Saturday, February 22, 2014

Mr. Sammler's Planet by Saul Bellow

My copy of the novel
Many years ago I tried to read The Adventures of Augie March by Canadian-born Jewish-American writer Saul Bellow. In my memory, the book is 3 inches thick and stuffed with tiny tiny print. I gave up on the third or fourth page.

I didn’t quite give up on Bellow, though, and five or eight years or so after being defeated by Augie March I read and enjoyed the much shorter The Dangling Man and The Victim, and a bunch of Bellow's short stories. Early in the period of my exile from New York City I read Seize the Day, which I liked a lot, and last year I read Henderson the Rain King. Recently the Des Moines Library had a huge booksale, and I bought a hardcover edition of Mr. Sammler’s Planet for pennies. This week I read the 1970 novel.

Artur Sammler is a Polish Jew, 70 years old, a more-or-less retired journalist, living on the West Side. (I lived on the East Side when I lived in Manhattan, and, as a stupid joke, pretended to be a rabid pro-East Side, anti-West Side, partisan. Whenever we would go to the West Side I would complain that the bus was slower, the subway was dirtier, etc. In fact, of course, there are many interesting and beautiful places on the West Side.) Sammler grew up in Poland and spent the 1920s and 1930s in England, among the intellectual elite, getting particularly close to H. G. Wells. But business took him back to Poland, where he and his wife and daughter got caught up in the start of the Second World War. Sammler’s wife was murdered, and Sammler and his daughter, separately, only barely escaped being killed.

Now, in late ‘60s New York, with one blind eye and British manners (he carries an umbrella around) Sammler lives among his various neurotic relatives who come to him to confess their sexual problems. In the course of just a few days Sammler suffers several shocks: he is terrorized by a black mugger, his nephew is revealed to be terminally ill, and his daughter, who ceaselessly urges Sammler to write a book on H. G. Wells, steals from a Punjabi scholar a valuable manuscript about the possibilities of colonizing the moon. Sammler, who lacks much family feeling, long ago lost his youthful illusions about improving society through revolution or government planning, and feels out of touch with the current sex-crazed generation, begins to seriously consider the notion of colonizing the moon and other planets.

This book kept reminding me of Thomas Disch. Like 334, this is a book about New York life, and like 334 it includes a reference to the first victim of Rashkalnikov from Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. In 334 a lesbian stabs her girlfriend with a fork; in Mr. Sammler’s Planet a woman says she will stab her abusive husband with a fork. Like On Wings of Song it includes a character who adapts old musical scores for modern use. Uncanny.

I was also reminded, more obliquely, of Jack Vance. A person who read this book before me underlined and inscribed question marks next to words he did not know, like “autochthon” and “dugong.” Jack Vance uses “autochthon” a lot, and I think the first time I came upon the word was in a Vance story.  Bellow also employs "tellurian," which I think I only ever have seen in books by E. E. Smith.

This novel also gave me the damndest case of déjà vu. One of Sammler’s relatives (a grand nephew, I think) had the idea of offering to rich people the service of identifying all the trees and shrubs on the lawns of their estates. Somehow, I was sure I had read about just such a scheme, just recently, but I could not remember where. I guess I must have read that passage the day I bought Mr. Sammler’s Planet, at the library booksale, when I was flipping through to make sure no pages were missing.

I enjoyed Mr. Sammler’s Planet quite a bit; it was certainly more fun than Henderson the Rain King, which I remember being too long and sometimes dragging. Mr. Sammler’s Planet does not drag; everything in it was interesting. Of course, the novel is largely about things that I find interesting -- New York, World War II and the Cold War, revolution, space exploration -- but I also found the various characters and their relationships and odd problems engaging. The ending, in which Sammler, despite all the horrible things he has endured and witnessed, asserts that we all know, instinctively, right from wrong, is powerful because it is so tragic. Either Sammler is sadly deluded, and good and evil are just opinions, or Sammler is right: we all know what is good and what is evil, and the world is full of people who do evil in the full knowledge that what they are doing is wrong.

So, a thumbs up for Mr. Sammler’s Planet; perhaps I have taken one small step (or maybe one giant leap) closer to tackling Augie March a second time.

UPDATE FEB 23 2014:  In the comments veteran book blogger Tarbandu points out a long and detailed, and quite good, essay on Mr. Sammler's Planet by Myron Magnet that focuses on crime and civilization in New York from the late '60s to the '80s.


  1. For what it's worth, the 'City Journal' had a very interesting article in the Spring 2008 issue about 'Mr Sammler's Planet', by Myron Magnet:

    Magnet's essay makes the argument that 'Sammler' was a prescient documentation of the growing lawlessness, race-based crime, and decay that was overtaking the city as the 60s ended.

    Sammler, as a Holocaust survivor, is increasingly disturbed by the chaos, and he is one of the few residents in the city whose past experiences alert him to the fact that things are going to get worse...much, much time goes on.

    1. That's a good essay; thanks for pointing it out.

      Growing up in New Jersey in the 1970s and 1980s, right on Route 80 in Morris County, my family could easily have visited New York City, but we almost never did; it was simply too scary. I was lucky enough that when I had the opportunity to move to New York things had vastly improved, in the '90s and 2000s.

    2. our literature – think of the scene in A Flag for Sunrise where Tabor shoots his dogs, or in Children of Light where members of a film crew mistake the phrase “Bosch’s Garden” for “Butch’s Garden”, which they speculate is an S&M joint in Los Angeles.