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.