Firmin by Sam Savage


Published: 20o8 by Weidenfield & Nicolson
My copy: Bought in hardback

Memorable quote: “There is a passage in The Phantom of the Opera where the phantom, a great genius who lives hidden from sight because of his great ugliness, says that the thing he wants most in the world is simply to stroll in the evening along the boulevards with a beautiful woman on his arm, like an ordinary bourgeois. To me that is one of the most moving passages in literature…”

It’s funny really, I bought this because I am absolutely mad-crazy-gaga about rats, but in actual fact if I was slightly less of a rat devotee I think I would have enjoyed this little book a bit more.

Firmin is the runt in a litter of rats born in the basement of a ramshackle bookshop. Deprived of his mother’s milk, Firmin turns instead to paper and begins munching the stock around him. Doing so somehow enables him to read and he quickly falls in love with both literature and film. The book basically deals with the sad disjuncture between Firmin’s (imagined) richly convivial intellectual existence, where he seduces cinema “Lovelies,” sups with great authors and argues philosophy long into the night, and the bitter reality of his lowly status as a scavenging rat.

Savage’s is a melancholy little book which, more than anything, is about the end of an era, signalled by the demolition in the early 1960s of Boston’s notorious Scollay Square, where the novel is set: “I always think everything is going to last forever, but nothing ever does. In fact, nothing exists longer than an instant except the things we hold in memory.” Firmin is a member of a species ideally placed to make such observations, since rats do live such short lives, a brevity that in no way matches the largeness and uniqueness of their characters (and that’s true even of those rats that can’t read and play the piano!)

At the same time, however, Firmin transcends being a rat (a verdict that would please him immensely I’m sure) since who among us hasn’t, at times, longed to be someone else and indulged in some sort of imaginary life? I thoroughly enjoyed the latter half of the book, as real and imagined events in Firmin’s narrative become increasingly difficult to untwine. What I didn’t like – and this is where being a Rat Lady disadvantaged me – was the early stuff with Firmin’s family. The rats in the first half of the book don’t convince as rats at all and that made it quite a struggle to get through the early chapters. The species as Savage depicts them are very solitary: Firmin’s mother enters the bookstore pregnant and alone, and later encourages her brood to go their own ways. This couldn’t be further from the behaviour of real rats who are an intensely social, clannish species. Okay, okay I know Savage never set out to write a nature thesis but even so the wrongness of the rat family’s behaviour really jarred and even went some way to undermine the compelling uniqueness of Firmin’s own character. Now of course I do not think rats can read or play piano, but it’s not such a stretch of my imagination to believe in a loner rat who identifies more with humans than with his own kind. I once owned just such an unusual beast myself; his name was Loki. It’s strange that for me the literary rat was somehow more believable than the allegedly realistic rats!

Overall, this is a quirky and intelligent little novel and I would recommend it. The hardback edition is charming too: with quirky illustrations and a cover shaped to look as if it has been gnawed! However I would alter slightly the conclusion I’ve seen on several professional reviews of this book which state: “Firmin is for all those who love books and love rats.” Rather, I would say, it will appeal most to those who love books and aren’t averse to rats either.

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