Wednesday, 23 August 2017

Book Report Part 8: "Mr. Sammler's Planet" by Saul Bellow

I got half-way through Saul Bellow's novel five years ago. I'd always meant to read one of his books, and, as Mr. Sammler's Planet kept turning up on "20 Great Conservative Novels"-style lists, and, as this seemed unlikely, given that Bellow was a Jewish American academic, who tend to lean leftwards, I thought I'd start with it. For some reason, I didn't finish it that first time, so I began again from scratch. Published in 1970, it's set in late '60s New York, where moral relativism, experimentation, liberation and personal reinvention are all the rage - and the concepts of honour, duty, sanctity and moderation are being discarded by the educated classes and their offspring. These people don't have ideas, they have "delusions, brainstorms". They don't have roots: "Roots are not modern. That's a peasant conception, soil and roots." Trying to figure out how to live in a decaying, violent, nightmarish world, from which "a natural feeling of respect" is absent, is Mr. Artur Sammler...

...a one-eyed Polish Jew, a Holocaust survivor, and a former partisan fighter.

Sammler is an intellectual, who lectured occasionally at Columbia. He lived for many years in London, was a friend of H.G. Wells, and there's a distinctly English aloofness about him: he is detached from other people, an observer rather than an actor. He is not in favour of "letting it all hang out" - when a ghastly, undisciplined young relative, having wrecked the plumbing in his recently deceased father's opulent home in a search of hidden money to finance his latest daft scheme, asks: "Is that my message to the world from my unconscious self?" Sammler responds, "Why send such messages? Censor them. Put your unconscious mind behind bars on bread and water." Sammler is a classical, humanist liberal - but most definitely not a modern liberal.
"...what formerly was believed, trusted, was now bitterly circled in black irony. The rejected bourgeois black of stability thus translated. That... was improper, incorrect. People justifying idleness, silliness, shallowness, distemper. Just - turning former respectability inside out."
Nothing much happens in the book, which is a relatively brief 250 pages. Sammler and his daffy, pseudo-adult daughter, Shula, depend on the largesse of his successful nephew Elya, a doctor, who's dying in hospital. The most significant event in the novel sees Sammler being menaced by a black pickpocket whom he spots plying his trade on a bus. Later, the criminal follows Sammler to his apartment block and menaces him in the lobby by opening his flies and brandishing his enormous, erect penis at the old man - a symbol, presumably of the animal savagery, the barbarism, which is engulfing the streets. Much later on, the old man spots the pickpocket again, and identifies him, only for Sammler's companion to beat the thief half to death as a sullen crowd looks on - which disturbs Sammler even more than their first encounter.

The acceptance and celebration of criminality is one of the book's main themes: "He didn't give a damn for the glamour, the style, the art of criminals. They were no social heroes to him." His dying nephew's slut of a daughter, we are told, "...sent money to defence funds for black rapists and murderers." (One suspects that Bellow had seen and not admired the Arthur Penn film, Bonnie & Clyde, which, in my view, was a major signpost in the 1960s slide from idealism to nihilism, from the Peace Corps to "peace" riots, from experimenting with drugs to full-scale addiction, from questioning the past to destroying it, from traditional values to no values whatsoever, from self-denial to ruinous self-indulgence, from righteous anger to unbridled, purposeless hatred, from trying to build a new world to just destroying the old one... well, you get my drift. It's that sense of something potentially nourishing having curdled into a noxious, poison that Bellow captures so well.

Mr. Sammler's Planet is not an easy read, and it certainly isn't a page-turner. I found myself having to reread whole passages just to make sure I'd grasped Sammler's sinuous thought-processes. That's not because Bellow is a bad writer - far from it - but because the issues he's chosen to address are knotty and complex and vital. I finished the book about a month ago, and there hasn't been a day since that something I've read or seen hasn't reminded me of it: it was first published almost half a century ago, but the world it depicts is the one we live in.

The book ends with a statement - part of a prayer for his nephew's soul - which, I think, pretty much sums up what it means to be truly adult:
"[Mr. Sammler] was aware that he must meet, and he did meet – through all the confusion and 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..."
Which is probably why Western society - as we do what feels good rather than what is good - seems to grow more infantile by the day.


  1. Saul Bellow's obvious racism manifested itself when he asked the following question : "Where is the Zulu Zola?"

    I was temporarily reluctant to read Bellow when I learned that he was one of Martin Amis's favourite authors.

    Order was restored when I discovered the the Bellow quote was one of Kingsley Amis's favourites.

  2. Now, that's uncanny - I cut out the bit where I mentioned that the adulation accorded Bellow by Amis and his coterie had put me off reading him: I assumed he'd be just another clever writer churning out clever books for his clever admirers to swoon over. Far from it. Bellow was, of course, very clever - a true intellectual - but wise with it. Little Mart's work (I exempt his very funny early novels, Dead Babies and The Rachel Papers, written before the lionisation process kicked in) strikes me as an extended exercise in impressing his chums, whereas, judging by Mr. Sammler's Planet, Bellow was actually trying to answer the question of how a decent person is supposed to live in a time of moral madness.

    One book that deserves to be revived, IMHO, is Anthony Burgess's Enderby's End (or The Clockwork Testament), 1973, in which his greatest comic creation end up teaching at a college in New York, where he is confronted by New Left lunacy in all its guises. During a scene where two black female students, Burgess uses the phrase "fellow melanoid", which has stuck in my head for some reason. I must read it again.

  3. Burgess's work was eclecticly superb . The Malayan Trilogy , the royalties from which saved his financial life , is so delightfully crafted in its depiction of Colonial pedagogy and much else.

    He had his small vanities, one of which was his preferred use of the title Dr , not normally a customary application of Honorary Doctorate recipients outside of the Third World.

    He feared no literary critics bar one, viz., Cambridge University's George Steiner.