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Mr Sammler’s Planet (1969) was first published in back-to-back issues of Atlantic Monthly. It was subsequently issued in one-volume novel form by Viking Press in 1970, and it won the National Book Award for Fiction the following year.
Mr Sammler’s Planet – commentary
The main theme
Bellow’s previous novels The Adventures of Augie March (1953), Henderson the Rain King (1959), and Herzog (1964) had all been commercially successful and widely critically acclaimed – but it was with Mr Sammlers Planet that he located his main theme – one which he was to continue exploring for the rest of his life as a creative writer. That theme was the role of the immigrant Jew in twentieth century America
In Bellow’s work (fiction and non-fiction essays) the immigrant Jew has a cultural identity- but an identity that has been formed ‘elsewhere’. This elsewhere is likely to be middle, northern, or Eastern Europe. The person has been driven by poverty, war, or anti-Semitism (or all three) to find refuge in a land which proclaims on its welcoming statue (of Liberty)
Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!
The problem, as Bellow sees it, is that once on American shores, the immigrant is pulled between preserving his (or her) own culture, and becoming assimilated as an American. This is normally characterised as a choice between two ways of life. The first is a traditional respect for liberal humanism, human decency, a love of arts, intellectualism, and a deep sense of cultural and political history. It is also likely to involve close bonds with family members.
The second is a no-holds-barred pursuit of individualism and personal liberty, embracing free-market capitalism, dog-eat-dog competition, get-rich-quick schemes, and devil-take-the-hindmost greed and corruption at all levels.
It is quite obvious which of these two options Bellow supports. Sammler is a Holocaust survivor. He cherishes his relatives and friends. He is a man of culture and sophistication, even though he is living on handouts from his nephew (and war reparations). He is a living representative of twentieth century history – a man who has dug his own grave and miraculously survived a Nazi execution squad. He will not let that experience fade as a measure of how he will interpret the behaviour of others.
The following extract captures this multiple, overlapping approach to a form of stream-of-consciousness in dealing with one of his favourite themes – the immigrant faced with the multiple possibilities of American life:
And the charm, the ebullient glamour, the almost unbearable agitation that came from being able to describe oneself as a twentieth-century American was available to all. To everyone who had eyes to read the papers or watch television, to everyone who shared the collective ecstasies of news, crisis, power. To each according to his excitability. But perhaps it was an even deeper thing. Humankind watched and described itself in the very turns of its own destiny. Itself the subject, living or drowning at night, itself the object, seen surviving or succumbing, and feeling in itself the fits of strength and the lapses of paralysis – mankind’s own passion simultaneously being mankind’s great spectacle, a think of deep and strange participation, on all levels, from melodrama and mere noisedown into the deepest layers of the soul and into the subtlest silences, where undiscovered knowledge is.
Bellow does not offer this as a simplistic example of victimhood. At one point Sammler reflects on the case of Chaim Rumkowski, a Jewish ‘leader’ in occupied Poland who assisted the Nazis, arranged the deportation of children to the death camps, and even abused young girls – before he was beaten to death by fellow inmates on arrival at Auschwitz in 1944. Bellow’s message is quite clear: the full horror must be confronted, and not forgotten.
But Sammler is surrounded by every excess that modern America can throw at him: the black pickpocket who intimidates him with an aggressive sexual gesture; his ex-student Feffer whose instinct is to exploit everything that comes his way; Wallace Gruner, the son of his nephew, described by his own father as a ‘high-IQ idiot’ who is full of mad entrepreneurial schemes to make money
The 1960s and sexual revolution
This novel is basically Bellow’s response to the social and sexual revolutions of the 1960s in America and Europe, coupled with his long-standing concern for the fate of immigrant Jews in post-Holocaust America
He takes a view that sides with what he sees as tradition and decency – Sammler is oppressed and appalled by the excesses of “a sexual madness [which] was overwhelming the Western world”. His young niece Angela is the living embodiment of the sexual revolution writ large. She dresses in provocatively in revealing clothes and flaunts her erotic life like a banner of defiance in a way Sammler clearly finds shocking.
The students on campus are in rebellion; beards proliferate; nobody gives a damn; and America is in full technological expansionist mood – preparing to put men on the moon. It captures the vibrancy and the excesses of the 1960s very accurately.
The novel was published in the same year as the first moon landings in 1969, and most readers will have little difficulty in appreciating the multiple symbols and references to planetary matters which run through the novel.
Artur Sammler inhabits the only planet he knows – the earth – and he tries to make sense of the gigantic contradictions that twentieth century history has thrown at him and his fellow survivors. He finds modern life – particularly in New York City – overwhelming.
But he reads Govinda Lal’s treatise on lunar colonisation with interest – largely as a symbolic suggestion that there might be alternatives to the horrors and unresolvable contradictions of life on earth.
His meeting with Dr Lal provides him with the one intellectually satisfying experience that occurs in the novel. Then throughout its events he catches glimpses of the moon which act as a reminder of this search for ‘alternatives’
Bellow is not normally strong on the structure of his novels. He seems to prefer a free-wheeling, improvisatory approach in which he introduces incidents and characters for their own sake, and does not (necessarily) tie them closely to his main theme. But it must be said that Mr Sammler’s Planet is a masterpiece of bravura plotting and organisation.
The content of the narrative is an amalgam of Sammler’s movements in New York, his reflections on political history, his slightly woolly and abstract ruminations on life, and the second-hand reports of activity from minor characters. But the amazing thing is that the entire events of the narrative take place over only two days.
This chronological compression is somewhat concealed, since so much of the narrative is taken up with flashbacks into Sammler’s earlier life. His ‘European’ experiences during and after the Holocaust are woven seamlessly into the account of events in 1960s New York. And since the narrative is delivered almost entirely from his point of view, the transitions between reminiscence and dramatic interaction between characters is almost imperceptible. It also has to be said that the resulting narrative is also padded out with generous passages of abstract reflection on Sammler’s part – a feature which one cannot help regarding as something of an indulgence on Bellow’s part, since it appears so frequently in all his other novels.
Things met with in this world are tied to the forms of our perception in space and time and to the forms of our thinking. We see what is before us, the present, the objective. Eternal being makes its temporal appearance in this way The only way out of captivity in the forms, out of confinement in the prison of projections, the only contact with the eternal, is through freedom.
Such passages become strangely heterogeneous, set as they are amongst events which sometimes border on the farcical – Sammler’s nephew flooding the house and crashing an aeroplane whilst taking photographs for instance. But fortunately, the novel as a whole is held together by the seriousness of Sammler’s search for meaning in a life composed of such disparate elements.
Mr Sammler’s Planet – study resources
Mr Sammler’s Planet – Penguin Classics – Amazon UK
Mr Sammler’s Planet – Penguin Classics – Amazon US
Saul Bellow – Collected Stories – Penguin Classics – Amazon UK
Saul; Bellow – Collected Stories – Penguin Classics – Amazon US
Saul Bellow (Modern Critical Views) – essays and studies – Amz UK
Saul Bellow (Modern Critical Views) – essays and studies – Amz US
Cambridge Companion to Saul Bellow – Amazon UK
Mr Sammler’s Planet – summary
I. Artur Sammler is a seventy year old Polish Jew living in New York with his widowed niece Margotte. He has a semi-retarded and divorced daughter Shula who collects junk. They are all immigrant survivors of the Holocaust. He formerly lived in Bloomsbury London, and is something of an Anglophile. Shula has been urging him to write a memoir of H.G. Wells. She presents him with a scholarly paper on the colonisation of the moon written by a Dr Govinda Lal.
Sammler delivers a lecture on British politics in the inter-war years that is rudely challenged by students. Afterwards he is accosted by a black pickpocket he has seen on a bus journey each morning. The man follows Sammler home and exposes himself in a threatening manner in the lobby of the building.
II. Sammler struggles to make sense of urban life, which he finds overwhelming. He is visited by his sixty year old nephew Walter, who has a fetish for women’s plump arms. Sammler finds his confessions oppressive, as he does those of his niece Angela, who recounts the sexual details of her affair with an advertising executive.
Sammler visits his nephew Dr Elya Gruner who is in hospital after suffering an aneurysm. Gruner has been giving financial support to Sammler and his daughter Shula, and he is closely concerned with family ties. Sammler assumes that Elya’s wealth comes from Mafia-controlled real-estate investments.
Sammler has survived the end of the war hiding in a Polish mausoleum after surviving execution by a firing squad. He discusses Elya’s slim chances of survival with Elya’s son Wallace, who is an improvident wastrel eager to get hold of his father’s money.
III. He meets the fantasist Lionel Feffer who claims to be in a money-making scheme with Wallace. Feffer reports the theft of Dr Lal’s. manuscript by Shula and then exhorts from Sammler the story of the thief on the bus. He wants to sell the story to television, and at the same time he also brags about a bogus insurance claim he has made.
Sammler writes to Dr Lal, explaining that the manuscript is safe. He speculates about the interplanetary future of the earth and mankind, then recalls his survival from the Nazi execution squad and killing a German soldier during his escape. At the end of the war he was forced to escape from anti-Semitic attacks by the Poles. More recently, he has been to Israel to cover events in the Six-Day War
IV. At the hospital Sammler meets Angela who unburdens herself of the problems she has with her father. Sammler reflects on his experience during the Six-Day War, and then is joined by his son-in-law Eisen who wants to be an artist but has only produced worthless junk. Margotte phones to say Dr Lal ‘s manuscript is missing. Sammler promises he will retrieve the manuscript from Shula
V. En route to the Gruner house Wallace badgers Sammler about the black thief and other sex-related matters. Sammler finds Shula has Xeroxed the manuscript and put copies in safe deposit boxes at Grand Central Station. Margotte arrives with Dr Lal, who engages Sammler in a friendly discussion about H.G. Wells and space exploration. Their discussion then goes on to metaphysical considerations of human personality – which is interrupted by a flood of water caused by Wallace hunting for his father’s money, supposedly hidden somewhere in the house. When the fire brigade arrive Sammler goes outside and recalls his earlier visit to the Six-Day War and its heavy death toll.
VI. Next day Sammler reflects
on the other characters – Shula, Wallace, and Elya. He is frustrated by a series of delays preventing his return to New York. He wishes to rejoin the terminally sick Elya, who has some unfinished business to discuss with him. Lal’s manuscript is located, but there is no copy of it.
En route to the hospital the car is held up by a street confrontation in which Feffer photographs the black thief on the bus. The thief demands the camera, but is fought off by Feffer’s accomplice Eiser, who clubs him with a bag of cheap iron medallions. Sammler is upset by the incident.
At the hospital Angela reports that Wallace has crashed a plane whilst taking photographs of houses. Sammler and Angela argue about her refusal to apologise to her father. Shula telephones to say she has found Elya’s Mafia money hidden at the house – and meanwhile Elya has died.
Mr Sammler’s Planet – characters
|a 70 year old Polish Jewish survivor of the Holocaust
|his slightly deranged divorced daughter who collects junk
|Sammler’s politically argumentative niece
|Margotte’s husband, killed in a plane crash
|Dr Elya Gruner
|Sammler’s nephew a retired gynaecologist and real estate owner
|Gruner’s daughter, a sex pot
|Gruner’s son, ‘a high-IQ idiot’
|Dr V. Govinda Lal
|a professor of biophysics
|Sammler’s ex-student, a boastful spiv
|Sammler’s nephew, a musicologist
|Shula’s estranged husband
© Roy Johnson 2017