The Cat Inside: William Burroughs

A Penguin reissue
William Burroughs in his kitchen with two cats. Photograph copyright: CORBIS and Allen Ginsberg.

Olivia Laing reviews the recent Penguin reissue of William S. Burroughs's The Cat Inside. She sums up the presence of cats in twentieth-century literature with a nod to Eliot, and then offers the strange, idiosyncratic example of William S. Burroughs. Who would have expected it? The Beat writer Bill Burroughs, 'Junkie, experimentalist and inadvertent wife-slayer', identifying with the 'cosy domesticity of cat ownership'? There is perhaps more than a hint that The Cat Inside is a book that, in many ways, retrospectively humanizes Burroughs' cold, post-war polemics:
"My relationships with my cats," [writes William Burroughs], "has saved me from a deadly, pervasive ignorance" and it is true that the Burroughs of these pages is both more vulnerable and more likable than he appears elsewhere. The Cat Inside was written contemporaneously with The Western Lands and despite the odd cutesy anecdote, it shares its desolate, seething vision. The elderly Burroughs despaired of man's capacity for destruction and his account of his relationship with these elegant creatures is permeated with a terrible sadness at the spectacle of a planet on the verge of extinction, the forests bulldozed, "the whole magical universe… dying". [Read More]