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Mr. Sammler: ‘A Connoisseur of Chaos’; A brief response to Saul Bellow’s Mr. Sammler’s Planet

 

st-pictorialismPhoto: Alvin Langdon Coburn, ‘Fifth Avenue from the St. Regis, ca. 1905; taken from the cover of the Penguin Classic Edition of the book.     

 

I.

Buses were bearable, subways were killing. Must he give up the bus? He had not minded his own business as a man of seventy in New York should do. It was always Mr. Sammler’s problem that he didn’t know his proper age, didn’t appreciate his situation, unprotected here by position, by privileges of remoteness made possible by an income of fifty thousand dollars in New York – club membership, taxis, doormen, guarded approaches. For him it was the buses, or the grinding subway, lunch at the automat. No cause for grave complaint, but his years as an “Englishman,” two decades in London as a correspondent for Warsaw papers and journals, had left him with attitudes not especially useful to a refugee in Manhattan.[1]

Although written in the third person, Mr. Sammler’s Planet (1970) is a novel which delves into the mind of its principle character. The book gives the reader a perspectival view of his experiences of New York in the late 1960s; as they happen. Our interpretations of events are exclusively guided by how he relates and interprets his experiences, and are solely those of our main protagonist (Mr) Artur Sammler. Therefore in the context of this novel, why is this important? Artistically it gives the narrative the licence to exclusively focus on and scrutinise this intriguing individual, his experiences past and present; and crucially how the present is constantly informed and dictated to by his traumatic past. Interestingly, by using this approach the author, Saul Bellow (1915-2005) is able to study the character, his views and actions without any of the personal prejudices normally found in first person narratives. Instead what we get is a ‘voice’ which comes directly from the author. As a result this approach acts like a psychoanalytical character study of an elderly Jewish intellectual, who has lived through one of Europe’s most horrific periods and has been directly effected by the Nazi’s, their concentration camps and appalling acts of genocide; as depicted in this section:

But Sammler was preoccupied by different matters, (…) it had happened that Sammler, with his wife and others, on a perfectly clear day, had had to strip naked. Waiting, then, to be shot in a mass grave.” “Sammler had already that day been struck in the eye by a gun butt and blinded. In contradiction from life, when naked, he felt himself dead. [2]

The way in which the book manages to float between narrative development, the character’s remembrances, his inner contemplations and scholarly thoughts; create an historically informed, theory driven narrative which merges seamlessly with a story that is far more character study than linear plot.

How Mr. Sammler feels about the world, his family and acquaintances (who surround him throughout the book) is not always clear. His complicated relationship with his daughter Shula(-‘Slawa’) whom he lives with - and her various ‘issues’ that seem to manifested themselves in her need for a hair piece - is initially described in these terms: “But when it came to clutter, his daughter, Shula was much worse. (…) She had too many oddities for her old father. She passionately collected things. In plainer words, she was a scavenger.” Then on her appearance and behaviour, she is bluntly described in this way “She wasn’t old, not bad looking, not even too badly dressed, item by item. The full effect would have been no worse than vulgar if she had not been obviously a nut.” And then on the personal matter of her thinning hair; “But who knew how many sexual difficulties and complications were associated with Shula’s hair?” [3]

At times, this perceived neutrality towards Shula, and various others; and his understanding of them and their behaviours, is interpreted as an emotional detachment brought about by shocking recollections of his past, which we read about throughout the novel. The impression given by Sammler’s psychological nuances is of a life shaped by the events of the Second World War that he finds hard to fathom and equate with his current existence, and with the people who surround him in his everyday milieu. Therefore to give an example from the book; “Mr. Sammler did feel somewhat separated from the rest of his species, if not in some fashion severed – severed not so much by age as by preoccupations too different and remote, disproportionate on the side of the spiritual, Platonic, Augustinian, thirteenth century.” [4]

Although the general tale is one of a somewhat ‘grumpy old man’ whom can’t understand the actions of those around him; through this Bellow focuses on the reasons behind his frustrations and in some instances Sammler’s fascinations with the book’s other secondary characters and their often immoral conduct. This is exemplified by the way he obsesses about, and follows around the black pickpocket on one “particular bus” route. The ongoing character study suggests an almost voyeuristic, even homoerotic interest in this symbolic outlaw, which is legitimised by the way he actually puts himself in real danger in order to pursue and watch him at ‘work’. As opposed to staying away “from that particular bus (…) instead he tried hard to repeat the experience.” [5] This obvious fascination is further described in this passage by the way “Mr. Sammler had to admit that once he had seen the picketpocket at work he wanted very much to see the thing again. He didn’t know why. It was a powerful event, and illicitly – that is, against his own stable principles – he craved a repetition.” [6]

 

II.

How long? Oh, Lord, you bet! Wasn’t it the time – the very hour to go? For every purpose under heaven. A time to gather stones together, a time to cast away stones. Considering the earth itself not as a stone cast but as something to cast oneself from – to be divested of. To blow this great blue, white, green planet, or to be blown from it. [7]

Note. This section adapts a renowned text from the book of Ecclesiastes (3:5)

Ultimately in my view, because of writing such as this Mr. Sammler’s Planet is a story governed by the notion of a narrative driven by apocalyptic metaphors, which is epitomised by the biblically charged, finite sentiments contained in the previous quote. Artur Sammler is a man living, as he senses, in ‘the end of days’; both in terms of his own life but also contained and subtly suggested within Bellow’s own writing. Through the use of such language as: “But always a certain despair underlining pleasure, death seated inside the health-capsule, steering it, and darkness winking at you from the golden utopian sun” [8], give a distinct overall sensation of a more definitive ending. This distinct tone allows for an historically descriptive, urbane, ‘lo-fi’ narrative to development, which is not preoccupied with anything other than trying to understand this man, his times and the events that have shaped him and his world. Another fitting example of Bellow’s characteristic style of writing is a short segment taken from page 122: “Just look (Sammler looked) at this imitative anarchy of the streets – these Chinese revolutionary tunics, these babes in unisex toyland, these surrealist warchiefs, Western stagecoach drivers – Ph.D.s in philosophy, some of them (Sammler had met such, talked matters over with them). They sought originality. They were obviously derivative.”

In summary; to understand this book and in turn this man is to recognise the histories that have shape him and the world itself during this period. More than anything else Bellow allows us an insight into what the effects of war, enforced migration and refuge are on an individual. Making this novel one of the most convincing accounts of ‘The Post Modern Condition’ that I have found in literature.

Note. The phrase ‘The Post Modern Condition’ (1979) is taken from a concept, text and title derived by Jean-Francois Lyotard (1924-1998).

 

III.

So, on the matter of the ‘apocalyptic metaphor’ and the fictive comparisons contained within Mr Sammler’s Planet; I close by leaving a quote from Frank Kermode’s (1919-2010) book A Sense of an Ending (1967) for the reader to ponder. For me this describes both the general sentiment contained in the novel and my understanding of the position given to its central character:

It is not that we are connoisseurs of chaos, but that we are surrounded by it, and equipped for co-existence with it only by our fictive powers. This may, in the absence of supreme fiction or the possibility of it, be hard to fate; which is why the poet of that fiction is compelled to say

‘From this the poem springs: that we live in a place

That is not our own, and much more, nor ourselves

And hard it is, in spite of blazoned days.’ [9]

 


[1] Saul Bellow, Mr Sammler’s Planet (Penguin Books, 2004) p. 3.

[2] ibid, p. 112.

[3] ibid, pp. 16-17.

[4] ibid, p. 34.

[5] ibid, p. 6.

[6] ibid, p. 7.

[7] ibid, p. 41.

[8] ibid, p. 129.

[9] Frank Kermode, ‘chp. I’, in The End, The Sense of an Ending: Studies in the Theory of Fiction with a new Epilogue, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), p. 64.

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