One of my all-time favourites. One of those books that are oozing with metaphor and double meaning, so much so, that you are at a loss what to say to describe it.
Above all, I think, a novel about humanity, centred on the metaphor of seeing. Obsessively recurring words: eye, see, look, gaze. “To see was delicious”. Sammler, the main character, is one-eyed. He sees the world with the one healthy eye – and he sees crime in action, which fascinates him and stuns him. He sees violence which sickens him, and sees the moon, fat and yellow in the Manhattan sky. The other eye he lost when he was nearly killed – through violence, again. Seeing is the act of understanding, of seeing through the appearances of the worldly life.
Related to seeing is the constant panning and zooming view, from the detail of life on planet Earth, its fallacies, its erring and self-deluded flesh, out into the outer space, to “Sammler’s planet” – at times meant as a place of refuge, other times as a detached viewing point of the big picture of humanity, at other times still just a phantasmagorical illusion of the technology-possessed world (colonizing the moon).
And Sammler himself: disabled through his one-eyedness, having literally come out of the grave though not truly a survivor (he had not survived, just lasted, says Bellow) of the Nazi mass killing – and yet, a king in the kingdom of the blind (“the blindness of the living”). His growth: from being only half-human (one-eyed, half-dead) and seeing through the world’s schemes with detached analytical sense, to being capable to weep and sense loss.
And beyond the ever-present metaphors, the ever-present ambiguity: the tone of the text. At times ironical, at times paternal, always brilliant, always pregnant with meaning, human and humane.
“Then, bending open the notebook, he read, in sepia, in rust-gilt ink, “The Future of the Moon”. “How long”, went the first sentence, “will this earth remain the only home of Man?”
How long? Oh, Lord, you bet! Wasn’t it the time – the very hour to go? For every purpose under heaven. A time to gather stones together, a time to cast away stones. Considering the earth itself not as a stone cast but as something to cast oneself from – to be divested of. To blow this great blue, white, green planet, or to be blown from it.”
And here a few lines on the very first page. Such a compelling start into a book:
“Intellectual man had become an explaining creature. Fathers to children, wives to husbands, lecturers to listeners, experts to laymen, colleagues to colleagues, doctors to patients, man to his own soul, explained. The roots of this, the causes of the other, the source of events, the history, the structure, the reasons why. For the most part, in one ear out the other. The soul wanted what it wanted. It had its own natural knowledge. It sat unhappily on superstructures of explanation, poor bird, not knowing which way to fly.”
And where does the soul stand at the end of the book? Here the very last lines:
“Remember, God, the soul of Elya Gruner (…) At his best this man was much kinder than at my very best I have ever been or could ever be. He was aware that he must meet, and he did meet – through all the confusion and the degraded clowning of this life through which we are speeding – he did meet the terms of his contract. The terms which, in his inmost heart, each man knows. As I know mine. As all know. For that is the truth of it – that we all know, God, that we know, that we know, we know, we know.”
The soul knows.