How To Bring a Living Being Into a Dead House

"The Cat" by Tove Ditlevsen, translated and recommended by Michael Favala Goldman

Introduction by Michael Favala Goldman

Tove Irma Margit Ditlevsen (1917-1976) is one of the most important Danish writers of the twentieth century and a household name in Denmark. Born and raised in the working-class neighborhood of Versterbro, Copenhagen, she has written more than thirty books of poetry, novels, short stories, and memoirs, many of which deal with autobiographical material—her childhood in Vesterbro, her struggles with alcohol and substance abuse, her four failed marriages, and her time in psychiatric institutions and rehabilitation centers. Ditlevsen is taught in schools throughout Denmark, and in the past few years, she has been revived as an important voice in Danish literature and feminism. Little of her work has been available in English until the recent publication of The Copenhagen Trilogy, The Faces, and now the short story collection from which this story comes, The Trouble with Happiness.

My relationship with Tove Ditlevsen’s writing began with a chance purchase of her memoir, GIFT, in a Danish airport bookstore on my way home after a trip with my wife to visit her family and homeland. I have translated seventeen Danish books, but after reading the final pages of GIFT, I set the book down and, for the first time ever, said to myself, “I think I just read a masterpiece.” Ditlevsen’s writing style is concise and precise, in accord with her origins as a poet. Her content is hyper-realistic, with the ability to reach the reader with the universality of whatever aspect of life she is exposing. Although the arcs of tension in her stories generally do not resolve, I find a subtle joy in reading Ditlevsen, which I think is because I feel as if she is bearing witness to my own hardships.

“The Cat” comes from Ditlevsen’s third collection, Paraplyen (The Umbrella), published in 1952. Following a couple returning by train from the hospital, the story economically reveals the crack in their marriage through the man’s cold, rational perspective. Although Ditlevsen’s work is from over half a century ago, it is just as resonant and relevant as ever. Her short stories tend to focus on some aspect of love gone wrong in a relationship, whether between couples or between parents and children, at various ages and stages of life. The emotional conflicts simmer between the lines, where readers unmistakably recognize themselves. The universality of struggling with love and self-identity is at the core of Ditlevsen’s genius and wide appeal, and is well on display here.

Michael Favala Goldman
Translator of The Trouble with Happiness

How To Bring a Living Being Into a Dead House

They sat across from one another on the train, and there was nothing special about either of them. They weren’t the kind of people your eyes would land on if you tired of staring at the usual scenery, which appears to rush toward the train from a distance and then stand still for a second, creating a calm picture of soft green curves and little houses and gardens, whose leaves vibrate and turn grayish in the smoke streaming back from the train like a long billowing pennant. You wouldn’t guess if they were married or not, whether they had children, how old they were, their occupations, etc., just to pass the time. You could see marriage and office work in their expressionless eyes. The man hid his face behind the newspaper, and the woman appeared to have fallen asleep. They sat there every morning and evening, at the times office and factory workers commute. Usually in the same seats in the last train car. Recently there had been a few days when she wasn’t there. Maybe she’d been sick. So he had sat alone, and to an observer it didn’t make any difference. He had spread his newspaper wide and read it carefully, folded it together neatly, and left it on the seat when he got off. A completely regular office worker in his thirties. It was the cold time of year, so maybe she had had the flu. 

He lightly touched her knee. ‘We’re here,’ he said.

It wasn’t necessary, because she wasn’t sleeping. She got up and took her bag out of the baggage holder, straightened her hat and walked in front of him off the train. He looked at her from the side as they continued down the road toward home. She appeared tired; she always did. She wasn’t sick, and she didn’t do any more than other women who worked while simultaneously taking care of their houses – less, in fact, since they had no children. But she had taken on the attitude that she carried the burdens of the world. At least that’s how it seemed to him, and it bothered him. Recently he had been easily irritated. He tautened his lips to a narrow line and cleared his throat: 

‘Is the cat still at our house?’ he asked. 

‘I think so,’ she said. ‘I wasn’t going to chase it out into this freezing cold.’ 

He wrinkled his brow and grew silent. The animal had slowly sneaked into their lives. They had come home one evening to find it meowing outside their door. So she had given it a bit of milk and sent it off. The next morning it was back, and he threw a rock at it when they left. But in the evening she let it inside, because it was below freezing, and it seemed to have no other place to go. In the morning the entire house smelled of cat urine; the creature wasn’t even housebroken. It purred apologetically at their legs, and she ran around cleaning up after it, spraying ammonia to get rid of the smell. 

Then disagreements started over the cat. He let it out, and she let it back in. When they lay in bed in the evening, they heard the faint meowing outside their front door, and she got up to give it something to eat, while an incomprehensible resentment arose in her husband. ‘Don’t let it in,’ he yelled to her. But in the morning there it was down in the living room, jumping elegantly up onto her lap. She babied it. ‘Little pussycat,’ she said, ‘if only you were housebroken.’ The smell made her face go pale as they sat and drank coffee. While she was in the hospital, he was able to get rid of it. Every time he caught sight of the cat near their house, he threw a rock at it, frustrated that he could never hit it. But when she came home, the first thing she asked about was the cat. She stood outside the house calling, ‘Here pussycat, come here, baby. Mommy’s home again.’ And it actually did come when she called, as if it had been nearby the whole time waiting for her. She scraped the snow away from around the front step and brought the creature into their warm living room. As she put her cheek to its fur she had tears in her eyes. ‘You sweet little kitty,’ she whispered. He hated sentimentality, and he hated dirt and disorder. She could put her energy and care into other things. Inwardly, he was glad she had had a miscarriage. That child would have turned their lives upside- down. Things had progressed so steadily in the six years they had been married. They had a house and nice furniture, fine friends, the boss over for dinner once a month. A child would have meant she would have had to stop working, their standard of living would have gone down, their social standing too. He saw it as something to be avoided, and he tried to get her to see the sense in his reasoning. But she harbored a gentle expectation, living in a dream world where dry numbers and computations did not enter. ‘A real live little baby of our own,’ she said solemnly. ‘The house? It’s just a dead thing.’ 

He had thought she was betraying their mutual eforts; she had withdrawn from him and was alone with this strange, foreign body. It was as if she were getting younger and more beautiful because of it, and he felt a kind of jealousy, because he wasn’t part of her happiness. In his childhood home there had been six siblings, and he remembered it as one continuous crying fit and quarrel about money, of which there was never enough. Children make people poor. 

When did the cat show up? It must have been right after they realized she was pregnant, but apart from that, the two things had nothing to do with one another. One morning she was sick and was driven to the hospital in great haste; the whole thing only took a few days, and then he felt relieved. It wasn’t anyone’s fault. If they had had the baby, of course they would have figured it out. But it was better this way. He picked her up from the hospital, with flowers, bought out of a vague sense that she needed consoling. But she didn’t really register the flowers, holding them awkwardly and tensely in the car on the way home. She let him pat her hand, but it was like a foreign, dead object in his. ‘Did you chase away the cat?’ she had asked, and he thought it was a strange question, but women didn’t really have a sense of proportion. For a few days he took special care above and beyond the usual. He helped her with the dishes in the evening, and he let the cat come around. Once he even removed its refuse personally. But when she didn’t seem to notice his efforts, he stopped and went back to the way he was before. They didn’t mention the baby. Just once, while she sat with the cat in her lap, she said, ‘So I guess you’re happy again?’ He defended himself, feeling aggrieved, and over time it seemed to him that in fact he had been the one who wanted to have a baby, and that he was the only one grieving for the loss. Since it didn’t work out, he could allow himself to be sad about it. As long as she had her cat, she was happy. But he would put an end to that soon enough. The constant filth.

The smell hit them as soon as they stepped inside. He demonstratively opened all the windows. Now that creature had to go. He kicked it off the chair while she was in the kitchen, and it bolted out to her. He could hear her babbling to it as she poured milk in its saucer. He lay on the divan when she came in with the bucket and ammonia, a scarf around her hair. Cleaning woman, he thought, furious. 

But a sudden warmth coursed through him at seeing her bent, flexible back, which surprised him. It had been quite a while. ‘Grethe?’ he said. 

‘What is it?’ She didn’t turn around. 

‘Come over here.’ 

He got up, standing motionless and abashed before her clear, questioning look. Jesus Christ, he thought, we are married after all. But she walked by him on her sensible flats and suddenly seemed so unreasonably foreign, as if he had never held her in his arms. But it’s not my fault, he thought, with a smoldering, helpless anger. Was it my fault it didn’t amount to anything? 

He stared at the closed door and then noticed the cat under the desk, following him with its predatory stare. It was lying there as if hunting for mice, motionless and inpatient suspense. He stood totally still in the middle of the floor, feeling the same preying watchfulness f ll his own senses. He took a step toward the creature, which hunched its back and hissed quietly. Then he looked for something to smack it with, but just as he took his eyes off it, the cat raced over and jumped out of one of the open windows. He shut the windows in all three rooms, one after the other, and then walked out to check if the front and kitchen doors were locked. Leaning against the kitchen counter he watched his wife. She was putting meat through the grinder and catching it in her hands, and leading it into a bowl as it came creeping out of the little holes like long, bright worms. 

Keeping her eyes on her work, she said, ‘Where did the cat go?’ 

He shrugged: ‘How should I know?’ 

She looked up quickly: ‘You let it out,’ she said. Her voice trembled slightly with anger. 

‘Oh, you have cat on the brain,’ he said, attempting a laugh.

She washed her hands and dried them carefully, finger by finger, as if she was putting on gloves. 

‘Go and get it,’ she said calmly. 

He glanced away. He wanted to say something. There was a lump stuck in his throat, as if he was about to cry. What is the problem? he thought. It’s almost like she hates me. With a helpless look he walked past her and out of the kitchen. 

‘Kitty,’ he called. ‘Here, kitty.’ If the cat comes back, he thought, then everything will be fine. But it didn’t come. He searched the yard, and all his anger was chased away by something overwhelming and unknown for which he didn’t have the words. He looked between the trees in the snow-covered grass; he was searching for a little cat which brought a load of trouble and no joy; it didn’t make any sense. He was a man who always had been led by reason, and who had advanced step by step because of this. He had never had urges to do meaningless things. He had married a pretty girl from a good family; in a few years he would be a manager, and then they might be able to allow themselves to have a child. Grete could stop working – ‘Here, Kitty, Kitty’ – he pleaded for his life and didn’t know why. He was afraid. He was moving in unknown territory; he didn’t recognize the woman who was standing in his kitchen anymore, demanding he return with a mangy, untrained cat. He wanted her the way she was before, when he could talk to her about everyday things. He would hold her in his arms and feel the pride of ownership again. Maybe he could buy her with that cat. 

It was sitting in a corner of the shed, hissing as he approached. ‘Kitty,’ he whispered gently. ‘Don’t be afraid. Come inside to your Mama, come on now.’ 

It slipped between his legs and jumped in through the open kitchen door all by itself. She had it in her arms when he came in. Tears were falling on its fur. She kissed it on the head, on the paws, and gave it long smacking kisses on its ears. He could see her body trembling. ‘Grete,’ he said, frightened. Suddenly she let go of the creature, as if she had been awoken from a deep sleep. Then she stared at her hands, which had just been caressing the cat so lovingly. She lifted her head and took a wobbly step toward her husband. Then she stopped and wiped her forehead with the back of her hand. 

‘Well,’ she said, ‘I guess I’d better finish making dinner.’

He felt something in his mind soften, and he wanted to go and put his arm around her shoulder, to be close to her in some way. Maybe she expected it; maybe she needed it. But then it occurred to him that the neighbors had probably seen him lying on the ground and crawling around between the bushes, meowing. 

He straightened his tie and walked back into the living room. The cat followed, its eyes riveted to him. And though he didn’t show it, he was aware of its presence all the time.

About the Recommender

More about the recommender

More Like This

I Stole My Neighbors’ Tragedy To Write a Short Story

The stakes are higher when we mine someone else’s grief for art

Aug 16 - Rebecca Meacham

I Can See My Future Through the Haze of My Grief

I didn’t recognize myself as a person who had outlived their sister

Jun 15 - 12:41

We Are Gathered Here Today to Eat, Drink, and Be Ruthless

"Wedding Party" from DIRECT SUNLIGHT by Christine Sneed, recommended by Elizabeth McKenzie

Jun 5 - Christine Sneed
Thank You!