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Fictional rat’s chomp through literature

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Not only do the shredded, masticated and swallowed pages satisfy his physical needs, but he becomes aware of the titles he is chewing

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I read a novella called Firmin, by Sam Savage, about a rat, the runt of a litter of 13.

He starts life with a deep sense of inferiority that stems from his mother, who has only 12 nipples. He, being smaller than his siblings, either doesn’t get to a nipple at all, or gets there when, as it were, the well has run dry.

This explains his adoption of the compensatory mode which he assumes in order to assuage his incessant hunger pangs. He cultivates a taste for the books in the bookshop where they live.

Initially, the paper is pulped in his mouth purely for sustenance.

By some accident he makes a remarkable discovery.

Not only do the shredded, masticated and swallowed pages satisfy his physical needs, but he becomes aware of the titles he is chewing.

He discovers what he calls the most unread classic in English literature, James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake.

I hadn’t, despite my lifelong passion for reading, even attempted to read this masterpiece, coming, as it did, with the reputation of being almost inaccessible.

Many great works carry that cicatrix: to wit, Eliot’s The Waste Land, Tolstoy’s War and Peace, most of Dostoevsky and the enigmatic warbling of Marcel Proust.

And then the novels of the genius who never smiled, Solzhenitsyn, with his Gulag Archipelago and Cancer Ward.

I haven’t even scratched the list that Firmin mentions.

This is part of the fascination of the text. It reassures me that I have done the essential reading, but also that I had missed some which I will never get around to reading.

Reading Firmin was as much an exploration as an indulgence, which are the two main imperatives that should drive and direct anyone’s reading list.

The punchline of this short work is an absolute gem.

By some process, the words that Firmin eats translate not only into nutrients for his body, but also feed his brain.

He discovers that the words he had ingested as dietary fare become intelligible cognition.

He can read the stuff and conduct intelligent discourse on it.

I hasten to add that the idea is not original.

We had Don Marquis with Archy and Mehitabel, an encounter I thoroughly enjoyed when I was much younger and which Firmin registers.

But the latter-day versions, a la Walt Disney with Stuart Little and Ratatouille, suffer his withering contempt because they do not have intellectual clout. This could be perceived as elitism or academic snobbery.

On the other hand, it raises questions about the definitions of literacy and literateness, which add to the joy that I had from the musings of Firmin.

This is not a book review. It merely underscores the secret joys of reading.

It is absolutely priceless.