Firmin

Posting will most likely be light around here for the next few weeks, as I get myself through what feels like the busiest part of the semester. Once I reach Thanksgiving, things begin to wind down a bit. For now, I need quiet evenings for reading more than I need to keep up-to-date with the blog.

But I did want to write at least a little bit about what I’ve read over the last month or so. That includes Sam Savage’s novel Firmin. I’m not entirely sure what to think about this book. I want to say I’ve been in a little bit of a fiction slump and haven’t liked things much for that reason, but I just picked up May Sarton’s A Small Room and am loving it, so I wonder whether it’s my own reading that’s at fault or whether I just haven’t found books that work for me.

The short version is that I hoped to love this book, and I only ended up responding to it in a vague and not particularly enthusiastic way. It should be a book I enjoy, since it’s all about reading and loving books. That it’s about a rat who can read should have made the book quirky and charming. I think it’s the voice that didn’t quite work — it’s jaded and slightly bitter, worldly-wise but also able to remember youthful enthusiasm fondly. That all is fine, but it’s also a bit pompous and affected in a way I don’t like. Even though I liked the first sections of the book and it took me a while before I began to sour on it a bit, it’s passages such as this one, near the beginning when he is describing difficulties writing his life story, that capture what I mean by tone:

This is the saddest story I have ever heard. It begins, like all true stories, who knows where. Looking for the beginning is like trying to discover the source of a river. You paddle upstream for months under a burning sun, between towering green walls of dripping jungle, soggy maps disintegrating in your hands. You are driven half mad by false hopes, malicious swarms of biting insects, and the tricks of memory, and all you reach at the end — the ultima Thule of the whole ridiculous quest — is a damp spot in the jungle or, in the case of a story, some perfectly meaningless word or gesture. And yet, at some more or less arbitrary place along the way between the damp spot and the sea the cartographer inserts the point of his compass, and there the Amazon begins.

Somehow, and this is a vague thought, it doesn’t feel like the narrator has earned the right to get all poetical and metaphorical on us in this way. There’s a self-dramatizing quality and a self-consciousness about it that began to grate a little.

But the narrator — Firmin himself speaking in the first person — can certainly claim to have a very sad story to tell. He is the runt of the litter and takes to reading books in consolation for losing the battle with his siblings for food. Somehow by eating the pages, he learns to read them, and soon becomes a voracious reader. He lives in a building that houses a bookstore and spends his time gazing down at the books, the people browsing through them, and most especially the store owner. He feels he has found a kindred spirit in this man who loves books so much too. Alas, when the store owner spots Firmin staring down at him from a hole in the ceiling, all he does is put poison out. It is extremely difficult, if not impossible, for Firmin to communicate his intelligence and sympathy to the people around him. His reading fills his mind with longings and romantic images, but then he glimpses his rat face in a window and despairs. He seems doomed to loneliness.

The story should be touching, and it sometimes is, but the narrator’s tone kept me feeling distanced from it. I do like its exploration of the dangers of reading — that reading can cause unhappiness and dissatisfaction as well as pleasure is an old, old story, and this is a potentially interesting twist on the idea that reading and education can lead to isolation. And yet I’m not sure that making the main character a rat really takes us in a new direction with the theme. It simply makes the isolation deeper and the barriers to communication higher. So he pours his energies into communicating with readers in the form of the book itself. It’s an understandable move, and yet, sadly, his self-portrait failed to win me over.

13 Comments

Filed under Books, Fiction

13 responses to “Firmin

  1. I felt exactly the same way about “Firmin.” A little levity would have gone a long way. I picked it up hoping it would be funny. I never connected with Firmin. He was too pitiful and depressing. You’d think a rat that could read and write would at least have a sense of humor.

  2. Mr W

    When was this book written? Ford Madox Ford’s “The Good Soldier” starts with exactly the same line: “This is the saddest story I have ever heard.”

  3. I’ve only read Sarton’s poetry; my favourite has the line “Stand still, stand still, and stop the sun.” Now I’m curious to read that novel.

  4. Not a comment about Firmin, but wanted to let you know I got on my bike finally. Raced around the F1 track. Managed to get one training ride in before the race.

  5. Poor Fermin–this sounds like it would be a good story, but it’s too bad it wasn’t quite as good as you wanted it to be. It would be hard reading the story from what seems like a bitter perspective. Glad you’re enjoying The Small Room, however! Good luck with school work–this always seem like a busy time when students should be working away on papers!

  6. I hope for your sake that Thanksgiving comes soon, and that you have lots of good books like Sarton in the meantime. It’s tough when you have your hopes up for a particular book, and are disappointed instead.

  7. Your write-up about Firmin reminds me of Yann Martel’s Beatrice and Virgil, a donkey and a monkey. It’s funny that authors choose animals as their main characters. Maybe by presenting them like an allegory, the ‘moral’ of the story can be better received? From what you said about the book, I’d choose Sarton anytime. I’d enjoyed Journal of a Solitude… would like to read The Small Room one of these days.

  8. I bought Firmin last year and haven’t read it yet. I did start to read it but didn’t get very far before I put it down. I thought I wasn’t in the right frame of mind to enjoy it. Reading your post has made me wonder if it was the distance I felt between me and the narrator that I didn’t get on with. I will start it again one day if only to see if I feel the same about it.

  9. I read this when it first came out and expected to love it but had a similar reaction to yours. It was enjoyable but it wasn’t fantastic. There were some really good parts but overall it was just ok.

  10. I had the same reaction as you & Stefanie did — just okay, not really great. I really didn’t like the illustrations, either, so that made it a little off for me as well.

  11. Funny. As you know, I loved it. Thought it was both extremely funny and extremely sad, and I loved all the literary connections.

  12. Interesting, because I’ve only recently heard of Sam Savage and wondered whether I’d like him. That narrative voice sure doesn’t sound like a rat. I think this sort of quirky text requires a very particular frame of mind. If you’re in the mood for it, it’s probably wonderful, and bound to sink without trace if you’re not. Well, that’s probably just me, but I find myself picking and choosing the moment for the talking animal books.

  13. Brandon — I agree. In a way, the darkness of the book was kind of interesting, but ultimately, it meant the tone didn’t work for me.

    Mr. W — the book was published in 2006. But the opening section is intensely literary, with lots of quotations and allusions, so I’m sure Savage is purposely referencing Ford. Otherwise, that line would be a little troubling!

    Lilian — it sounds like she has written so much! I knew she had journals published, but I didn’t know about her poetry. Interesting.

    Bikkuri — I’m glad you’re back on the bike again! That’s wonderful news.

    Danielle — oh, it’s an awful time of year for me. Finals time is pretty easy compared to getting papers from all my classes at once and having to write comments on them so they can revise them! Anyway, I definitely enjoyed The Small Room and have been interested in all the responses.

    Debby — yes, it can be disappointing. But at least I liked The Small Room all the way through, and I hope we both find lots of books that we enjoy in the next few weeks!

    Arti — a friend of mine recently complained about how awful she thought Beatrice and Virgil was. It hasn’t been a good time for books about animals! Since I enjoyed this one so much, I will have to seek out some of her other books.

    Margaret — I’m curious to know if you will enjoy it when you try to read it again (if you do). I know people who loved the book, so not everyone agrees with me!

    Stefanie — interesting that you had a similar response. I expected to love it, so I felt strange when I didn’t. I’m glad we agree!

    Melwyk — oh, interesting. I didn’t have a strong reaction to the illustrations one way or another. I suppose they suited the tone — they were quite dark.

    Emily — I really wanted to love this one! I’m surprised I didn’t because it really is the kind of book I like.

    Litlove — I kind of thought I would be in the mood for this one, but I just wasn’t. I suppose I wanted something more like Alan Bennett’s Uncommon Reader. Both books are about the love of reading, which I like, but apparently that theme from a rat’s perspective just didn’t work!

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