4th June 2011 - Emily Best
I have a really bad habit of buying books out of a sense of obligation. There are two kinds of book guilt that I imagine most people experience on one level or another - the first pertains to books I may outright lie about having read, or I nod along silently whilst they are discussed. I often buy these books and almost invariably don't read them. The second kind of guilt is the impulse purchase that often happens in small, independent bookshops that I've probably spent a good twenty minutes in and, in that twenty minutes not only have they not sold me anything, but they haven't sold anything to anyone else. So I buy a book because I'm too embarrassed to walk out empty-handed. Those books are more likely to be read.
I did that a couple of Saturdays ago and took a punt on Sam Savage's Firmin: Adventures of a Metropolitan Lowlife. I'm confident that I'll read it, if only because the subject matter was one of my favourite things: an underdog... well, a rat, actually. Firmin is, so the blurb tells me, 'the runt of his litter[;] he chews on the books around him in order to survive. Thanks to his unusual diet, Firmin develops the ability to read...Firmin thinks he recognises a kindred soul in Norman [ the "shambolic" owner of the bookshop]. But the days of the bookshop are numbered.'
If the rat is the city's lowlife, then it doesn't get much lower than the paper-eating runt of the litter. And when indie bookshops struggle to get the time of day from a customer (let alone a sale) then who in the world would listen to the opinions of the rats beneath them? Savage gives this earnest fellow a voice when nobody else would listen. The books in that bookshop helped him to read; this book lets him speak. That's what I love about the literary underdog: when a writer takes the most wretched, the most ignored members of society and forces us to listen to them, even love them.
One of my favourite outcasts in fiction is Harry Haller in Herman Hesse's Steppenwolf. Scorning his bourgeois surroundings, Harry aligns himself (at least in part) with the wolf: a creature rejected for its savagery. Such a loner is Harry that we can never even be sure that his story involves real people: the fantastical, dream-like elements of the book preclude any kind of surety that the events, or characters, ever happened. Harry tries his best to prohibit communication with the world: the story begins with the caution 'For Madmen Only'. Before we even get there, we find in the preface that the manuscript is only available thanks to a chance encounter with Harry's landlady's nephew - he himself is already lost from the story.
Harry Haller is a man whose story the world should never have known about. The reader must perform a reasonable act of devotion to get through every barrier that Harry presents. But, if they do, they will follow him through the streets, in and out of bars and through the Magic Theatre - they may adore him like a lover; they will listen to him like a friend. Harry finds companionship in his reader whether he asked for it or not.
Another creature traditionally associated with the wretched, Ted Hughes' Crow, is a character of epic depth and intensity, but rather than overly anthropomorphising his friend, Hughes ensures that it is his very crow-ness that makes him so charming:
"Come," said Crow, "Let's discuss the situation"
God lay, agape, a great carcase.
Crow tore off a mouthful and swallowed.
I find it hard to feel any warmth when I see a crow on Clapham Common that could give a VW Beetle a run for its money hopping about in the leaves and fighting with a discarded crisp packet. But then I think of Hughes, of that crow and its intense humour and odd eloquence, and I at least thaw a little.
The ostensibly unloved can surprise us with their lovability. These writers adopt the contemptible margin-dweller, find them a willing companion in a reader and do their damnedest to make sure they become, by the end of the book, the best of friends.
Hermann Hesse; Basil Creighton; ...