This is a middle career book for Saul Bellow and the book before the book that probably propelled him into the conversation for the Nobel. They’re not exactly awarded for individual books, but certainly those internationally acclaimed books do have a lot of influence.
I was sort of avoiding this one because I found it on a list of “The Most Conservative Books of All Time” a list by Conservative commentaters, and I didn’t really feel like dealing with that. It’s not Conservative, and while it has some conservatism to it, it’s not how I would characterize the book. Given the ways that simplistic Conservative writers often take claim of books like 1984, The Lord of the Rings, and other books like that, I guess I should stop listening to them (I don’t anyway, but here we are).
This book is the story of Arthur Sammler, a Polish Jew who survived the Holocaust, who is living in New York City by way of Israel. He’s in his 70s, he’s very well-read, and he’s facing down the late 1960s in the US with a lot of anxiety and concern. While having a morning, one day, he notices a Black man pickpocketing others on the bus. This leads him to first report the crimes, then when the police decide to do nothing but take a report, he begins following the man. This ultimately leads to a confrontation where the man exposes himself to Sammler. He’s shocked but not traumatized by the experience, in part because he’s been through much more significantly traumatic experiences before, but also because his orientation toward the world has shifted so dramatically throughout his life that he’s not exactly concerned with his individual experiences.
He thinks a lot about the state of the world, but more so than being concerned with the events and changes, he works through the ways in which people have reclassified their understanding of things. In a sense, there’s nothing new under the sun and all that, but instead new understandings of the same information. Early in the novel, he rejects Hannah Arendt’s claims about Nazis’ “banality of evil” as a kind of Leftist, overly analytical argument.
So the novel is more about how to deal with the changes he’s finding in people and how to sort of give over to his own loss of self (or more so a rejection of the kinds of individualism that he thinks plagues the world).
This is a book that grapples with big questions about meaning, existence, life, and loss, but it’s not one that reckons with those ideas. What I mean is that this is a book that is all about Sammler’s thinking through those different ideas, not a book about his thoughts on those ideas. I don’t think there’s a political consciousness in this book at all, and the late 1960s is hardly a black/white time period for American politics. Instead, this is an existential novel that is trying to make sense of various human impulses, and with the upcoming moon launch, how to factor in the desires of humanity to escape this planet. He’s guided in his thinking in part through his expansive reading of HG Wells (who is obviously well-know for his science fiction writing, but wrote equally as prolifically on political, ideological, humanitarian, and existential ideas as well). Ultimately, I can’t say that Sammler works it out, and this is part of the reason I reject the notion that this book is “Conservative.”