Friday, 18 January 2019

Book Review: Mr. Sammler's Planet by Saul Bellow
The experience of the holocaust marked forever the lives of the survivors, no matter how much they would have liked it to be differently. Many of them will have pushed aside all thoughts of the past because they couldn’t bear the pain any more and they had to concentrate on building a future from virtually nothing. And yet, the indescribable suffering that they had seen and endured must have lingered on in their souls adding subconscious overtones to their actions, thoughts and ways of life. This is also the genesis of Mr. Sammler’s Planet as brought to literary life by Saul Bellow, the 1976 recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature. In the summer of 1969, Artur Sammler is a holocaust survivor well in his seventies who lives in New York City and indulges in intellectual musings on the increasingly vulgar and brutal comedy of modern life that surrounds him.

Saul Bellow was born Solomon Bellows in Lachine, Québec, Canada, in June 1915, but the family moved to Chicago, USA, in 1924. He studied sociology and anthropology at Northwestern University and the University of Wisconsin, before he became a naturalised American and joined the Merchant Marine during World War II. In 1944, Saul Bellow brought out his first novel Dangling Man, but after the war he started his long career as a university lecturer interrupted only by some time in Paris thanks to a Guggenheim fellowship and by numerous travels. Along with his work he kept writing long as well as short fiction, some non-fiction and even a play. The most notable of his works are the novels The Adventures of Augie March (1953), Seize the Day (1956), Henderson the Rain King (1959), Herzog (1964), Mr. Sammler’s Planet (1970), and Humboldt’s Gift (1975). “For the human understanding and subtle analysis of contemporary culture that are combined in his work” the Swedish Academy awarded him the 1976 Nobel Prize in Literature. The most important among his later novels are The Dean’s December (1982), More Die of Heartbreak (1987) and Ravelstein (2000). Saul Bellow died in Brookline, Massachusetts, USA, in April 2005.

The morning in summer 1969 begins like any other on  Mr. Sammler’s Planet or more precisely in his room in the apartment of his late wife’s widowed niece in New York City. Sammler is past seventy and came to the USA with his daughter Shula two years after World War II. The family had gotten trapped in Poland while liquidating the estate of his deceased father-in-law, so instead of returning home to England, Shula had had to hide in a Catholic convent and Sammler had fallen into the hands of Nazi slayers with his wife Antonina. His world had changed.
“[W]hen Antonina was murdered. When he himself underwent murder beside her. When he and sixty or seventy others, all stripped naked and having dug their own grave, were fired upon and fell in. Bodies upon his own body. Crushing. His dead wife nearby somewhere. Struggling out much later from the weight of corpses, crawling out of the loose soil. Scraping on his belly. Hiding in a shed. Finding a rag to wear. Lying in the woods many days.”
Sammler feels that he lasted rather than survived, and yet, friends and family ascribe to him the authority of a judge or a priest. Financially, the well-educated Polish Jew who lived with his family in London between the wars writing for Polish periodicals now completely depends on the generosity of his wealthy nephew, the surgeon Arnold “Elya” Gruner, who brought him and Shula to New York. Apart from occasional guest lectures that he gives at Columbia University, Sammler frequents public libraries and observes the moral decline around him. The sight of a pickpocket at work on the bus captures him.
“[…] It was a powerful event, and illicitly—that is, against his own stable principles—he craved a repetition. One detail of old readings he recalled without effort—the moment in Crime and Punishment at which Raskolnikov brought down the ax on the bare head of the old woman, […]. That is to say that horror, crime, murder, did vivify all the phenomena, the most ordinary details of experience. In evil as in art there was illumination. […]”
On another occasion the pickpocket follows him home, corners him in the lobby and exposes his genitals as a threat. Not enough with this, Sammler has to return a manuscript that his half-crazy daughter stole from an Indian scientist who envisions Moon colonies like H. G. Wells decades earlier because she is obsessed with the idea of him writing a memoir about his friendship with the famous writer in interwar London. Moreover, their benefactor is hospitalised with an aneurysm that will kill him and Shula’s violent ex-husband arrives from Israel to settle down as an artist in New York City…

From a third-person perspective and against the backdrop of the first Moon landing in July 1969,  Mr. Sammler’s Planet portrays a Holocaust survivor who observes his surroundings, i.e. his closest relations and people who just cross his path. He mentally shakes his head in incomprehension and disapproval at the increasingly loose morals that in his opinion must lead to the end of human civilisation. For a person well advanced in age his isn’t a particularly unusual reaction to changed times, but Sammler also shows a mild form of racism attributing the ongoing decline to the influence of what are to him, the European intellectual with old Jewish lineage, the primitive or barbarian ways of Africa. The black pickpocket who fascinates him so strangely is the incorporation of the prejudice that up to a point clearly echoes the demonising Nazi stereotype of Jews although, in the end, his blood restores him as a human being. Also other characters represent aspects of the growing madness that Sammler perceives all around and some of their actions are so grotesque that they make laugh. The plot is of little importance compared to Sammler’s contemplations and a powerful language always spiced with irony, if not sarcasm.

For me reading  Mr. Sammler’s Planet by Saul Bellow has been entertaining, even funny in part, as well as thought-provoking which is something that only few books achieve. A couple of years ago, I read the en-NOBEL-ed author’s earlier (epistolary) novel Herzog and didn’t enjoy it half as much as this one. Although so much older than myself, I found it easy to relate to the protagonist because, in the final analysis, we all live on our separate planets shaped by experiences and emotions of our own in addition to objective knowledge. Besides, nobody will deny that, at least occasionally, the people around us seem to behave like clowns in a poor comedy and the feeling that the world is doomed to go to ruin isn’t entirely strange to any of us, either. In a nutshell, it’s a novel about the human condition with a holocaust extra that deserves my recommendation.

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