telling one’s own story / Firmin, by Sam Savage

“In all my life struggling to write I have struggled with nothing so manfully – yes, that’s the word, manfully – as with openers. It has always seemed to me that if I could just get that bit right all the rest would follow automatically. I thought of that first sentence as a kind of semantic womb stuffed with the busy embryos of unwritten pages, brilliant little nuggets of genius practically panting to be born. From that grand vessel the entire story would, so to speak, ooze forth. What a delusion!”

(Firmin, p.1)

i am almost done reading Firmin by sam savage. i quite enjoyed it, for that’s worth. the story of a rat who feeds, first literally and then metaphorically, on books, this is no kids book. the speaker keeps snapping back into the here and how, the situation of narrator and listener / reader, is honest and quite likeable, rat or not.

much of the time there was this sense of familiarity i could not put my finger on, until it hit me: the speaker really sounds much like the one in Flowers for Algernon – both are outcasts, not really part of society in any desirable way, both trace their own evolution / devolution, – and their voices are so alike!

firmin’s observations are at times pretty intense:

“If there is one thing a literary education is good for it is to fill you with a sense of doom. There is nothing like a vivid imagination for sapping a person’s courage. I read the diary of Anne Frank, I became Anne Frank. As for the others, they could feel plenty of terror, cringe in corners, sweat with fear, but as soon as the danger had passed it was as if it had never happened, and they trotted cheerfully on. Cheerfully on through life till they were flattened or poisoned or had their necks cracked by an iron bar. As for me, I have outlived them all and in exchange I have died a thousand deaths. I have moved through life trailing a glistening film of fear like a snail. When I actually die it will be an anticlimax.”


the descriptions of his surroundings are full of interesting detail. i love the way he describes the owner of the 2nd hand bookstore:

“He was beautiful then, moving gracefully among [the customers]. He was like a musketeer. He was Athos, quiet and reserved, slow to anger, but deadly when provoked. Assaulted by a question from behind, he spins about, thrusts his rapier at the top shelf, and draws down, impaled and flashing like a fish on a spear, Death in Venice. Another request might send him charging down an aisle, a turn at the corner of a shelf, a left feint in the direction of juvenilia, and then, crouching, a lunge to the right – and there, skewered by his sword point, is Betty Crocker’s Picture Cook Book. A third request, this time from an old woman in a mackintosh, bent and ugly, meets with the usual deference. A deep bow, a chivalrous pirouette, two lightning jabs, and The Power of Positive Thinking and Arthritis and Common Sense lie at her feet. Bravo, mon vieux Athos, bravo.”


further on in the book i came across a passage that again refers to telling one’s own story, creating oneself as a character, constructing a self and a world around it. one of my pet topics. here goes:

“I had begun to play with the past, tweaking it this way and that to make it more like a real story. […] it was harder and harder for me to tell the things I remembered from the things I had invented. I was now, for example, unsure which of the figures was really Mama, the fat greedy one or the thin, worn sweet one, and whether her name was Flo or Deedee or Gwendolyn. All the archives existed only in my mind. I had no external check, no diary, no old family friend. How could I verify? All I could do was compare one mental image with another image, equally suspect, and in the end they all got tangled together. My mind was a labyrinth, enticing or terrifying according to my mood. I was losing my footing, and the odd thing was that I didn’t care.”


from the passages i have shared so far it’s easy to see this rat is a pathological ruminator, lives inside his head and in books more than anywhere else. the fact that the gift of tongues, the command of speech intelligible to humans eludes him does not help, especially when he really sees himself not so much as a rat as, rather, a mind. this is an interesting little book to read, it uses little tricks i quite liked, for example the interspersion of (made up but credible) book titles randomly, fitting the situation, throughout the text. while firmin cannot speak or write, he is as much of a reader and writer as there could possibly be.


About annette.c.boehm

words escape me.

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