Mr. Sammler’s Planet, by Saul Bellow

bellowI think that I am going to have to erect an image of Saul Bellow as the central icon in my “personally most frustrating modern author” category. I will admit that is a somewhat off-the-wall category, but many readers would put John Updike, Toni Morrison and Marilynne Robinson in a somewhat similar kind of grouping, so I think I am on fair ground. Sometimes great authors truly confuse us and there needs to be a place to put them.

My reading of Bellow has been anything but disciplined and my response has also been all over the map. Some books (The Adventures of Augie March, Humbolt’s Gift), I thought were brilliant. Others (Seize the Day, Henderson the Rain King) were only okay. And some fell off the map.

I have been saving Mr. Sammler’s Planet for relatively late in my Bellow reading. It won a National Book Award (his third) and, for Bellow, is relatively short. The story outline (Holocaust victim in New York, late 1960s) had lots of promise. Penguin Classics entranced me even more with a cover picture, looking down Fifth Ave. from the St. Regis — taken in 1905, while the book is set post-WWII. I should have figured that out but I didn’t. Damn you, Penguin, for a most misleading image.

Mr. Sammler’s Planet is one of the most confounding books that I have read in recent memory. It is full of potentially interesting ideas, and equally potentially interesting characters, and, for this reader, none of that potential for either ideas or characters is realized. Unlike a truly bad book, this one had me hopeful all the way to the end — and never delivered. Given the accolades it has received, I can’t help but wonder if that is my fault.

Artur Sammler is in his 70s, a Pole, a Holocaust survivor with horror stories of his own, a resident of New York for more than 20 years. He is an “uncle” to Dr. Elya Gruner, a rich doctor who moved on into business and may, or may not, have had doings with the Mafia. Elya rescued Sammler and his daughter from post-war Europe and has financed them in New York, but as this novel unfolds Elya is facing his demise. He is also father to a disturbed daughter (in psychoanlysis) and a perhaps even more disturbed son. Add in Sammler’s own daughter and his landlady (another relative) and you have a promising mix. Plus, as someone who loves “New York” books, all of this is set in the New York City of the late 1960s.

And, to be cruel about my conclusion, that is as good as the novel gets. There is no doubt that Bellow meant this book to be about the emptiness and hopelessness of the America of the time, a not unreasonable objective. As a great storyteller, he seeded his novel with interesting characters — as a polemicist, none of them ever become real. A sub-theme — about sending off people to the moon to escape the world which is in a state of total collapse and then move on elsewhere — starts to dominate the book. And for one very long section, an exchange (reminiscient of wandering debates in The Magic Mountain but with none of their insight) about that possibility takes over.

Every time that I reached the end of a chapter in Mr. Sammler’s Planet I thought “Bellow will pull this all together in the next chapter.” He never did — instead there was more stream-of-consciousness debate or pointless digressions. As a notebook that identified themes for future development, this book may well have been a valuable work — as a novel, it fails.

I have a few Bellows left to go. And sometime in the future, I may return to Mr. Sammler’s Planet in a different frame of mind. For now, I have to admit that this one passed me by. As someone who has been known to argue that Bellow is a better author than Philip Roth, I may have to lie low for a while.

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17 Responses to “Mr. Sammler’s Planet, by Saul Bellow”

  1. Stewart Says:

    I think that I am going to have to erect an image of Saul Bellow as the central icon in my “personally most frustrating modern author” category.

    It’s my inability to get on with later Bellow that drove me to go right back to the start, to Dangling Man, which I thoroughly enjoyed. The Actual and The Adventures Of Augie March were impenetrable and my expeditions into them only lasted a few pages.

  2. KevinfromCanada Says:

    I’m not going to give up on him, but I’ll probably give him a couple of months. I had The Dean’s December mentally marked down for next — your comment makes me think that going back to Dangling Man might be a better idea.

  3. Stewart Says:

    Yeah, I think Dangling Man worked for me because it was considered an apprentice work, but I was surprised to see a Kafka influence in it. Next time round it will be The Victim, which apparently continues that Kafka theme. I doubt I’ll ever give up on him either — he’s Mount Bellow, there to be conquered.

  4. Trevor Says:

    This review reminds me of my own Humboldt’s Gift review. I wanted to like it much more than I did, and I truly enjoyed many of the ideas, but in the end it didn’t quite deliver. And, as you say, I can’t help but wonder how much of that is my own fault. I really should have read him when I was under the tutelage of a Bellow scholar. I feel certain there is much in there, but for some reason it’s not communicating itself with me.

    I’m also not giving up! How does an author who confounds so much still manage to make one keep reading?

  5. KevinfromCanada Says:

    I thought about Humboldt’s Gift a number of times when reading this book — because for me that book did work. I was engaged in enough of it (a trait of Bellow’s is that he is always juggling a number of narrative streams) that I could either puzzle me way through or put up with some of the more obtuse parts. As I noted in the review of Mr. Sammler’s Planet, I kept hoping (expecting?) the same thing to happen here and it never did. And I should note that while I ended up being frustrated by the book, I never debated abandoning it. Since that is what usually happens with a book that is simply bad, I did start wondering if maybe my approach, attitude or whatever was part of the issue. I’m still thinking about that.

  6. Max Cairnduff Says:

    Interesting review, I’ve not read any Bellow, somehow none of them ever really appealed.

    It sounds like it’s well written, you wouldn’t have kept going as you did were it not (though the Bellow name would carry one some distance in expectation of rewards to come I imagine), but it also sounds unsatisfying. I get a little suspicious when two different bloggers both say they didn’t like an author’s work but suspect the fault may lie in themselves. I appreciate you liked Humboldt’s Gift more than Trevor, so there isn’t quite a concord of views, but I am left wondering if on this occasion the fault does in fact lie in our stars.

  7. Kerry Says:

    Interesting review. It sounds like Dangling Man and The Adventures of Augie March are two of his more accessible works. As you’ll know from reading my blog, I enjoyed Sieze the Day. I also enjoyed his short story A Silver Dish. I was planning for Augie March to be my next Bellow. Is that about the size of it?

    As for whether there are faults with Bellow, I have not read enough to say more than that I like what I have read. Maybe his longer pieces do not hold together so well, but he writes incredible sentences and tells great stories. Of course, he would not be the first author I have somewhat soured on after further exposure.

  8. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Max: Bellow certainly would not be the first instance of an author where I liked some books and didn’t like others. What raises questions for me about my reaction to him is that even the books that I don’t think succeed come so close (or at least leave the impression that one “twist” would bring everything together) that I do wonder if I just missed it. I do tend to lean towards “reportage” as opposed to “fine writing” which is another reason why I persist with Bellow. There is nothing the matter with his writing (neither is it fancy); his observations about the time in which he lived, and particularly the parts of America that were his home, are very perceptive. So when he misses for me, I do wonder if it is me.
    Kerry: I saw your review of Seize the Day — you liked it more than I did, but I certainly did not dislike it. Augie March is a longish book which is my favorite Bellow so far. One reason for that is that it captures Chicago in a way that few authors do — that gave me a “hook” into the book which I quite appreciated.

  9. Kerry Says:

    Now I must read Augie March. I have a fondness for Chicago novels, including Nelson Algren’s The Man with the Golden Arm. I am not entirely sure why. I have only been there a couple times. Of course, my love is from Chicago, so that adds some appeal.

  10. john h Says:

    I’m a little surprised, Kevin, that you didn’t like “Mr. Sammler’s Planet” better than you did. I read it back in the late 70s when I was a whole lot younger than I am now so maybe my memory of it isn’t real exact. I do remember having a hard time getting into it for the first third or so. But once I got going I found it quite charming. Of course, I was a lot more into “ideas” then than I am now and ideas seemed to be a pretty big part of Sammler’s Planet.

    “Mr. Sammler’s Planet” shares a similar dynamic–that uncle and nephew thing–with a later book of his called “More Die of Heartbreak”. I remember enjoying that one although I can’t remember much about it now.

    It’s a funny thing–which books grab you and which don’t. Sometimes you just have to come to a book at the right time. I can remember trying to read “Herzog” when it first came out and not being able to get into it at all. But then when I read it six or seven years later I loved it. It’s still my favorite book of his.

    Don’t mean to be discouraging, but don’t expect great things of “The Victim”. For me, it’s his worst book.

  11. KevinfromCanada Says:

    I had the opposite experience, John — I liked the opening parts of the book and Bellow’s set up and then proceeded to get frustrated. I suspect part of my frustration was that I wanted the book to go into an exploration of New York (in the way the Augie March does to Chicago and, to an extent, Humboldt’s Gift does to New York). I thought the ideas that are explored are pretty mundane (I too might have liked this book a lot better a few decades ago, now that I think about it) but that might be because I wasn’t paying enough attention to them. I do usually reread a book when I have this many questions about it and will probably return to Mr. Sammler’s Planet although I will definitely try a few more Bellows before I do that.

  12. brian Says:

    Kevin – I think you missed the point of the book. The tension between Sammlers social/ethical more and the following generations social more is the central theme – the story itself is superfluous in some regards. Sammler is a misogynist who abhors Shula and Angela’s sexuality. Their morality is in direct contradiction to the radical shift away from what he has come to believe in through his education and social set (H.G. wells etc.). At the end it comes to a head waiting to say goodbye to Elya. Once he sees Angela dressed in a sexuality explicit manner at her Fathers death bed, he simply goads her into changing based upon his own feeling. She is obviously insulted.

    As he goes to say goodbye to Elya he realizes that he must reconnect with the human race and Elya is no longer his proxy to the world. Elya, while of the same generation as Sammler, is not of the same mindset. Sammler without that proxy any longer must begin to engage his planet again.

    This of course, is where we bring Lal into this dialogue as his treatise was to populate the virgin moon where their older ideas could flourish without the hideous new thought sullying their idea of Eden. Lal’s idea is an absurd failure and Sammler realizes this upon the death bed of Elya.

    This notion of a dying milieu has been explored rather heartily by Faulkner but the interest here perhaps is the thinly veiled autobiographical character of Sammler to Bellow. Without being much of a Bellow expert (hooray for Google!) it seems as though Bellow and Sammler share experiences.

    Finally, the most unusual portion of the book, the black Penis episode, is Sammler being violently (figuratively too) confronted with the sexuality of the coming generation. Feffers bludgeoning of the man later and Sammlers odd disapproval suggests that even before the Climax of Elya’s death, Sammler is realizing that the sexuality he dislikes is here to stay, and beating it to death will not stop its progress.

  13. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Thanks for the thoughtful comment, Brian. Given the reputation of the book, I must have missed something somewhere and I am happy to be able to present another, more positive opinion.

  14. Rebecca L-w Says:

    Do you think there could be some reference to Sophocles’ Oedipus? For those who haven’t read Oedipus, it contains constant symbolic references to sight and insight. The blind prophet has insight, knowledge of a ‘truth’. Oedipus, who can physically see is stubbornly ignorant of this truth. When Oedipus realises the horror of the prophet’s knowledge, he physically blinds himself, and it is only now he can ‘see’.

    Does Sammler’s one good eye refer to the fact he is blind to a kind of objective morality, a universal, a sense of what it is to be human as we all belong to this structure of “right and wrong”. Perhaps his one blinded eye refers to the idea that he is able to see the horror of the present state of society, the self-destruction, something which others can not see. This refers to his stance as by-stander, as observer. (I am confusing myself a little with this point! There seems to be more than one level… On one hand, he has deeper insight than the rest of civilisation, however on the other, he has lost touch with the key factor that unifies humanity, something even deeper?)

    His blind eye is a result of his experiences of the Holocaust, when he was subjected to a near complete removal or disregard by others of this objective morality. A turning point in the book (as pointed out by another review) could be the fight between the pick-pocket, Feffer and Eisen. Sammler is forced to intervene, to again become a part of society and not simply a bystander. He also talks of his intense empathy for the battered pick-pocket, relating his pain and his situation to his own experiences in the Holocaust. He is beginning to regain insight of the universal, unifying factor.

    Towards the end, sammler removes is glasses in front of Elya’s surgeon, something which he has been conscious not to do in front of other people. Is this symbolising that his two ‘eyes’, his two forms of sight are unified at last? He has an insight into the state of society, something which most people do not, but also has sight of what it is to be human, something which the rest of society has seemed to accept all along without questioning, despite their blundering paths.

  15. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Rebecca: I can’t comment on your hypothesis for two reasons. Most important, it has been a while since I read the book and I don’t remember some of the details to which you refer. Even if I did, I am afraid that I don’t tend towards building symbolic interpretations of novels that I read.

    In no way do I mean that as a rejection or even criticism of your well-stated idea. Quite the opposite — you have offered an explanation that I would be incapable of producing which I am sure other visitors here will find useful. Many thanks.

  16. Dan Says:

    I’m about a third of the way through Mr. Sammler’s Planet, and so far I’ve found it’s filled with some captivating ideas and even a little bit of humour, but I also like books to be illuminating, to really be read clearly and in an organized fashion. Sadly, Bellow doesn’t do that.

    I found your review quite fair and perceptive.

  17. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Dan: Thanks for the compliment — while I like Bellow, in this book I found him more confusing than anything else.

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