Wild Girls and Independent Cats

Or should that be ‘Independent Women and Wild Cats’? A change of pace in my reading, with a biography of early 20th century artists and a quiet ode to a beloved cat.

Diana Souhami: Wild Girls – The Love Life of Natalie Barney and Romaine Brooks

Portrait of Natalie Barney by Romaine Brooks.

Natalie ‘the Amazon’ Barney and Romaine Brooks were two wealthy, independent and pivotal figures of the bohemian expat world in Paris at the turn of the 20th century. Although they formed an intense personal relationship that lasted for half a century, this book tries to document their entire lives and their (multiple) relationships with other women (and men) before, during and after their own love story. As such, it simply tries to cram too much in and often feels like a long list of famous names and decadent practices (drugs, orgies, infidelity feature heavily). Although the blurb on the back cover suggests that the Sunday Times considered Souhami ‘an exceptionally witty and original biographer’, I found her lacklustre. She managed to make these fascinating women and their entourage, plus their turbulent lives, sound dull. There was far too little focus on their art, too much detail about all of the secondary figures (including footnotes) and as for the personal ‘anecdotes’ interspersed between chapters? What on earth was that all about? It added nothing to the story – if the author wanted to write a memoir, then she should do so separately from this biography.

Nevertheless, there are still many poignant moments, particularly in the final chapters, when the lovers are ageing. Born to a life of privilege but also parental neglect, they seem rather insufferable in the early years. While I cannot quite say that their arrogance and sense of entitlement takes a beating in their old age, it becomes obvious that money, fame, even some artistic success cannot lead to lasting happiness. While Natalie Barney seems flighty and a serial womaniser in her youth, in old age she shows deep compassion and devotion to an increasingly stubborn and aloof Romaine.

Self-portrait by Romaine Brooks.

Above all, I was shocked by Romaine Brooks pro-Fascist stance (a former lover and admirer of D’Annunzio, she continued to live in Italy throughout the Second World War and turned into quite a xenophobe). Her final years were spent in self-imposed solitude, rebuffing all offers of love and help, supposedly for the sake of her art, but unable to produce any paintings or writing, and in fact suffering from depression and possibly paranoia.

‘I suppose and artist must live alone and feel free otherwise all individuality goes. I can thing of my painting only when alone, even less do any actual work.’ … But however much she thought, no work got done. She sat on her solitary bench by the sea, ate her modest meals, suspected that ‘awful looking Orientals’ were communists, and seemed closed to the world.

Hiraide Takashi: The Guest Cat, transl. Eric Selland

This is a charming palate cleanser, although by no means as light-hearted as you might be led to believe (see my previous post on ‘mood-boosting books’). It was also a surprise hit when published in Japan in 2014 and then translated into English (and many other languages). It’s the story of a couple in their mid-thirties, both writers or researchers who work from home. They have rented a guesthouse at the bottom of a large and beautiful garden of a 1920s mansion in Tokyo, a bit of a rarity in the late 1980s, when this novel takes place. Their neighbour’s son adopts a kitten and soon this small, delicate creature starts visiting them and occupying a place in their house and in their hearts.

This is not just a love song for a cat that has made the (childless) couple feel alive again, but also a paen to nature that is fast disappearing from the city. A nostalgia for a gentler, more caring way of life, but also respect for the creature’s fierce independence, allowing it to exist in all its mystery and strangeness. A reminder to not forget to live, to play, to love even though your heart might get broken. And, like nearly all Japanese literature, it is a meditation on the transience of life. Set in the final year of Showa and the controversial Emperor Hirohito, at the height of the Japanese property boom, it marks the end of an era.

The author is best known as a poet, and this becomes obvious in the lyricism and illuminating fragments of memories (like flashes in the dark) that he describes in this book. While it’s not strictly speaking a memoir, it is based upon Hiraide’s encounter with a real cat, and you can feel that love and understanding of our feline companions seeping through.