat flicks her tail and moves across to Perec’s opposite shoulder, distracted by a disturbance above. A flock of birds, flying past in a flurry of grey wings. It could have been the pigeons Perec had watched at Place Saint-Sulpice some years before. For three days he had sat in the square making notes on everything around him, as an experiment in describing details which are not usually noticed, because they are mundane or functional or fleeting. Within this list buses and cars and people go by and pigeons group and disperse, moving as a mass, like a collective consciousness. On his final day of observation, one of the last notes he makes is that the pigeons all fly away at the same time. They lift from the square and are fixed on the page in that errant motion.

As the camera shutter clicks, Perec follows Duchat’s gaze up towards the sky, before she jumps down. He feels the release of her weight, watches her sidle away and disappear from view. He turns back to the camera but the photographer knows the defining image has already been captured. They move back inside the apartment and Duchat climbs up to the roof, where she sits, looking across the grey slate tiles and terracotta chimneys. The city is below her. She sets out, moving over its maze as lightly as she walked over Perec’s shoulders.

The roofs sit over the apartment buildings like hats on heads. Underneath them the lives of their residents continue. Life: A User’s Manual is set in such a building, at the fictional address of 11 Rue Simon-Crubellier in the 17th arrondissement of Paris. At the end of the novel, before the appendices, there is a diagram of the apartments which acts as a map. A tall rectangle is divided into ten horizontal sections and then further vertically into individual apartments, inside which the names of the inhabitants are printed. The top two rows are crowded with names across the smaller squares that indicate the attic rooms that were originally maid’s quarters.

Near the beginning of the novel a white cat is described as being shared between the residents of these attic apartments. It appears in one of the early chapters, snoozing on an orange bedspread in the room of the elderly butler who attends the wealthy Englishman Bartlebooth, who lives in one of the large apartments on the third floor below. As the novel progresses and the apartment building is brought to life, the white cat remains dozing inside this sentence, content to sleep through it all.

On the rooftops Duchat moves softly but deliberately. She winds around chimneys and passes by attic windows. The scenes occurring inside them, so vital to the participants, are of little interest to her. The residents of these small apartments sit alone with their morning coffees, read correspondence, or pause in moments of reverie, surrounded by the cluttered or meagre evidence of their lives. To these people, if they notice Duchat at all, she is similarly anonymous. A black cat, her shape a silhouette as if cut out from the rooftop scene behind her.

When Duchat passes the window behind which the white cat Pangur slumbers, lying with her paws tucked underneath like the fold of an envelope, the two cats sense each other. Pangur lifts her head and opens her eyes, one blue, one yellow. The cats pause, staring as if a mirror has tricked them. One has the quiet interior as her domain, the other the rooftops beyond.

They blink, ascertaining their territories are safe from each other, then Duchat moves on to further roofs and Pangur sweeps a look around the room in which she sleeps. A narrow wardrobe bulges with clothes, the door hanging open with the patterned arms of polyester dresses protruding. A roll-top desk is piled with papers, its nooks and drawers full, the only vacant space a recently cleared square, the size of a sheet of paper, on the desk’s surface. The chair is pushed back, unoccupied. The woman who usually sits there is out working her job as an attendant at the Museum of Natural History. At this moment she is explaining that a gentleman’s large umbrella must be left in the cloakroom. He doesn’t like it, and pauses as if he’s going to refuse, then relents, watching as a label is clipped to this precious accessory.

The cat closes her eyes, gets back to dreaming. She travels back in time to her namesake, Pangur Bán, who dreamed by the side of the monk who wrote a poem in her honour, more than a thousand years before. During his time living in the abbey on Reichenau Island he inscribed the poem in his copy book, between the grammars and hymns on which he practised his hand. He wrote how he and Pangur shared a like task, as Pangur’s hunting of mice was like his capturing of thoughts. The monk sits hunting words all night, while Pangur Bán waits to pounce on the mice that scuttle out from the walls.

The poem is an ode to Pangur Bán but also to the hermetic joy of working late into the night on a task which has one’s heart. The outside hush encloses you as activity concentrates in your thoughts, gathering energy to pounce upon an object. Sometimes ideas might be slow in coming, but as with waiting for a mouse, if you have patience and sit quietly, one will surely appear.

This Pangur Bán is a less active muse. She spends most of her days and nights sleeping. Like the monk the woman often stays up late, writing until two or three a.m., sitting at her desk with her legs crossed, the foot of her top leg tucked behind her lower calf. She sits for so long sometimes that when she uncurls her legs she feels as if she is opening a stubborn, rusted lock.

How do I know this? Pangur is my cat, and this is my apartment. This is my desk with its papers and talismans, among them a thirteen of hearts playing card, and a printed fortune for a person born in the month of April, stating I am one of the ‘leaders rather than followers in all enterprises’. I often think of this phrase as I am clipping a label to an umbrella, or smiling obligingly at the professors and students who visit the museum.

Above my desk are two framed pictures. One is an illustration of boys in red shirts and grey trousers running in an egg-and-spoon race, spoons held out in front of them with eggs balancing inside the rounds. The picture is cropped and the spoon of the boy in the lead is cut off just where the handle extends, so it is forever ambiguous whether he managed to successfully convey the egg and win the race. Sometimes I imagine that he wins, sometimes that he drops it to the path below.

The second picture is from the 1960s, a black-and-white photograph of a woman and a ginger cat. The photograph is square with a white border, of the kind taken with a Kodak Brownie. The woman lies against the arm of a sofa, with her feet tucked up, so her body forms the shape of the letter N. She has a serious look, her arms folded across her body, the set of her mouth firm. This is in contrast to the fat ginger cat slumped in the crook of her legs, eyes shut, paws dangling in blissful repose. They nestle together, Lily, my grandmother, and Ginger, the cat.

For anyone else this photograph is of a stranger, the kind of photo you might find in a box at a market, among lost or discarded family snapshots. You might pick it up and wonder what this woman is thinking, with her stern, sad expression. I do too: the photo was taken long ago enough for my grandmother to look unfamiliarly young. I recognise the shape of her face, and Ginger’s feline repose, but the photograph still holds mystery.

Like Perec’s Duchat, Ginger was one of a succession of cats which all shared the same name. Ginger replaced Ginger, one after the other. The tradition ended before I was born but the Gingers lived on in stories, the Ginger in the photo being remembered as the most resplendent and favoured of them all. His habits and predilections were spoken of with great affection and I was sure that his ghost sometimes returned to visit. When I lay curled up on the same couch I could sometimes sense his soft weight against my legs.

Ginger’s ghosts were regular presences in my grandparents’ house. My ankle would itch or a breeze would tickle up against my hand and I would imagine it to be a Ginger sidling by, moving invisibly along the threshold between past and present. Later when the house was sold the Gingers went with it and I kept this photograph close to remember them, that time, my past.

Below the framed pictures, on the desk’s surface, is a yellow notebook with an illustration of a ship on the cover. The ship floats above the name Lutèce, the French name for the Roman city of Lutetia, which was built on the land that would become Paris. This book is my journal. It is never a good idea to read the journal of someone you know, for its contents will surely displease with their banality or candour. But I am unfamiliar enough to you, and we can at least look at the last words I wrote before closing the book in the quiet, pre-dawn dark that morning: Pangur curled up beside me, under the spell of sleep. I watch her but I can never know her completely.

While I sit at the desk writing, Pangur sleeps. Cats have no need of diaries. The cat of the novel I Am a Cat by Natsume Soseki explained it thus: ‘We live our diaries, and consequently have no need to keep a daily record as a means of maintaining our real characters.’ Cats have different priorities, as Soseki’s cat reports: ‘Had I the time to keep a diary, I’d use that time to better effect; sleeping on the veranda.’

Soseki’s cat was an observer, allowing the author to step to the side of the elements of human nature he wished to satirise. In the first part of the novel the cat appears as a stray kitten at the home of a teacher and his family. Initially the kitten is expelled from the house, but the teacher relents and allows it to stay. The family tolerate the cat and the cat tolerates them, becoming a cynical commentator upon the humans he lives alongside. When the teacher shuts the door of his study, ostensibly to work, the cat sees how he dozes over his books instead. The cat listens with disdain to the gloating conversations between the teacher and his friends, and decides that ‘all humans are puffed up by their extreme self-satisfaction with their own brute power’. Humans are cruel but also petty: the teacher rarely records in his diaries anything but his illnesses and complaints.

Across the street from my apartment where Pangur sleeps, Duchat returns home, slipping back in through a window left open for this purpose. Underneath the window are piles of books. When Perec wrote of his methods for sorting books he described the many locations they can be housed in addition to shelves: between two windows, in the recess created by a blocked-off doorway, or on the steps of a library stool. Wherever they are placed it is a difficult task to order them. This lack of order can, however, produce useful results, serendipitous discoveries during the search among the shelves and stacks. Attempting to instil order on books, or life, or anything, we waver between the illusion of completion and the abyss of the ungraspable.

Duchat pauses for a moment on top of the stack of books, licking one front paw with her rough tongue. It tastes of soot, of roof tiles, of the scenes she has passed over on her journey above the city. Now she rests on the purple and yellow cover of a paperback copy of Sei Shonagon’s Notes de chevet. Perec is hoping to write his own version of Shonagon’s pillow book, adapting its categories and lists and free-floating associations to the present-day. So far he has extracted from it her comments on fashion, dividing them into sections, ‘outerwear’, ‘skirts with long trains’ and so on. In the same manner he would like to tell the stories of the objects on his desk: the blotter, the bud-vase, the teapot shaped like a cat.

The teapot has been moved from the desk since Perec included it in this list. It is now one of the non-book objects in the bookcase facing the desk. It has a pinched expression on its ceramic face, as if it is obligated, but unwilling, to pour tea from the upraised paw which makes up the pot’s spout. This unwillingness continues into action, as when the pot is tipped the cat’s head that is the lid wobbles, threatening to detach.

Only Duchat animates the placid, midday atmosphere of the apartment, as she sits atop the pile of books. Perec had felt the pull of the city when he walked downstairs to farewell the photographer. Soon afterwards he himself set out, walking along Rue Linne towards the Jardin des Plantes. At the street corner he passed by the Cuvier Fountain, a curved trough above which a sculpted goddess sits amid a medley of stone animals. To one side of the folds of fabric that drape her lower body is an owl with a puffed, proud chest; to the other the stern face of a lion stares out with blank white eyes. Below the clamshell on which the trio are positioned is a cluster of marine and amphibious beasts. Here a stone crocodile performs an impossible movement, turning its head to look back behind it, as if seeking something forgotten.

When I pass by this fountain on my way to work at the museum I only have eyes for the crocodile. Its pose of retrospection seems a torture and I long to have the power to untwist it so it faces forwards, even though I likely would not survive this manoeuvre. In the moment of me freeing it the crocodile would sink in its teeth. I have similar thoughts at the museum, imagining the horde of animal skeletons contained within the Gallery of Comparative Anatomy coming to life and trampling me in their rush to escape.

The animals continue to await their day of revenge. It won’t be today they wake. The only visitors this morning, apart from the man with the umbrella, were a couple whose wonder for the exhibits was equal to their wonder for each other. On my rounds I saw them standing in front of the glass case of taxidermy leopards. I caught the man’s look as the woman gathered up her hair: he gazed at her as if she contained all the world. It was a look not meant to be observed, and I moved quietly away, my steps soft as a moth.

In the afternoon I walk back home for lunch, anticipating the quiet of my room and the bread and salted cucumbers that await me there. I move swiftly through the Jardin des Plantes, towards the iron gates that lead on to the fountain and then the cafés and photocopy shops of Rue Linne. As I rush out of the garden gates I stop abruptly to avoid colliding with another walker, a man with a cloud of curly hair and a wiry beard, wearing a cable-knit cardigan. He stops too and my apology tumbles out: I’m sorry, I say, I’m going home to see my cat. He grins and gestures me onwards, says, Go, go, hurry. With his absolution, I again quicken my step.

This is an extract from Gentle and Fierce by Vanessa Berry, published July 2021 by Giramondo Publishing.