The Language of Cats

Written by Ron Bass
This is the second in our series on rediscovered interstitial works by writer Ron Bass.

The Language of Cats

Although not capable of being subjected to any kind of quantitative test, I have no doubts about the accuracy of the following proposition: After the death of its creator, an interstitial work of the first rank is more likely to be lost to future generations than a work of equal rank that resides within a clearly-defined genre.

Spencer Holst (1925 – 2001) was a writer whose interstitial works were widely appreciated during his lifetime; but only a dozen years after his death they have nearly fallen off of our collective cultural radar screen. Although Holst’s stories were published in many literary magazines and were collected in books, he was known primarily as a storyteller who performed in front of live audiences.

During the late sixties and early seventies, Holst conducted a double series of weekend performances at Doctor Generosity’s, a poets’ bar on the Upper East Side, and St. Adrian Company, a demimonde hangout in the West Village. He also performed at St. Marks Church-in-the-Bouwerie, Judson Church in Washington Square, and at St. Peter’s Church in Chelsea, and on the radio on WBAI. (I once saw him perform on the Columbia campus. He did not read his stories. He recited them.)

The Language of Cats was first published in a hardcover edition in 1971. Holst’s stories seem to have appealed more to poets than to fiction writers, a sure sign of their interstitiality. No fewer than five well-known poets are quoted on the dust jacket of the hardcover: Diane Wakoski and John Hollander on the front flap; and Allen Ginsberg, Muriel Rukeyser and W.S. Merwin on the back cover. Hollander said of Holst’s stories: “These are routines – something like fictions, something like jokes – of a stand-up tragic. Transcriptions of a spoken voice, their cadences linger beyond laughter.”

Spencer Holst

Holst’s epigraph is, perhaps fittingly, given the macabre edge in his stories, taken from Edgar Allan Poe: “… that, in general, from the violation of a few simple laws of humanity arises the wretchedness of mankind – that as a species we have in our possession the as yet unwrought elements of content – and that, even now in the present darkness and madness of all thought on the great question of the social condition, it is not impossible that man, the individual, under certain unusual and highly fortuitous conditions, may be happy.”

The collection consists of twenty pieces ranging in length from a single paragraph to seventeen pages. In many of the stories the “unusual and highly fortuitous conditions” under which happiness is possible do not exist.  Some of them have two or three possible endings, and Holst presents these without specifying which one is most likely to be true.

In “The Santa Claus Murderer” the serial killing of forty-two men dressed as Santa Claus indirectly brings about world peace. In “The Language of Cats” a savant who speaks a hundred languages and is employed by the government as a code-breaker learns to speak to cats and is ordered by his Siamese to present to his fellow humans the demands that must be fulfilled or else cats will wipe out the human race. (Spoiler: The human race survives.) In “Miss Lady” a three-year-old girl wanders into the hideout of a gang of bank robbers, who dote on her. She stays with them for eight months, after which she wants to go home, and they send her home by train. She eventually goes to Vassar, but afterward, she pursues an unconventional and frowned-upon career directly as a result of her search for these companions of her childhood.

Many stories use the traditional fairy-tale opening, although the content is often considerably less traditional. For example: “Once upon a time a millionaire playboy burned his face off in an automobile accident.” Or: “Once upon a time there was a real Henry James tea party.” Or: “Once upon a time a big blond bat sat down next to a bartender.”

I think one test of whether these stories work as literature is for the reader to experience whether engaging with them on the printed page triggers the kind of shivery reactions that being in the presence of the uncanny and the otherworldly can and should provoke. For me, the answer is an unqualified “yes”.

The most recent edition of The Language of Cats is an Avon paperback edition published in February 1973. Searching online I noticed several copies available for as little as twenty-three dollars.