Home > 21st Century, About reading, American Literature, Novel, Savage, Sam > Firmin, le Rat de bibliothèque

Firmin, le Rat de bibliothèque

What first caught my eyes was the cover and the words “If reading is your pleasure and your destiny, then this book is for you”. I don’t know if reading is my destiny (what a big word!), but it certainly is my pleasure, and the publisher, Babel, usually selects good books. Therefore I went for it.

 Firmin by Sam Savage is the imaginary autobiography of a rat. His mother shelters in the basement of a bookshop, Pembroke Books, to give birth to her 13 babies and fills their nest with pages of books. Firmin is like The Ugly Duckling because he is the smallest and is despised and sometimes molested by his siblings. As her mother has 12 udders for 13 children, one of them needs to wait for the second sitting. And that one is often Firmin. So, starving, he starts eating the book the nest is made of. He enjoys the taste and keeps on eating pages and pages until he can recognize subtle differences from one book to another. A book oenologist, so to speak.

 He eventually finds out that reading them is another way to devour books. Books do not feed his body any more but feed his mind.

 When not reading, he observes the activity of the bookshop from a hole in the ceiling (“The Balcony”) and leaves the book store only to find some food. One of his favourite destinations is a cinema where he can eat popcorn and watch movies, and porn movies after midnight. He thus becomes sexually attracted to women instead of female rats.

 Unlike the Ugly Duckling, no happy transformation happens to Firmin. A rat he is, a rat he remains. Sam Savage never frees Firmin from the contingencies of being a rat. He wanders through the tunnels built by former generations of rats in Pembroke Books and feeds from leftovers. He must walk inconspicuously on side-walks to stay alive. He wishes he were Fred Astaire and is only a puny rat with yellow teeth, who repels the humans.

 Firmin is  prisoner of his own body. His imagination gradually develops and his mind comes close to a human mind. His head is full of words he cannot tell because his vocal cords can only utter squeaks. There’s a funny passage when he explains how he tried to learn sign language in a desperate attempt to communicate with humans. But he only interacts with two men during his life: the first, Norman (Normal-Man?) treats him like a pest and the other one, Jerry (a mouse name), takes him as a pet.

 Firmin’s destiny is closely linked to that of Pembroke Books, which is located in Scollay Square, Boston. This shady neighbourhood is to be demolished and both Firmin and the street he lives in decline until they are destroyed. (Scollay Square was a real Bostonian neighbourhood, which was actually pulled down in the 1960s.)

 The novel is written in quite a sad tone. Firmin is solitary, for he is a freak among rats and vermin for humans. He feels he has a lot to share and has no way to let his thoughts known. He suffers from his loneliness. Literary references are spread throughout the pages, as Firmin’s imagination takes off. He lives in his own imaginary world until some body urgency, like hunger, brings him back on earth.

 I liked this book. It is well written ;  I have no quotes in English to insert though, as I read it in a French translation by Céline Leroy. It is full of thoughts about life, identity, unrequited love and exclusion. The uncomfortable difference between what we are in our heads and what people think we are (Rimbaud’s famous Je est un autre) is of the acutest kind for Firmin.

However, I would have liked it better if the tone had been more ironic and less lyric.

 PS: The French expression for « bookworm » is « rat de bibliothèque », which can be literally translated by “Library Rat”. As “librairie” is the French word for “book store”, I wonder if it is a coincidence that Firmin is a rat who loves reading and lives in a bookshop.

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