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.