Wednesday, October 15, 2008


Philip Pullman is speaking of Firmin, the protagonist in a remarkable book written by Sam Savage, published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson, and released in New Zealand and Australia this month.

FIRMIN is not only a remarkable story but it also has a remarkable publishing history which I found most intriguing.

Firmin was originally published in the US by a small non-profit publishing house in Minneapolis called Coffee House Press. Their initial print run of 10,000 copies was the biggest they had ever produced. The book was selected by Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers Selection, was championed by a large number of US literary bloggers and gained a band of enthusiastic readers.

Firmin and Sam Savage then came to the attention of the Spanish publishers Seix Barral, part of the International Planeta Publishing Group. Seix Barral bought world rights for a six-figure sum in 2007, the largest rights deal Coffee House Press had ever done.

Seix Barral sent the book around the world, and it has been sold so far in fourteen countries to date, including Japan, Italy, Holland, Brazil and Israel. Six more offers are pending. Incredibly, it has also been sold back to the US: Bantam Dell, part of the Random House US group, has bought the rights to publish it again in the States.
What a great story.

And what is all the fuss about?
Well this is the story of a rat. Born in a ramshackle old bookshop as the runt of the litter, Firmin is forced to nibble at books to stay alive. He soon realises that his source of nourishment has given him the ability to read, and this discovery fills him with an insatiable hunger for and immense love of literature, along with a very unratlike sense of the world and his place in it.

In Firmin’s mind, he is a great actor reciting Shakespeare, a sophisticate quoting Noel Coward, or a passionate lover reading Emily Bronte. He becomes a citizen of the world and lives a thousand lives far away from the rat hole. But in the mirror he is a dirty rat, shunned and abused by society, who can produce only squeaks instead of sonnets.

As Firmin navigates the shadowy streets of his decaying area, looking for understanding, his excitement, loneliness, fear and self-consciousness become touchingly human. But the days of the bookshop and the close community are numbered: the area has been marked for “regeneration” and soon the faded glory of his home will be reduced to rubble.
Brilliantly original and richly allegorical, Firmin brims with charm and a wistful longing for a world that understands the redemptive power of literature.
By the way I should have mentioned the subtitle - Adentures of a Metropolitan Lowlife.

And here are just a few of the comments that have made the story of Firmin the rat a phenomenon around the globe:

"A thought-provoking meditation on the nature of human existence"
James Pressley,

"Firmin is a hero in the Dickensian mode . . . with the sardonic shadings of Vonnegut, and the same explicit tenderness. . . . Savage has captured the essential tragedy of a world in which the artistic impulse kneels before the bulldozer. . . . [A] moving and wildly inventive novel."Los Angeles Times Book Review

"[An] alternately whimsical and earnest paean to the joys of literature."
Publishers Weekly

What about the author?
Sam Savage received his BA and PhD in Philosophy from Yale University, where he also taught. He gave up this post for a variety of careers, including bicycle mechanic, carpenter, commercial fisherman and letterpress printer. He is a native of South Carolina and now lives in Madison, Wisconsin.
Firmin is his first novel. I'll bet it is not his last.
Watch out for Firmin on bestseller lists on both sides of the Tasman. I reckon it is a great book for book groups to read and discuss.
Hardback NZ$32.99 - distributed by Hachette.

1 comment:

Chaim said...

Stumbled on your site just today, and thanks to this post, have added this book to my immediate "to read list."

Thanks :)