‘Mr. Sammler’s Planet’: Saul Bellow’s howl of rage

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‘Mr. Sammler’s Planet’: Saul Bellow’s howl of rage

Saul Bellow

 Change and decay in all around I see.

“Abide with Me”

Saul Bellow introduced the European novel of ideas into American literature.  Like a brilliant talker, he takes all human knowledge for his province.  In the 1960s his moral, intellectual and literary values were violently attacked.  Mr. Sammler’s Planet (1970), Bellow’s “Decline of the West”, contrasts the ideal standards of his youth with the corruption of contemporary life.  His entertaining and provocative howl of rage is a tour de force of disillusionment and disgust at the descent from high culture to barbarism.  “New York,” he writes, “makes one think about the collapse of civilization, about Sodom and Gomorrah, the end of the world . . . with disintegration, with crazy streets, filthy nightmares, monstrosities come to life, addicts, drunkards, and perverts celebrating their despair openly in midtown.”

The action of the novel covers two days in the life of the humane and idealistic Mr. Sammler, and is narrated from his point of view.  His German name means “collector”, but also echoes Hamlet, the indecisive prince who exclaimed, “The time is out of joint; O cursèd spite, / That ever I was born to set it right.”  Sammler collects intense experiences and lofty wisdom.  The Polish-Jewish son of his old father’s second marriage, spoiled by an already spoiled mother, he’s been given the non-biblical name of Artur, after the gloomy philosopher Schopenhauer.

Sammler has spent the best years of his life, the two interwar decades, in Bloomsbury, London, as a correspondent for Warsaw newspapers, but his furled British umbrella anticipated a violent fallout much worse than rain.  Well-acquainted with Maynard Keynes and Lytton Strachey, he was on intimate terms with H. G. Wells.  Sammler explains that Wells’ ideas were based on “the effective application of scientific principles to the enlargement of human life; the building of a planned, orderly and beautiful world society”.  But in the 1960s his ideas were no longer valid.  In an interview Bellow said that “Wells’ utopianism went sour towards the end of his life.  His last book, Mind at the End of Its Tether [1945], is relentlessly pessimistic.  His final judgment on civilization is that men destroy one another like rats in a sack.” So Sammler abandons his memoir of Wells, his life’s work that nobody wants to read, and escapes into the thirteenth century by studying the German mystic Meister Eckhart.

The 72-year-old Sammler, blind in his dark-lensed left eye, is “a tall, splendid, half-bald, mustached man with a good subtle brain in his head.”  He has red cheeks, white hair spreading at the back and round spectacles.  Eyes are a recurrent motif in the novel and Sammler, like the one-eyed King in the Country of the Blind, sees more with one eye than others see with two.  Talking to friends, he would bring “out the folded handkerchief to slip under the lenses before removing his glasses, covering his disfigurement.”  His imperceptive grand-niece Angela Gruner has “big eyes practically merged” and, from her voracious sexual life, has “fucked-up eyes.”  Bellow cites a passage in War and Peace (Book 12, chapter 3) when Pierre Bezukhov, facing a French firing squad, exchanges human looks with a general and “was spared.  Tolstoy says you don’t kill another human being with whom you have exchanged such a look.”

Sammler lives on his own intellectual planet, separated from his species as a judge, priest and Uncle Confessor.  Like Conrad and Orwell, he knows from bitter experience that no revolutions were “made for justice, freedom, and pure goodness.  Their last state was always more nihilistic than the first.”  Deeply pessimistic, “like many people who had seen the world collapse once, Mr. Sammler entertained the possibility . . . that this death-burdened, rotting, spoiled, sullied, exasperating, sinful earth . . . might collapse twice.”  He makes moral judgments on this corrupt world and, like many idealistic old men, is hostile to contemporary art, literature and culture.

Sammler feels a powerful contrast between his idealised life in prewar Bloomsbury and his horrific experiences as a hunted Jew in Nazi-occupied Poland.  Bellow gradually reveals that when Sammler returned to Poland in the late 1930s to liquidate his father-in-law’s estate, he himself was almost liquidated.  Trapped by the war, his wife killed near him, he learned to lie low in forests, cellars and cemeteries.  Struck in the eye by a gun butt and blinded, “the dead eye bulged like a ball of ice in his head.”  Stripped naked and forced to dig his own grave, he waited to be shot, fell into the mass trench and was crushed by the weight of corpses.  Still amazingly alive, he crawled out of the loose soil and hid in the forest.  He found a rag to cover his nakedness and, starved and bloodied, crept out of the forest.  He “boarded” in a cemetery tomb and was fed by a Polish caretaker, the only man who didn’t try to kill him.

He was a survivor, back from the dead like Lazarus and Christ.  He gradually recovered, joined the partisans, disarmed a German straggler, and took his clothes and boots.  Standing only five feet away, he noted the violet color under the soldier’s eyes.  The German begged him not to shoot but—unlike Tolstoy’s French general—“Sammler pulled the trigger.  The body then lay in the snow.  A second shot went through the head and shattered it.  Bone burst.  Matter flew out.”  The once oppressed and powerless Sammler, both victim and aggressor, now had the upper hand and realised that killing the enemy without pity had given him pleasure, even joy and ecstasy: “His heart felt lined with brilliant, rapturous satin.”  (Similarly, T. E. Lawrence was surprised to discover that he’d actually enjoyed killing his enemies.)  As the Russians advanced from the east and the war was nearly over, the Polish partisans turned on their Jewish comrades and, like the Nazis, tried to create a Jewless Poland.

But Sammler was still not finished with war.  Like Bellow during the Israeli-Arab Six Day War in June 1967, he got press credentials, watched a tank battle from Mount Hermon on the Golan Heights, discovered the effects of Russian poison gas and saw starving dogs eating roasted Arab bodies in the Sinai desert.

In the most brilliantly written scene in the novel, Sammler in New York suffers the threatening equivalent of the Nazi persecution of the Jews.  On the Broadway bus through Columbus Circle to the Upper West Side, the sharp-eyed Sammler sees a mustached, French-perfumed, extremely well-dressed Black man with Christian Dior dark glasses, cherry silk necktie and camel’s-hair coat.  This princely man, with “sumptuous colors and a barbarous-majestical manner,” is expertly picking the purse of an unsuspecting female passenger.  Sammler reports the crime but the police show no interest.  The second time he sees the thief, robbing an old man on the bus, the Black man follows him into the lobby of his apartment building.  Silent as a puma,

the pickpocket unbuttoned himself.  Sammler heard the zipper descend.  Then the smoked glasses were removed from Sammler’s face and dropped on the table.  He was directed, silently, to look downward.  The black man had opened his fly and taken out his penis.  It was displayed to Sammler with great oval testicles, a large tan-and-purple uncircumcised thing—a tube, a snake; metallic hairs bristled at the thick base and the tip curled beyond the supporting, demonstrating hand, suggesting the fleshly mobility of an elephant’s trunk, though the skin was somewhat iridescent rather than thick or rough.  Over the forearm and fist that held him Sammler was required to gaze at this organ.  No compulsion would have been necessary.  He would in any case have looked.

Instead of wielding a knife or gun, the thief proudly exhibits his power through his half-tumescent sex-flesh.  His weapon and threat warns his victim to keep silent and allow him to continue to steal unmolested, and to buy expensive apparel that disguise his crimes.  Shocked but unharmed, Sammler is impressed.

Sammler’s friend Lionel Feffer, a graduate student at Columbia University, is fascinated by this story, boards the Broadway bus and photographs the thief in action with his tiny Minox camera.  (Feffer’s first name ironically alludes to Lionel Trilling’s judicious conduct during the 1968 student riots at Columbia.)  Sammler, racing to see his dying friend in a hospital, sees the Black man stopping traffic by choking Feffer, who refuses to surrender his precious film.  Sammler asks his violent Israeli ex-son-in law Eisen (“iron” in German), who used to beat Sammler’s daughter, to attack the Black man and rescue Feffer.  Eisen smashes, cuts and bloodies the thief’s face with a bag of his heavy metal sculpture — twice — and knocks him down.  Sammler tries to stop Eisen, another survivor who fought at Stalingrad and lost his toes from frostbite, but Eisen tells the former partisan killer: “You can’t hit a man like this just once.  When you hit him you must really hit him.  Otherwise he’ll kill you.  You know.  We both fought in the war.”

All the vivid characters in the novel are connected to Sammler and radiate from his moral center.  His distant relation and benefactor, Dr. Elya Gruner, rescued him from a Displaced Persons camp in Poland and supports him in New York.  He’s done illegal abortions for the Mafia—another crime—and hidden the cash in his New Rochelle mansion just north of Manhattan, but has not told his children where the treasure is.  He’s now in a hospital with a stent in his throat, dying of an aneurysm in his brain, “a great blood vessel, defective from birth,  worn thin and frayed with a lifetime of pulsation.”  He’s waiting for the burst of the bubble, “such as lizards blow from the throat.  Then death.”  The aged Sammler feels threatened by Gruner’s imminent extinction.

As Gruner lies dying, Feffer has arranged Sammler’s eye-witness lecture at Columbia on the British Scene in the Thirties.  But his lecture is interrupted by the 1960s student radicals who ignorantly attack George Orwell as well as the old speaker’s supposed lack of sexual potency: “His balls are dry.  He’s dead.  He can’t come.”  In the chaos Feffer disappears and leaves Sammler unprotected.

At the same time Sammler’s misguided and disruptive daughter, Shula (whose name means “peace” in Hebrew), steals the only copy of a manuscript by a Hindu scientist at Columbia, Govinda Lal.  Following Wells’ The First Men in the Moon (1901), Lal’s The Future of the Moon about space travel and escaping from (Sammler’s) planet was a hot topic right after the first moon landing in July 1969.  Shula mistakenly thinks Lal’s manuscript will help her father finish his potential masterpiece on Wells.

Hidden in a Polish convent during the war, she emerged aged fourteen, a Jewish pseudo-Catholic, who later wears an ill-fitting Indian sari and a decorative Hindu mark on her forehead.  Sammler collects ideas; the eccentric bohemian Shula collects trash from garbage bins, and wears a hideous wig made of yak and baboon hairs.  A thief like the Black pickpocket, she gives her father the stolen manuscript; then steals it for the second time from his desk, puts it in a locker in Grand Central Station and drives poor Lal frantic as he tries to recover it.  Sammler is shocked when he accidentally sees Shula emerging naked from the bath: “the soles of her white feet, he saw, the black female triangle, and the white swellings with large rings of purplish brown.  The veins.”  He feels he must protect his badly confused child, and at the end of the novel the disappointed but devoted father comforts her by insincerely saying, “You’re a good daughter,  The best of any.  No better daughter.”

Dr. Gruner’s rich and spoiled daughter, Angela, is sexually voracious but frustrated.  She tells Sammler that her impossibly ideal man has “a Jew brain, a black cock, a Nordic beauty.”  Her lover Wharton Horricker (which suggests “Whorelicker”) is a physical culturist, mad about developing his body, diet and wardrobe, but lacks two of Angela’s essential qualities.  On a sex-tourism holiday in Acapulco they have group sex with another couple, “fellatio with friendly strangers”.  Wharton gets kicks out of the other woman, Angela doesn’t like the man, and Wharton becomes perversely jealous on the plane home.  Her brother Wallace concludes, “ she and Horricker are finished, she let that twerp in Mexico ball her fore and aft in front of Wharton, with who-knows-what-else thrown in free by her.  In a spirit of participation.”  Wharton has told a lawyer who told Gruner about Angela’s sexploits; and like Sammler, Gruner was disgusted.  The Mexican coupling was not the joyful difficulty of removing wet tights and exploring the underground galleries.  It was more like “confused sex-excrement militancy, explosiveness, abusiveness, tooth-showing, Barbary ape howling.”

The perversions of Sammler’s friend Walter Bruch (“fracture” in German) complements Angela’s sexual promiscuity.  Wildly excited by the round brown arms (echoing the Black man’s penis) of Puerto Rican women in Spanish Harlem, he presses up against their counter and, while they make change for his small purchase, has an orgasm and wets himself.

Gruner’s son Wallace is also a weirdo who nourishes grandiose delusions and brainstorms, “like the sinking of the limousine in Croton [New York] Reservoir, the horse pilgrimage into Soviet Armenia, the furnishing of a law office to work crossword puzzles in—protests against his father’s ’valueless success.’ ”  Wallace’s photographs of gardens from a plane complement Feffer’s photographs of the thief on the bus.  Searching for his father’s secretly hidden money, Wallace breaks the water pipes and floods the New Rochelle mansion, a metaphor for his father’s bursting blood vessel.  The apparently other-worldly but surprisingly practical Lal, still searching for his stolen manuscript, discovers the source of the flood and turns off the water.

At the conclusion of this dazzling novel Sammler, after several frustrating delays, races from New Rochelle to Manhattan in Gruner’s chauffeur-driven Rolls Royce to get to the hospital.  Sammler tries to convince Angela to play the penitent and confess her sexual delinquency to her dying father.  But insulted and outraged, she refuses to submit and shouts, “I’ll never forgive you.”  Gruner, who dies just before Sammler arrives, had asked to be quietly moved out of his room so Angela would not have to see him on his deathbed.

Margotte Arkin, a capable widow who shares her apartment with Sammler, becomes attracted to the responsive Lal.  They find his elusive manuscript in the locker, and Shula finds Gruner’s illegal money hidden in a hassock.  Angela is angry about Sammler’s criticism of her not-so-private life and may not continue to support him when she inherits her father’s fortune.  But Sammler refuses, with stubborn rectitude, to keep the new-found money and orders Shula to hand it over to Gruner’s lawyer.

Despite his pessimistic outlook, Sammler sees the possibility of love for Lal, marriage for the widowed Margotte, America for the Israeli Eisen, business for Wallace. The  novel ends as Sammler humbly blesses Gruner: “At his best this man was kinder than at my very best I have ever been or ever could be.”

Jeffrey Meyers published James Salter: Pilot, Screenwriter, Novelist in February 2024.  His Parallel Lives: From Freud and Mann to Arbus and Plath will appear on July 3, 2024.  His book, 45 Ways to Look at Hemingway, will be out in July 2025, all with Louisiana State University Press. 


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Member ratings
  • Well argued: 71%
  • Interesting points: 87%
  • Agree with arguments: 56%
8 ratings - view all

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