For Sam Savage, Beautiful Literary Rat in Hospice

A favorite novelist of mine, Sam Savage, is entering hospice. According to the Numero Cinq article revealing the sad news of his medical condition, he has suffered for decades with a blood disease called “alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency”. It never harmed his ability to write.

Savage was born in 1940 in South Carolina and studied philosophy at Yale and at the University of Heidelberg in Germany before settling into the quaint college neighborhoods of Madison, Wisconsin. The two Sam Savage novels I’ve read, Firmin and The Cry of the Sloth, are beautiful, tasteful investigations into the lonely tragicomedy of the literary life. They are similar in that they both mercilessly eviscerate the egotism of the neglected genius, the agonized, angry, self-hating scribbler who has suffered the excruciatingly slow death of his innocent dreams of wealth, fame and greatness. The two novels are different mainly because the lonely hero of Firmin is a rat, while the lonely hero of The Cry of the Sloth is a human. In Sam Savage’s world, these distinctions blur all too easily under the agonizing stresses of everyday life.

Sam Savage kept a low profile, and his novels might never have been published at all if the good people at Coffee House Press hadn’t pushed him out of his apparent natural comfort zone of ironic literary obscurity. For years there has only been one author photo of Sam Savage — a suitably Dostoevskian visage, to be sure — and I had to do some digging to find the less well-known photo above, in which he looks less crazed but no less intelligent. Through this digging, I’ve also now learned that this Wisconsin novelist is a proud father of three as well as the husband of Nora Savage, an environmental scientist and the daughter of the eminent German translator Ralph Manheim, whose works include the classic English translation of Gunter Grass’s The Tim Drum.

Savage’s self-lacerating existential comedy appeals to many literary rats like myself. I became aware of Firmin when the once mighty Litblog Coop chose the novel as its Autumn 2006 “Read This!” selection (it had been nominated by Ed Champion and voted the winner for that season, and indeed this would turn out to be one of the only winning Litblog Coop “Read This!” nominee that I would personally vote for; most of my choices lost). We had a big online party for Sam Savage in 2006, and I may as well quote my own conversation with the novelist that took place as part of this celebration, since it was the only time I got a chance to communicate with him directly.

ME:Mr. Savage, I hope you don’t mind if I throw some questions about you, because Firmin left me buzzing with several. Here are a few:

1. I gather from your author photo that you may be more mature in years than the average first novelist. Assuming this is correct, what on earth have you been doing with your awesome writing talent all these decades? Why is Firmin your first novel instead of, say, your tenth?

2. You mention above that you don’t particularly care for philosophical novels, but I also note that you have studied and, if I remember correctly, taught philosophy. I’d love to hear which classic or contemporary philosophers most excite you and which schools of thought, if any, you tend to favor. I’m guessing you to be a Wittgenstenian, but then I suppose that’s generally a safe guess and also I suppose I could be way off. Would love to hear your response on this.

3. This is probably an unfair and tasteless question. But it happens that this is an eventful week in American electoral history, and I was wondering if you felt like presenting a rat’s-eye view (or a Sam Savage’s-eye view) of current events. I felt there was a political undertone to Firmin’s scenes of urban dislocation (oh, I also want to praise Anne’s wonderful previous posting on Scollay Square) and so maybe I can be excused for asking this non-literary question. If you don’t want to answer, though, I understand.

I could go on but I’d better stop

SAM SAVAGE: Thanks for the questions, and the praise.

What was I doing all those years? I would like to say, with Firmin, that I was writing novels in my head. That would be true to a degree, as I started a number of them. I think I failed to finish them because I was blinded by an idea of a novel that was not the kind of novel I was ever meant to write. I think it was fundamentally a failure of courage. I wrote of lot of poetry, most of it thankfully lost. I did things, such as fish commercially, print letterpress books, build houses. But I have always thought of myself as a writer. I suppose that Firmin was born in those years. I did, finally, finish a sort of novel prior to Firmin: The Criminal Life of Effie O. This is an illustrated comic novel written in a kind of ragged rhyming verse. It is nothing at all like Firmin.

I studied mostly nineteenth and twentieth century continental philosophy. I wrote a thesis on Nietzsche. I suppose Heidegger and Wittgenstein are the two philosophers who were most important to me. I don’t read philosophy anymore. I like to think that Wittgenstein showed this fly, at any rate, the way out of the bottle.

I am delighted that we have, yesterday, taken a step towards recovering some of our democracy, such as it was. I thought, at the time of the old antiwar movement, that I could not dislike anyone as much as Nixon. I was wrong. That said, I don’t place huge hopes in the Democratic party. I dislike violence and those who practice it. I think there are, as Camus liked to say, victims and executioners, and one should strive to be on the side of the former. By the way, I graduated from Yale in 1968, at the age of 28 (I dropped out for a few years). One of my classmates was George W. Bush. I either never met him, or I forgot him.

Firmin was easy to love, and we all had a great time with it at the Litblog Co-op. I was then surprised to find that I loved his follow-up novel The Cry of the Sloth even more. I reviewed it on Litkicks and still urge people to read it often, though it’s probably even less well known than the book about the rat.

Strangely, despite my delight with the powerful one-two punch of Firmin and Sloth, I dropped the ball when Coffee House Press sent me his follow-up to Cry of the Sloth, another short novel called Glass, and forgot to read it. Or perhaps I did not forget, but felt some resistance to the idea of a third great Sam Savage comic novel about failed writers that would itself fail in the marketplace. I guess I couldn’t stand the possibility of loving Glass as much as I’d loved Cry of the Sloth and watching it get ignored too. Whatever my excuse was, I didn’t read Glass, but it waits on my bookshelf, and I think I’ll get to it today.

Thanks for hanging in there, Sam Savage. Your novels are a blessing, and I hope you are now finding true hospice in every sense of the word.

One Response

  1. Sam and I met in Paris where
    Sam and I met in Paris where I grew up in 1976. We moved back to the States in 1978. The only school I ever finished is the North Bennett Street Industrial School, in Carpentry. The CETA program let me choose what I wanted to train in and I chose carpentry first because I was tired of not knowing how to make anything and second because Sam said “it might come in handy”. He was right: In 1984 we built a house in the woods near McClellanville SC. I worked as a part-time carpenter while my kids grew up. In Madison I learned Spanish and became a bilingual special ed assistant at Lincoln Elementary School. But had I become a scientist instead of bumming around Europe after dropping out of the Paris Medical School in the aftermath of May 68, I bet I would have chosen the Environment as my field!

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