Three days of the life of a seventy-odd-year-old Polish Jew in New York. He is going to witness everyday life in New York, recollect his life in England where he was a university professor up to 1939, remember his moving back to Poland in 1939 to solve some family inheritance, his being caught by the Germans with his wife and a great number of other Jews (one year after the Crystal Night, which makes it crazy of him to have gone back), being blinded in one eye by a German rifle butt, forced to dig their mass grave, lined up in front of it, shot and pushed into the grave, covered up with earth and then his crawling out of it, joining the partisans in some forest, escaping their anti-Jewish purification at the end of the war by surviving in a Polish vault in a cemetery, and finally his being sheltered in the Salzburg Displaced Persons Camp and recuperated from there by some cousin, a rich doctor in New York. With only one good eye he is going to live, see and observe life and become the gathering mind of western culture while filtering his vision through it. Thus he will refer to some one-hundred-and-sixty authors, philosophers, artists and works of art in these three days. One will emerge very strong, H.G. Wells whom he had known personally in the late 1930s and whose theories on the Moon he will reminisce and cross with the theories of an Indian scientist, Govinda Lal, who is technically thinking the migration of humanity towards other planets. He will observe the other members of his family. His daughter first who is a gatherer too, but of everything she can find in trashcans or public places, and she will manage to borrow, with the intention of not bringing it back, the only copy of the manuscript Govinda Lal used to deliver a lecture on the moon, in order to give it to her father in order to incite him to finish his essay on H.G. Wells. She is obviously spaced-out, particularly because she escaped the Nazis in Poland by being sheltered, half converted and educated by Polish nuns. Then we have the Gruners, the doctor who retrieved Mr Sammler and his daughter after the war, and his two children, Angela and Wallace, both spaced-out too because they were raised in a family that provided them with everything without having to make the slightest effort. Angela is described as a sex addict and Wallace as a dangerous half crazy squanderer. Finally another cousin, the widow Margotte Arkin, in whose flat he lives as a guest. The main two events of the novel are the aneurysm that will bring Dr Gruner to his death in three days, and the dishonest scavenging of Pr Lal's manuscript by Shula, Mr Sammler's daughter. Another character will give the opening event and one of the closing moments: the black pickpocket who will corner Mr Sammler, who has witnessed him in his picking pockets and purses, and exhibit his penis to assert his authority. This pickpocket will end up being severely wounded by Mr Sammler's son-in-law, an Israeli artist visiting New York, when the Columbia University Professor Feffer will take pictures of the pickpocket in his criminal activities which will bring up some kind of a fight. The whole book is a vision of the western world before and after the Second World War by a man who has only one valid eye and who is screening everything through the numerous cultural references he has accumulated in his mind over the years. His vision is thus warped by its one-eyed-ness. He is obsessed by death, which is coming in Dr Gruner and which he has survived by crawling out of his own grave in which he left his own wife. He is also obsessed by God though his references are mostly marginal Christians like Meister Eckhardt or agnostic thinkers like H.G. Wells or Nazi-inspired or -influenced thinkers like Schopenhauer. And this is the most fascinating aspect of the book. It is entirely animated by a fight between three musics that are built by the sounds, the words, and the syntax of Mr Sammler's language. The standard music of the Bible that becomes that of the world, a binary music built with choices between two elements or co-ordinations of two elements, or multiples of two. Then his intellectual, mental, abstract, conceptual constructions, always ternary because of Aristotle's dialectic, the mould of all western thinking, and Mr Sammler reminds us several times that the Jewish God and the Jewish religion is not European, not western but Asian. Mr Sammler constantly tries to bring together these two logics and he does it in the most biblical way, by using Solomon's number or David's star (a symbol all by itself after WW2), i.e. six but always decomposed in twice three or three times two. The book thus closes on Mr Sammler's prayer to God in front of Dr Gruner's body awaiting an autopsy. The last word is "know", the master word of a university intellectual, but entirely regenerated in a godly and divine direction by the subtle shifting from a conceptual "the terms [...] each man knows", to a personal "I know mine" and to the collective, Jewish, Israeli final sextuple vision in the collective "all know" followed by five "we know" centered on a direct address to God exactly before the last four "we know", hence making divinely Christian (eight is the symbol of Jesus's Second Coming, and four of his crucifixion) his very direct Jewish godly evocation. This novel is probably one of the most refined and best achievements by Saul bellow.
Dr Jacques COULARDEAU, University Paris Dauphine & University Paris 1 Pantheon Sorbonne