Mr. Artur Sammler, Holocaust survivor, intellectual, and occasional lecturer at Columbia University in 1960s New York City, is a aregistrar of madness,a a refined and civilized being caught among people crazy with the promises of the future (moon landings, endless possibilities). His Cyclopean gaze reflects on the degradations of city life while looking deep into the sufferings of the human soul. aSorry for all and sore at heart,a he observes how greater luxury and leisure have only led to more human suffering. To Mr. Sammlerawho by the end of this ferociously unsentimental novel has found the compassionate consciousness necessary to bridge the gap between himself and his fellow beingsaa good life is one in which a person does what is arequired of him.a To know and to meet the aterms of the contracta was as true a life as one could live. At its heart, this novel is quintessential Bellow: moral, urbane, sublimely humane.
Have to take issue with myself here. This isn't quite as fluffy as this one-liner makes it sound.
Rating: 3.75* of five
The Book Report: Mr. Artur Sammler survived the Holocaust, but isn't sure he'll survive 1960s New York. Once without food and without dignity and without hope, he looks on bemused as people with everything material the planet can supply wallow in misery and spiritual angst. Sammler, an observer by nature, doesn't know how to get past his own limitations of spirit to reach out to men or up to god to make connections that could guide his fellow beings out of desperation or himself out of stasis.
But this is a novel. A National Book Award-winning novel. So, he does. It is a gorgeous piece of writing.
My Review: This was less catharsis than exegesis for me. Sammler's idea of a Good Life, as opposed to the Americans he sees around himself living The Good Life, is knowing the terms of the contract...what's expected of me, now that I'm here? what is it that makes a life worthy, therefore worth living?...presupposes that there is an inherent moral compass and that it's oriented the same way for all people, that is along the Judeo-Christian axis.
Well, go with it, I instruct myself, because it's the author's thesis, not yours. So I did, and I found the resolution to Sammler's crisis very moving.
But, if I'm honest, it still irks me that there is a monopolar world of the spirit, and there is nothing at all outside of it allowed in. Still...it's some wonderful writing!
revealing about NYC, which means that 20C America bears more than a tincture of Europe. Mr Sammler
rides the bus, and Bellow changes every reader's bus experience forever--the daylight robbery and intimidation,the necessary self-reliance.
One other writer has portrayed a bus ride perhaps as well, Flannery O'Connor where
the son is amused at his mother's humbling, only to earn regret fro the rest of his life.
Mr Sammler is an old Jew puzzled at the sexual contortions of sixties city life, his young female relative
with "fucked-out eyes," his lecture being interrupted by a youth, "Why listen to him? He can't fuck."
These are of course but one thread, another being Sammler's philosophical reflections partly inherited
from his European lineage.
When I taught this novel along with a Vonnegut and an Updike, to community college students in theseventies, they were challenged, much preferred the more accessible Vonnegut. I tried to convince themit was the best one we read. In fact, along with Bellow's works from Seize the Day, through Herzog to Ravelstein,he has not been bested, though perhaps Updike's final book in his Rabbit series, Rabbit at Rest, may finally equal his contemporary and rival.
Bare plot: Sammler, holocaust survivor, leaves in New York on the charity of his only slightly younger nephew. Nephew has aneurysm of the brain and is dying. Eccentric daughter steals manuscript of Indian lecturer on H.G. Wells because she's convinced Sammler is writer a great book on Wells and could use it. Sammler sees black pickpocket on bus; said pickpocket sees Sammler seeing him. PIckpocket follows Sammler to hotel lobby and exposes himself to Sammler--sexual domination of the old man by the young man. Sammler tries to makes sense of this world and it's complexity, with some success and many failures. A true book.
Plot spoiler alert, but really, the plot is beside the point: at the heart of this over-stuffed chair is a wonderful farce. Sammler's daughter steals/borrows a manuscript that Sammler has little use for; the best bits of the book consist in his attempts to give it back to its author. Also, Sammler becomes a little obsessed with a well-dressed pick-pocket. And someone is dying. And there are about 50 other little backstories that, in my experience at least, just detract from the gloriously farcical core.
I usually like books in which the main character is racist, sexist, homophobic, prudish and ridden by class biases, because I have no time for sentimental literature. Mr. Sammler is just such a man. Does he remain such a man at the end? He asks someone to stop the pick-pocket, who is trying to take yet another minor character's camera. The immigrant attacks the pickpocket, possibly intending to kill him, as a favor to Mr. Sammler, who is mortified.
The pickpocket is black; the man who intervenes is a declassee European immigrant. Mr. Sammler is, finally, able to connect with the pick-pocket who has previously held him against a wall so he, the pick-pocket, could wag his cock at the old Sammler.
Now, this could be a wonderful analogy for politics in America (where race trumps class every time; a black president can be elected, but never a poor one), but it obviously isn't. It could be about Sammler's psychology (latent guilt for killing a German whom he didn't have to kill, while fleeing from Nazis). But the main point seems to be that you can be a racist, sexist, homophobic prude, just so long as you prefer to avoid violence.
I don't like that, but there's a lot I should like about this book. There are some great bits of cultural conservatism:
"An oligarchy of technicians, engineers, the men who ran grand machines, infinitely more sophisticated than this automobile, would come to govern vast slums filled with bohemian adolescents, narcotized, beflowered, and 'whole'. He himself was a fragment, Mr. Sammler understood. And lucky to be that."
"Individualism is of no interest whatever if it does not extend truth."
"Democracy was propagandistic in its style. Conversation was often nothing but the repetition of liberal principles."
"They sought originality. They were obviously derivative. And of what--of Paiutes, of Fidel Castro? No, of Hollywood extras... better, thought Sammler, to accept the inevitability of imitation and then to imitate good things... make peace therefore with intermediacy and representation. But choose higher representations. Otherwise the individual must be the failure he now sees and knows himself to be."
And yet I found this book dull, dull, dull as can be, thanks to layers of 'realist' fluff, which hid all that cultural criticism and farce: every individual so finely delineated, even if they appeared only for three pages; every object described in 'loving' detail, even if it was totally inconsequential; every idea 'properly' embedded in a character's conscience. Without that, the novel would have been about 150 pages, and I would have loved it.
Or would I? Because I also don't understand the obeisance to Bellow's writing. It seems to be little more than a second-half-of-the-20th-century period style to me. Fragments. Stream of consciousness kind of. Unwillingness to either embrace or shun free indirect, but why?
So, I am defeated. Prove to me that I should try Herzog for the third time, or that I should bother to try Augie March. I don't want to give in, but I'm on the edge.