on May 1, 2003
This is my sixth Bellow novel. For first timers, I would highly recommend Henderson the Rain King over this work because Henderson is an easier, funnier, and more exuberant read--a great parody of the Hemmingway novel. That said, Mr. Sammler's Planet is classic Bellow. The protagonist, Mr. Sammler, is heroically flawed (as all of Bellow's protagonists are) and is caught at a point in his late life where numerous themes challenge his moral center: misogyny, pessimism, death, the human condition, the social contract, filial duty, the achievements of science, and modern western philosphy among other themes--and in any great Bellow work, there are so many themes!
The narrative is simple: a close third person point of view brings us inside Mr. Sammler's head as he interprets and analyzes the events in his life: his dying nephew, a pick pocket who assualts him, greedy relatives, a missing manuscript, and his Holocaust experience. There are long philosophic digressions, sometimes humorous, sometimes didactic, that can frustrate, confuse, and enlighten the reader, all within the space of a single paragraph. This density of thought is one of the supreme challenges of Bellow, but as an ardent fan (who only "gets" a mere fraction of what he's talking about), the payoff is exponentially greater than the effort I put in. The only narrative flaw I find is in the dialogue between Sammler and Dr. Lal. It's structured in a Platonic form--reminiscent of the final chapter in Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man--and the section seems forced and stilted compared to the rest of the novel.
Bellow's prose is as strong as ever. We return to New York City in the late 1960s, much filthier and more violent than the setting of Seize the Day. His descriptions of people and places are vibrant, and his comic timing masterful.
Ultimately, Mr. Sammler's climatic quest, like all of Bellow's protagonists, lies not in some external feat of physical valor but in a confrontation with the progtagonist's soul. Faced with the death of his nephew, Sammler must come to terms with his life as holocaust survivor, elitist intellectual, misogynist, and man.
Saul Bellow is not for everyone... But if you are introspective, self critical, and enjoy philosophic and comic writing, than this would be an ideal 2nd or 3rd Bellow novel.
on August 21, 2006
I can imagine few curses worse, historically speaking, than being born in Europe at the fin de sielce. Being born during this period afforded millions of individuals a front row seat, from the flowering youth into the onset of middle age's end, to this century's most colossal stupidities and unspeakable horrors. First industrialized warfare with its colossal waste during the First World War and then industrialized murder in the second. Artur Sammler, not thoroughly affected by the first war is, in every conceivable respect, a survivor of the second. Sammler exemplifies with his one eye, the other sacrificed to a Mauser rifle butt, what it means to see the world clearly, unmediated in its most extreme forms of viciousness and madness. He has lived life at its extremes.
There are many ways to read Mr. Sammler's Planet, and though it probably detracts from gaining some of the meaning of the work, I choose to read it as part historical document and part philosophical treatise. As a document of the 1960's and 70's, it is a lamentation by Bellow at seeing an environment of what he considers adolescent intellectual arrogance blossom up all around New York coupled with a hedonistic sexual revolution which, though not necessarily condemnable is certainly not commendable. Sammler's New York is a mad house of crime, vice, and utter-ridiculousness. For him, one who saw society fall apart at the seems with disastrous consequences for his life--Bellow's narrative reveals very early on that Sammler should in all actuality be dead--New York is very close to being a modernized Sodom or Gomorrah, but a long ways away from having fire and brimstone rained down upon it. It is only redeemed by being almost stupidly infantile.
The circles that Sammler travels in and his acquaintances are, and this is a great understatement, decidedly strange. The circle of survivors of World War II--camp survivors, veterans of the Red Army, or his daughter who was hidden in a Polish Catholic convent--are grotesqueries suffering from weird fetishes, capable of incredible violence, or simply incapable of being reasonable human beings. The young Americans who Sammler is forced to suffer could make lifetime studies for Freud, Jung, or Lacan. They are wild children borne of extravagance and wealth who have only redeeming qualities--two are hucksters, and one is described by her own father as a "sloppy c***." Sammler sees them as the product of a society that is going deeper and deeper into madness--all three are in fact being analyzed--and is incapable in its present state to live life in a way that accords with normal values. Since Sammler survived the greatest calamity of the twentieth century though, just watching the conduct of many of these people, many of whom is down right comical. Sammler's New York is a big stupid child that is unaware of itself.
Sammler is an extremely intellectual man, who during the two days in which in the narrative takes place lives what is rightfully called a life of the mind. Ideas are central to his existence, and he sees many of the problems with New York, which is extended into a microcosmical metaphor for the whole of America and the entire world. One of the reasons that Sammler so broods upon this is that the United States is about to launch humankind onto the moon, and seemingly bring about a new era of human civilization--i.e. transporting humanity with all its problems into frontiers unknown. Though space travel is only fleetingly mused about in the conversations that Sammler has with his highly intelligent and utterly sane friend, the Indian professor of Biophysics, V. Govinda Lal, any mention of it in the books publication year, 1970, would have invoked it. As one who looked death straight in the face and saw human bestiality at its most brutal, Sammler sees it, just as sees humanity with much skepticism. Sammler's planet is profoundly flawed and filled with people who seem incapable of even basic courtesy. His whole narrative begs the question: what business do they have in space?
One thing that I have always liked about Bellow's novels is central role that ideas play in his character's lives. Sammler is the best example of this that I have yet seen. Named for the great nineteenth century German thinker Arthur Schopenhauer and a great admirer of H.G. Wells, the self-described Polish-Oxonian anglophile is best described in the way that he himself described Wells: "simply a mass of intelligent views." Not only an intellectual though, he is also a severe critic the modern world. For him it is the values of his decidedly un-intellectual nephew and patron, Elya Gruber, which are most praiseworthy. He is a picture of generosity and familial loyalty even with his over-sexed daughter and huckster son--there is nothing about him that is not easily pardonable. Sammler knows though that Elya is atypical though. The world around him is frivolous, impatient and unwilling to look with even the slightest tolerance upon views that are not their own. He even goes so far as to extend the squalor of Spanish Harlem to Columbia University's intellectual demeanor. Both are squalid, but at least the first is only based economical impoverishment; the second's squalor is self-imposed stupidity and arrogance. Sammler sees the intellectual heroes of most of these young people, like Theodore Sorel, as celebrants of the kind of catastrophic violence that he just barely survived two decades before. This does not bode well for the future of human race.
The only major criticism that it seems possible to have of this work is that much of it seems the irascible lamentation of a man, namely Bellow not Sammler, who is disgusted with excesses of sixties cultural revolutions. A great deal of the narrative becomes bogged down in parodying theses excesses with the grotesque behavior of the characters which embody these extremes. When this occurs, the novel becomes almost a polemic against values that it views as contrary to civil society--i.e. Sammler employs the same level of intolerance he finds so abrasive he finds in those who look askance at his views. If that fault can be forgiven, and it is fairly easy fault to overlook even, the novel becomes exactly what it attempts be; an argument for decency, courtesy, and kindness. Values that are very difficult to oppose.
on March 4, 1999
Both as an example of fine writing and as a book that leaves you thinking deep thoughts, this novel is outstanding. One of my rules for determining the "importance" of any book, movie, or other entertainment piece is whether or not it is capable of inspiring change in its audience. This novel is.
Bellow achieves the perfect balance of interior monologue and narrative in Sammler, in which we see the world through the eyes of the erudite elderly man, who, though constrained by his own reserved demeanor, sees the world with his eyes, his mind, and his heart. At a loss, often, to express himself, Sammler filters the world through his intellect. And yet, the truths he knows are intuitive, and he realizes that value in life is found through making and acknowledging the human connection and bond, and living up to the spiritual and moral truths of the "human contract." This is a book about how important it is to love, to connect with other frail, imperfect, crazy humans, how to come to terms with the messiness of life, and make peace with the contradictions between intellect and religion/spirituality.
Living in New York on the charity of relatives, Sammler struggles, and succeeds in, maintaining his dignity in spite of the seemingly depraved surroundings of the city and in spite of his precarious financial and physical conditions. Observing the world around him, Sammler poses many questions about the values that drive us, noting poignantly that bragging about one's vices has become virtue, and that honor, "virtuous impulses," have somehow become shameful.
Yet, the book also has an engaging plot, one that serves the message of the book, and Sammler's many family relationships are amusing and touching at once. Yet Sammler is not the hero of the novel, and we see the hero, (if one can call him that, since he spends the book unconscious) through Sammler's eyes. In doing so, we understand the human achievements that Sammler aspires to, and that he calls us to.
This book is worth the work of reading for anyone who doesn't mind dense but beautiful writing, who will read the same paragraph several times to get all the nuggets out, and who enjoys philosophy, sociology, and "cultural" snapshots.
I will note that this novel, right in line with Bellows other novels, is a bit mysogynistic in its portrayal of women (there is not a woman to respect in this novel, they are either dirty and smelly, cold and slutty, crazy, or lovable but totally clueless). My other complaint is that Bellow, in this novel more than others, is a bit intellectually pretentious, throwing in obscure historical/philosphical references that do not move the novel forward, but that are the intellectual equivalent of "muscle flexing." But neither of these shortcomings detracts from the overall impact of the book. I read it once a year or so to remind myself of important truths as I walk the path of life. Sammler forgives his flawed relatives their faults for all the good they do, and so I too can forgive Bellow his, and take all the good this novel offers.
on March 29, 2004
How did Saul Bellow get into my head? How does this man-whom I picture as some kind of Ur-white male, entombed in Great Books, plastered with awards and walled up in an ivy tower-speak so directly to my experience as a young woman in 2004? I guess is the same reason that Tolstoy gets to the heart of failing relationships more vividly than any chick-lit author, and Flaubert's descriptions of desire are so much more piercing than any "Sex and the City" episode. Sheer, freaking genius.
Don't let Bellow's "white-maleness" or the blizzard of high-culture references scare you off-this is an incredibly moving and powerful book. Sammler, a Holocaust survivor and exiled European intellectual, is watching his life run down in 1960s New York. So much has changed, and so much stays the same. As I was reading this book on the subway in 2004, Bellow could have been sitting next to me in the car, describing what was happening on the platforms rushing by. "Sammler" made me miss my stop more than once, needless to say. His America is "vast slums filled with bohemian adolescents, narcotized, beflowered and `whole.'" Yet all of Sammler's and his family's sufferings are somehow uplifting, illustrating the power of a mind over the external world.
Please read this book.
on July 22, 2006
After escaping death in World War II, Mr. Sammler lives out his days in New York City. He is an observer and a half-blind prophet in a time of social decay and moon exploration. This is the sort of book in which nothing world-changing happens and yet the world is changed: Sammler explores the cause of social decay and the apocalypse, humanity's chance for new life on the moon, and what it means to be human and participate in the human experience.
There are two ways to read this book: either to take it at the surface level, simply for what it says, or to try and unravel what is truth and what is error. Sammler the protagonist, observer, and prophet, is literally half blind, and his observations and theories are therefore skewed. The reader can chose to take this into account or to ignore it.
As it stands, without taking into account Sammler's blindness, the book is brilliant. The concepts raised by all characters make sense, and Sammler's final observations, no matter how pessimistic they may be, real a lot about our culture. The concept of the indistinguishable masses is in no way unique to Bellow, but the conclusion that follows--that men respond to the masses by attempting to create identities (through exaggeration and vocalization or normal human traits) both makes sense and explains a lot.
Unraveling the book proves to be much more difficult, and it is a big investment for any reader to make. I cannot, myself, pretend that I have completely unraveled the novel. I can say this, however: if Sammler's views seem too negative, the reader can remind himself that Sammler's views are also limited and skewed by his unique misperception. Sammler presents only one view of humanity. There are others out there, but the book is worth reading if only to see this one view. Mr. Sammler's Planet is engrossing, well written, bitingly satirical, and a worthwhile read for what it says about men, individuals, society, and the apocalypse.
on December 16, 2013
Arthur Sammler, an intellectual Polish Jew, friend of HG Wells and survivor of the holocaust, lives in New York, a patriarchal figure to his nephews and nieces and wayward daughter whom he assumes is mad. This is the era of the Moon landings and a society ill at ease and teetering on revolution and rebellion. Sammler's seen civilisation collapse into murderous political ideology and war once. Is all this just a repeat ? A revolution full of high minded ideals that will inevitably end in the hands of madmen ? What of mankind will be exported into space; that 'final frontier'? His moral nature ? A progressive egalitarian society such as Wells hoped for ? Or just the never contented murderous animal pursuing power ? Sammler ponders these questions in between a confrontation with a pickpocket, dealing with his daughter's theft of an eminent scientists manuscript , the hang ups and woes of Angela and Wallace, and coming to terms with the death of his benefactor Elya...
This is classic Bellow, where a thin plot line and framework allows him to explore the profounder questions of humanity and human existence; the wild mix of opposites that make up mankind, from the sublime Moon landings to the ridiculousness of mindless pursuit of wealth, petty crime and murderous (or hare brained) ideologies.
The post war 20th century was Saul Bellow's era. No one captured it in the way he did. Here he explores the hippy culture and "new" radicalism of the youth with his curious and ferociously intelligent mind. This is really like spending an evening with Bellow and hearing him air his views.
Criticised on publication for being somehow 'reactionary' to the new society that so engulfs and depresses Sammler, time has proved all of Bellow's observations on 'revolutions' of all takes salient indeed. Not a 'story' book in terms of beginning, exciting middle and satisfying end with the hero setting off in the sunset, but typical profound Bellow with a tale of everyday(contemporary) life around it.
on June 10, 2014
To some people, experience seemed wealth. He never wanted such riches.
Mr.Sammler is a cultured, civilized, preoccupied septuagenarian in New York in the 1960s. A Polish Jew, who spent much of his formative time in England. He remembers a friendship with and interest in H.G.Wells, the super-productive optimist. That's an intellectual mismatch.
He survived the Holocaust with his daughter; his wife did not. He lives in Manhattan, supported by a wealthy nephew, and has learned to live his life in many new ways. Much of the change comes from reduced circumstances. His daughter might well be crazy. Most of his other relatives are crazy too, one way or the other. Sammler is the lone sane man on his planet. Much of the novel is about family madness and everybody else' s madness.
Sammler is familiar with many explanations of things, and is tired with most of them. He is worried about evil. Hannah Arendt's book about the banality of evil is not right, he thinks. Evil is not banal, that was just a trick by the nazis, trying to lead human judgment astray. Man knows evil by nature, thinks Sammler.
He has seen the world collapse once. Will it happen again? Sammler is a natural conservative by the instinct of self preservation. Had I met him then, I might have considered him a reactionary. No such thoughts crop up now. I must have aged.
The students, whom he meets through his few remaining outside activities, don't inspire confidence. They don't understand him, he doesn't understand them. He experiences the trauma of rejection by the young generation.
Some reviewers think that the novel has not aged well. I hadn't read it when it came out. As a newcomer to it, I don't see that as its problem. I see other problems. This is too much of a 'novel of ideas', even for Bellow standard.
The problems of the sixties are not entirely similar to our current ones. However, this novel doesn't, in my view, depend on the immediate present tense of its issues. We can safely assume that our current days are insane enough to serve for substitute. Just differently insane.
What I find less than perfect is the focus on the idiocies of the people around Sammler, rather than his problems with time and place. The proportions are not quite right. There is more Dostojevskian idiocy here than I needed.
Of course that means that I criticize the book for being different from my expectations. That's a little idiotic itself, and I apologize to Mr. Bellow.
I 'like' the novel well enough for 4 stars, but I don't think it will be read in 100 years. It might well be totally incomprehensible.
on July 7, 2001
Mr. Sammler is a Polish Jew who escaped death at the hands of the Nazis at the cost of sight in one eye.
He is a survivor. He now lives in New York City in the 1960's, supported by his nephew who is but a few years younger.
Sammler, a intellectual with that gentlemanly old world manner, is now trying to come to terms with the culture he sees in NYC at the time, including how most of relatives have taken to it, the Holocaust and WWII in general. And, what the meaning of being a survivor is, both for himself and for the world he now finds himself in.
But just as his physical vision, thanks to the Nazis, is but half and distorted, so is his sight and vision into his soul. (Anyway, that's my metaphorical take on the bad eye.) He is emotionally removed.
As for Bellow's writing, it was great! This was my first Bellow book and I read it only because friends I highly respect so recommended him. I was flabbergasted that the writing was so good. Not at all heavy but yet trenchant in content and to the point. The scene where Sammler gives his talk is classic. His inability to understand the 60's culture and those in it, including his relations, yet having to deal with them, is often simultaneously riotous and deadly serious.
It's easy to see why this book won the National Book Award.
Note: Kosinski's _The Painted Bird_ has a complementary and sometimes similar subject matter. Imo, each books adds greater depth and meaning to the other.
on January 9, 2016
Mr. Sammler’s Planet (1970) was fairly interesting until about a quarter of the way to the end when Saul Bellow puts a tranquilizer dart into the plot with an extended philosophical conversation between the title character, Holocaust survivor Artur Sammler, and an Indian intellectual named Dr. Lal, whose unpublished book about lunar colonization engages Sammler’s interest. That was a stylistic mistake reminiscent of a similar decision that hampered the later chapters of Henderson the Rain King a decade earlier.
Sammler himself is an intriguing character haunted by demons from his past and a society in moral free fall in the present, with sex increasingly deployed as a weapon (most dramatically in the book’s most suspenseful scene) and law enforcement cynical and dismissive about doing its job (one can well see the conditions that would make the vigilante stylings of the Charles Bronson thriller Death Wish so popular only a couple years later). There is a wonderful novel buried here with interesting characters in a compelling setting but Bellow doesn’t seem motivated to explore the possibilities, defaulting to cataloguing Sammler’s ruminations and occasional interactions.
Mr. Sammler’s Planet could use a jolt from outer space to snap it out of its torpor.
on February 24, 2005
Slightly less than mid-way through Mr. Sammler's Planet, Sammler is described as having thing about "unprofitable moments of clarity." To me, herein lies the novel's value. It is packed with clear, striking, and , yes, profitable observations of our contemperary world. Of his many pregnant observations, he looks at the strange confluence of sex, militancy, and the "will to offend". We witness an episode where students rudely reject his views given in a lecture about his experiences in London (this could have been a terrific short story) and the narrator asks, "Who raised the diaper flag?" This is not a lament for lost Victorian values, but a look at the consequences of discarding our sexual mores. These consequences are ugliness, not liberation.
However, while this and other observations may be dead-on and intellectually stimulating, there is no real aesthetic pleasure in reading them. There is no memorable character, and the plot is forgettable, if not a nuisance. My moments of frustration with this book were not in its internal monologues (to steal other reviewers' approprate phrase), but in the tedious and weak plot that carries them. It makes me think of a clothes-line where beautiful articles of clothing hang, connecting by a thin, rusty wire. Despite the book's many observations, they rest could be discarded, and thus it could be read as a collection of aphorisms. Grab your highlighter!
Saul Bellow is a hyper-intellectual and makes no apologies in writing difficult books, and this book is certainly difficult. I gave "Mr. Sammler's Planet" 3 stars not because of its difficultly, which I can respect (no one should dumb-down their books), but because there is no joy in it, and barring the phrases I've underlined, don't care to read it again. Ultimately, this book plays with the theme of a lost coherence between the generations of a family, and with our own intellectual and spiritual traditions. I wish the story rose to the occasion in the way that philosophy did.