National Book Award winners, part 25: 1970’s Mr. Sammler’s Planet, by Saul Bellow.

23 Apr

1.

In 1971, Saul Bellow won the national book award for his odd, melodramatic little novel, Mr. Sammler’s Planet. It was Bellow’s third time winning the top award.

The Adventures of Auggie March, despite its reputation, is overwritten and meandering. (See my review here, along with a summary of 1950s fiction.) Herzog is magnificent, a masterpiece of American fiction and one of the finest novels of the twentieth century (review here). Sammler falls somewhere between the two, never boring but never quite superb either, didactic at times, a touch overheated in others, with long, tedious speeches about the sins of people and the future of man. It’s an interesting failure from a talented writer of immense learning.

The story follows Artur Sammler, a Holocaust survivor, Polish émigré, one-eyed and aged part-time intellectual, through a few days in 1960s New York. His daughter is aimless. His doctor-nephew—and also his benefactor—is dying. The doctor’s son is a dope; the doctor’s daughter is a sex fiend. Sammler sees a pickpocket commit a crime.

He travels by foot, car, subway and bus through the city.

He thinks. He ponders. He bears witness.

The different storylines converge. Some resolution is found. Some characters die.

Sammler suffers all the indignities of his current age with a stoic detachment. There’s something chilly about his heart, and the novel is refracted through his past suffering.

Here’s an early passage, outlining Sammler’s relationship to his planet:

 

“He was not sorry to have met the facts, however saddening, regrettable the facts. But the effect was that Mr. Sammler did feel somewhat separated from the rest of the species, if not in some fashion severed—severed not so much by his age as by his preoccupations too different and remote, disproportionate on the side of the spirtual, Platonic, Augustinian, thirteenth-century.”

The best parts involve his reminisces, his undulating horror at his past. These sections are poetic, moving, horrifying. For example, his war experiences include being buried alive in a ditch full of corpses.

Fascinating, challenging, just not great.

Fascinating, challenging, just not great.

Sammler can’t reconcile the sins of mankind with the advances in science. The world around him is decaying, dismal, alienating. Yet, the human race seems to be moving forward, somehow.

The worst parts involve his ruminations on the social ills of present-day New York.

And when Bellow misfires, he really misfires.

2.

Bellow is grappling with youth culture, with urban culture and with black culture. In this, he fails[1]. He belongs to an early generation, of good manners, clear class divisions, an established literary canon, as well as Trench coats and spats and canes and fedoras. Bellow’s attempts to portray what he clearly perceived as a coarse, threatening youth culture falls flat, flat, flat.

The pickpocket is African American, and the novel belabors the point, returning over and over to the thief’s race and racial characteristics. Even his genitalia.

The pick pocket dresses like a pimp. He doesn’t speak. And he haunts the novel like some specter of sexual dread. Worse, he attacks Sammler near the beginning of the novel and forces the old man to stare at his big penis. (I’m not making this up.) Sammler spends much of the novel deciphering the symbolism of this act. There are no other black characters. The result is a dark, demented minstrelsy that overshadows the rest of the book. But it doesn’t make it any less discomfiting to read. Bellow is attempting to understand and capture the reality of New York while also maintaining a high literary style. The result is cartoonish and creepy.

Here’s a taste, of when Sammler is assaulted:

 

“He was never to hear the black man’s voice. He no more spoke than a puma would. What he did was to force Sammler into a corner beside the long blackish carved table, a sort of Renaissance piece, a thing which added to the lobby melancholy, by the buckling canvas of the old wall, by the red-eyed lights of the brass double fixture. There the man held Sammler against the wall with his forearm. . . . 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 uncircumsised 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.”

It’s the second line—“than a puma would”—that makes this passage so difficult to accept. Read it again and see if I’m wrong, but it isn’t Sammler thinking that line. It’s Bellow.

Bellow falters, I think, in his attempt to capture the old man’s distaste for the youth culture then in full swing. It sounds too much like an out of touch dude, angry at being left behind. You can hear Bellow’s high-minded distaste for the changing world around him, and through Sammler he often sounds reactionary, old-fashioned and out of touch. And, well, ugly and sexist and racist, too.

The racism seems to come from the slightly paternalistic generosity of the old-time liberal. Bellow was 55 when the novel was published. He had seen the seismic shift of values during the 1960s on the wrong side of 50. The obscenity trials, the British Invasion, the first theatrical adult films—the culture was changing, and it’s clear that Bellow wasn’t comfortable with the shifts.

That he fails is clear.

What he achieves isn’t so obvious.

It would be wrong to linger too long on the novel’s shortcomings without speaking to its virtues. It’s funny. It’s (for the most part) compelling. The writing is often crisp, freewheeling, poetic, free-associated, rip-roaring. Bellow, like all the great writers, ignores rules of grammar, syntax. He wanders. He riffs. He waxes. He razzles and dazzles.

And Sammler is an intriguing character, bent by history but not broken. Bellow tries to use Sammler’s life to find some type of basic decency to people, some redeeming quality of life. He mostly succeeds.

Here’s another passage, with Sammler imagining H.G. Wells near his final days:

 

“Rancor, and gradually even rage, came over Wells at a certain point as he talked about the powers of the brain, its expansive limits, the ability in old age to take a fresh interest in new events diminishing. Utopian, he didn’t even imagine that the hoped-for future would bring excess, pornography, sexual abnormality. Rather, as the old filth and gloomy sickness were cleared away, there would emerge a larger, stronger, older, brainier, better-nourished, better-oxygenated, more vital type, able to eat and drink sanely, perfectly autonomous and well regulated in desires, going nude while attending tranquilly to duties, performing his fascinating and useful mental work.”

And a paragraph later, Sammler’s sad rebuttal to Wells:

 

“Accept and grant that happiness is to do what most other people do. Then you must incarnate what others incarnate. If prejudices, prejudice. If rage, then rage. If sex, then sex. But don’t contradict your time. Just don’t contradict it, that’s all. Unless you happened to be a Sammler and the place of honor was outside. . . . And the charm, the ebullient glamour, the almost unbearable agitation that came from being able to describe oneself as a twentieth-century American was available to all. To everyone who had eyes to read the papers or watch the television, to everyone who shared the collective ecstasies of news, crisis, power. To each according to his excitability. . . . Humankind could not endure futurelessness. As of now, death was the sole visible future.”

Good writing, urgent, pungent, bleak and hopeful and accepting all at once.

3.

There’s a nice symmetry to Bellow winning the first award of the 1970s. Bellow remains one of the strongest of the 1960s novelists, combining the erudition of the academic with the linguistic dynamism of a wordsmith. He’s related to the postmodernism of Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo with the moral intelligence of Vonnegut, but he also fits with terse realism of the Victorian novelists, even akin to Hemingway in a bizarre way. He has a foot in both worlds. He’s a key figure in the literary scene. A bridge.

He won over James Dickey’s redneck revenge tale Deliverance, as well as novels from Shirley Hazzard and John Updike and Eudora Welty. Thomas Berger, Gore Vidal, Jimmy Breslin, John D. McDonald, Taylor Caldwell, Roger Zelazny, and Poul Anderson all published novels[2].

Bellow won on his reputation, on the punched up sections of this novel that read like no one else. But the sum isn’t much, in the end, and the novel’s deficiencies are thorny and disagreeable to my 21st century eyes.

Bellow’s weaker novels have a way of feeling overwritten but undercooked. Sammler is no exception. It has breathtaking moments of superb writing and longwinded nonsense that should have been cut.

I’m glad I read it, but I wouldn’t read it again.

 

 

[1] Malamud, in his white-knuckle The Tenants, grapples with the racial issues in New York in a very different manner; two writers, one white the other black, inhabit a tenement building and through miscommunication and misunderstanding, drive each other to murderous insanity.

[2] I know some of these writers are terrible.

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One Response to “National Book Award winners, part 25: 1970’s Mr. Sammler’s Planet, by Saul Bellow.”

  1. Sean Kilpatrick April 29, 2014 at 2:03 pm #

    I must say, i prefer Mr Zelazny’s planet to Mr Bellows’.

    (His book that came out that year was http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nine_Princes_in_Amber, the best kick-offs to the Amber series around.

    I always felt a little envy for someone reading that cold. It starts off very noire-y, and then takes the unexpected turn to fantasy.)

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