Mr. Sammler's Planet

[Amazon Link]

Back in 2010, Mr. Sammler's Planet was placed on the list of "Ten Great Conservative Novels" by National Review. Given my political leanings I was kind of surprised that I'd only read a couple of them (Advise and Consent—long ago—and Bonfire of the Vanities). So I put them on my (very large) to-be-read cyberpile.

I checked off Walker Percy's The Thanatos Syndrome last November, and now I've finished Mr. Sammler's Planet by Saul Bellow. Six more to go! But as you can see, I'm taking my sweet time about it.

Mr. Sammler's Planet won the National Book Award for Fiction in 1971. Bellow himself won the Nobel Prize in Literature just a few years later.

The novel is set in late-1960s New York City: crime-ridden, filthy, smelly. But those are only the outward symptoms of general social and moral rot. The protagonist, Artur Sammler, is an old man, and he's been through a lot. A Polish Jew, he spent some time in England in the orbit of the Bloomsbury Group, making the acquaintance of H.G. Wells, among others. From that civilized height, however, he picked a poor time to return to Poland. He and his wife were caught up in the Holocaust. Sammler is half-blinded by a Nazi rifle butt. He eventually crawls out from a mass grave, leaving his dead wife behind.

Sammler has a small network of acquaintances and surviving family, all dealing with the Big Apple in mostly unsatisfactory ways. Sammler himself finds himself dealing with a black pickpocket, who is reliably victimizing fellow riders on the Manhattan bus he and Sammler frequent. Even half-blind, Sammler's the only one noticing the crime. (He tries reporting to the cops, but in John Lindsay's NYC, they are uninterested.)

A lot of other things happen, some slapstick, some ludicrous. Mr. Sammler is bemused by it all, but comes to at least a temporary understanding with God at the end.