Review by Natalia Holtzman
That a character must endure a journey of some kind, over the course of a novel, is a convention familiar to most readers. By the book’s end, somebody must die, or marry, or return to Ithaca. In Saul Bellow’s troubled, and troubling, Mr. Sammler’s Planet, which won the 1971 National Book Award for Fiction, title character Artur Sammler completes a journey through which he acquires empathy. But it is an ambiguous form of empathy, and it is gained with a profound degree of ambivalence. Like Bellow’s Herzog (1964), Mr. Sammler’s Planet covers a short time span—a matter of days. As Mr. Sammler traverses New York, his mind ranges over the past. And, again as in Herzog, it’s the character’s parade of thoughts that drives the novel, and entrances the reader.
Mr. Sammler’s Planet is set in New York during the summer of 1969. Mr. Sammler is a Polish Jew whose wife was killed in 1939 when the couple, and others, were lined up before a mass grave, shot, and then buried. Sammer was able to crawl out of the grave. Having survived that ordeal (much as he resists the word “survival”), Sammler went on to fight as a partisan, eventually immigrating to the United States with his daughter, who waited out the war in a convent. Now middle-aged, Shula Sammler is a kind of holy fool who rummages through trash bins, concocts conspiracies, and steals a valuable (and singular) manuscript from a visiting scholar. In short, Shula is a loony. In this novel, she isn’t the only one.
In fact, “loonies”—in word and in character—abound in Mr. Sammler’s Planet. This is, after all, the summer of the moon landing, an event that directs the tides of the novel as forcefully as any other. The manuscript that Shula steals is titled The Future of the Moon.
The novel itself is not clear or simple. It is difficult to summarize because it grapples with so much: the madness of “surviving” the Holocaust; the illusion of individuality (what Sammler calls “the bad joke of the self which we all feel”); the doomed and yet endless attempts to transcend humanity—catapulting from the Earth to the moon; the cultural revival of the 1960s; and the inadequacy of language.
Positioned between two historical poles—the Holocaust and the social unrest of 1960s America—Sammler is a “registrar of madness,” a “receiver of sordid goods,” an observer. Younger relatives seek out “Uncle Sammler” to confide in him (among other things, they share their erotic exploits). Even strangers seem to home in on him. Early in the novel, Sammler observes a pickpocket at work. Conspicuous as he is (Sammler is the tallest man on the bus), the pickpocket notices him, too. A few days later, the pickpocket appears again: wordlessly, he forces Sammler up against a wall and then exposes himself. He holds Sammler’s head so that Sammler must look. “What had that been about?” Sammler wonders later. He is ready with an explanation: “It was a symbol of superlegitimacy or sovereignty.” Yes, but ultimately: “It was a mystery. It was unanswerable.”
To a certain extent, Bellow is at his best here: again and again, he forgoes the cheap epiphanies of the overly hopeful (or the delusional) for the contradictory tangles of actual life. But a 21st-century reader cannot ignore an undercurrent of misogyny and racism that the book never fully acknowledges. Female characters are described with a degree of cruelty, and lack of sympathy, that is difficult to justify. It’s also crucial that the pickpocket described above is black; black male virility is depicted as not only threatening to the innocent white bystander, but also somehow mystical—primitive and primal. Bellow never uses the word “savage,” but he might as well. The pickpocket is not named, never speaks, and yet the significance of his role expands—nightmarishly—as the novel progresses.
Throughout the novel, Sammler is deeply critical and suspicious of “explanations.” Those explanations—the incessant articulating, the making of meaning—strike him as endless, uncertain, and impotent. “For the most part, in one ear out the other,” he reflects. After all, “The soul wanted what it wanted. It had its own natural knowledge. It sat unhappily on superstructures of explanation, poor bird, not knowing which way to fly.”
Near the novel’s conclusion, Sammler admits to Dr. Govinda Lals, author of the manuscript that Shula Sammler stole, “I am familiar with many explanations of things. To tell the truth, I am tired of most of them.”
Natalia Holtzman’s work has appeared in or is forthcoming from DIAGRAM, Redivider, Hobart, B O D Y, and elsewhere. She is currently completing her MFA at the University of Alabama and can be reached on Twitter via @NataliaHoltzman.