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. 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.