Earlier this year Daunt Books brought us a lost classic in Penelope Mortimer’s collection Saturday Lunch with the Brownings. The introduction to that book has a quote from Mortimer on inspiration. She says that she mined her life for incidents with a beginning, middle and end, “finding even the dreariest of days contained nuggets of irony, farce and unpredictable behaviour”.
Daunt’s latest book is the American author Mary Gaitskill’s Lost Cat, a short, searing read that originally appeared as an essay in Granta. Unusually for Gaitskill, a master of short fiction whose publications include the seminal collection Bad Behaviour, the novel Veronica and last year’s luminous novella This Is Pleasure, Lost Cat is a personal essay that uses instances from the author’s life to discuss universal concerns of love, loss and recovery.
Perhaps even more unusual is the subject matter. Gaitskill is known for her transgressive writing. In her fiction she has given us the perspective of a serial killer, couples engaging in BDSM, sexual predators in the workplace, and the victims of this type of abuse. Lost Cat could be deemed more sentimental territory, beginning with the story of how the author rescued a stray cat in Italy and brought him to live with her in the US, where he subsequently went missing.
Woven into this narrative of loss are two further stories complementary in theme: the death of Gaitskill’s father, and the fostering of two inner-city children, Caesar and sister Natalia, by Gaitskill and her husband Peter.
In the hands of a lesser writer, so many threads might be difficult to pull together. But Gaitskill is no ordinary writer. Lost Cat is a beautifully paced treatise on the human need for love and the damage we do to ourselves in its reckless pursuit. There isn’t a trace of sentimentality. The trauma of loss is related in stark, original prose that leaves you wanting to underline most of the book.
The author’s powers of description bring us so close to Gattino (the Italian for kitten) that they could turn a dog person into a cat person in a matter of pages: “He was a tabby, soft grey with strong black stripes. He had a long jaw and a big nose shaped like an eraser you’d stick on the end of a pencil. His big-nosed head was goblinish on his emaciated potbellied body, his long legs almost grotesque.”
Throughout the book, Gaitskill is as insightful with her own life as she is with her fictional characters. Although she falls immediately for Gattino, she is under no illusion that her feelings are returned: “He liked me as a food dispenser. He looked at me neutrally, as if I were one more creature in the world, albeit a useful one.”
The author’s famed ability to penetrate the minds of others proves useful in real life when Gattino goes missing. In her desperate, irrational bids to find him (including visits to psychics), she begins to think like the cat: “From a human perspective, it was flat enough to easily look across; from the perspective of a creature much lower to the ground, it was made of valleys and hills too big to see over.”
As with her fiction, there is a great deal of compassion: “I said I had fallen in love with the cat, and that I was afraid that by exposing him to human love I had awakened in him a need that was unnatural, that if I left him, he would suffer from the lack of human attention that he never would have known had I not appeared in his yard.”
From the pure, simplistic love we have for animals to the complex and often ambivalent feelings that comprise human relationships, Lost Cat is a treasure trove of insight. Gaitskill segues expertly into past scenes with her father or the foster children, using precise details (a marble gift is one example) and observations to link the narrative strains.
The difference between humans and animals is that “human love is grossly flawed, and even when it isn’t, people routinely misunderstand it, reject it, use it or manipulate it. It is hard to protect a person you love from pain, because people often choose pain.”
The reader quickly begins to see that despite the subject matter and focus on her own life, we are in Gaitskill territory after all. Even with the personal she is able to set herself back and reflect, an empathetic judge of what she sees.
At one point she relates the troubled relationship between her foster daughter and the girl’s birth mother: “She said it was because her mother beat her. Her mother said it was because she wanted to have sex and do drugs.” Gaitskill is the one who finds the middle ground in the story, the truth that lies between the lines.