My mother, a most literary woman, would say in high praise of someone, that he or she was A Reader. (She said it in a way that one just knew it was in caps). Over the past few weeks I have visited the sites of all the LBC members; I have read your comments and opinions on all manner of things. I feel deeply honored that this group of Readers has chosen Firmin for discussion.
Jessica is right. To call Firmin a “rodent that speaks” is about as far from the truth as one can get. The incapacity to speak, even more than his rat body, is the defining feature of his condition. In placing him outside the world of language, it makes him the ultimate outsider. (It is interesting, in this connection, that Aristotle defines a “man” as a “speaking animal.” He also defines a “man” as a social animal, a member of a community or polis, and says that anyone living outside a community must be either “a beast or a god.”)
Levi questions whether Firmin really understands the books he rhapsodizes about. This is a good point. It is part of the larger question of whether we are to take at face value Firmin’s claims to genius. The examples of “great first lines” he presents at the beginning suggest that he is more of a hack, more like Jerry Magoon than the writers of the great books he admires. In so far as Firmin is human, he is a human failure, someone who has failed to attain in reality the place in the world that his imagination had carved for him.
A central “theme” of the novel, one that Jessica and Ed both talk about, is the imagination in its dual role as a means of escape from “reality” and as a means of creating “realities.” But an escape from the world that is simultaneously a creation of a world – isn’t that what we call literature, and art in general? What is the difference between imagination and delusion? Is there a hard and fast difference? Toward the end of the novel Firmin confesses that he is not able to distinguish what he remembers from what he has imagined remembering, that he is not really sure of his mother’s name or whether she was fat or skinny. Then what was he talking about all that time? And what is the end result of all that talk, An illusion? Or a book?
Now for the question Ed raises. This is, as Firmin might say, a Big One. Is Firmin “really” a rat or a man. I had hoped to plant just that question in the reader’s mind at the outset by prefacing the novel with the quotation from Chuang Tzu. Is Firmin a rat imagining he is a man? Or is he a man imagining he is a rat? Ed is right, there are clues, not to the answer, but to the presence of the question, at several places in the story. This question, man or rat, does not have an answer in the book, and I certainly don’t know the answer. In lieu of an answer, I would like to pose a few more questions. If I speak to you in the misery, meanness, and solitude of your rat heart and assure you that, after all, you are human, will you be comforted? When Firmin tells Ginger Rogers that he doesn’t believe anything, she replies: “You believe you are a rat.” Do you believe that you are human? Are there times when you stop believing this?
Ed, finally, brings up the question of whether, if Firmin is a human, the rat is not as much a fictive construct as the books are. As I said, I really don’t have any answer to these questions. Indeed, I very much hope they are not answerable in any definitive way, and that Ed and Jessica are both right, the way certain clever figures can morph back and forth between being, say, a picture of a rabbit or a picture of a duck. And though the picture is both things equally, it cannot be both at once. (Anne's post on shifting perspectives hits the mark here.) On the one hand, on the level of narrative, Jessica has to be correct, or we don’t have a story at all. It is, after all, about the adventures of a rat, tail, tunnels, and all. On the other hand, we have to wonder what sort of existence this story has. After all, there really aren’t any literary rats. What happened to the story about a rat that Jerry Magoon was writing and that, after Jerry’s death, Firmin cannot find in his notebooks, where the word rat does not appear even once?
I want to emphasize that I did not write the book with these sorts of questions in mind. With a few notable exceptions (I think of The Unbearable Lightness of Being), I don’t much care for “philosophical” novels. When I go to a desert island, if I don’t have to stay too long, I think I’ll pack The Thirteen Clocks. When I wrote Firmin I had in mind a voice, a character, and a condition (he was a rat). I worked paragraph by paragraph, forcing myself not to look ahead for fear that I might close off possibilities I was not yet aware of. It felt as if the story was telling itself. I would not allow myself to imagine how it might end, or what it might mean. I never thought for an instant about the questions we are discussing. They became evident to me only afterwards, when the novel was finished, and I could approach it with the knowledge and ignorance of any other Reader.