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Flower Children

Saul Bellow’s Mr. Sammler’s Planet is a document of the cravings of 1960s America, and an attempt to bring the Holocaust to bear on America

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Itamar Jobani, Man Holding a Child, 2009. (Courtesy of Andrea Meislin Gallery.)

“It is perfectly true that ‘Jewish Writers in America’ (a repulsive category) missed what should have been for them the central event of their time, the destruction of European Jewry,” Saul Bellow wrote to Cynthia Ozick in 1987. “I can’t say how our responsibility can be assessed. We (I speak of Jews now and not merely of writers) should have reckoned more fully, more deeply with it.” Bellow’s quasi-confession suggests something of the perplexity that has always faced American Jewish novelists dealing with the Holocaust. (Though it is telling that Bellow prefers the formulation “Jewish Writers in America,” a way of gesturing to the fact that he himself is Canadian-born, and remained in some productive sense at an angle to the country that became his home and subject.) In earlier installments of Scripture, I have discussed novels that used a range of strategies for approaching this most necessary and impossible of subjects—from the epic realism of Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate to the existential spareness of Elie Wiesel’s Night to the oblique character study of Giorgio Bassani’s The Garden of the Finzi-Continis. What these Jewish writers had in common, however, is that they were to one degree or another directly touched by the Holocaust: It was the story of their own lives and communities.

American novelists like Bellow, on the other hand, were faced with the strange conundrum that the World War II years, the very years during which European Jewry was being wiped off the face of the earth, were a watershed in the successful assimilation of American Jews. Jewish writers of Bellow’s generation grew up in immigrant poverty and emerged into adulthood during the Depression; it was the 1940s and 1950s that first gave them a taste of America’s plenty, as they accumulated honors and readers. How could they do justice both to their own bright experience as Americans and to the darkness of the essential Jewish experience of their time?

Despite what he wrote to Ozick, the truth is that Bellow tried to answer that question several times in his long career—first in The Victim, his 1947 parable of anti-Semitism, and much later in the 1989 novella The Bellarosa Connection. But Bellow’s most significant, and problematic, attempt to write about the Holocaust came in Mr. Sammlers Planet, which appeared in 1970 and remains even now his most troubling novel.

Mr. Sammler’s Planet is not a “Holocaust novel”; it is, emphatically, a novel about its own time and place, New York during the summer of the moon landing. But by viewing that cultural moment through the eyes of Artur Sammler, a Polish-born Holocaust survivor living in New York, Bellow ensures that the 1930s hover behind the 1960s as a ghost and menacing prophecy. Having lived through the death of one world, Sammler now wonders if he is about to experience the death of another: “New York makes one think about the collapse of civilization, about Sodom and Gomorrah, the end of the world. The end wouldn’t come as a surprise here. Many people already bank on it,” he reflects. The success of the novel hangs, to a great degree, on the emotional force of this parallel.

As with most of Bellow’s fiction, the plot of Mr. Sammlers Planet is both manically inventive and oddly desultory. The book chronicles a couple of days in the life of Sammler, as he prepares for the death of his relative and benefactor Elya Gruner, a rich surgeon laid low by an aneurysm. A good deal of frantic maneuvering takes place around Gruner’s bedside: For instance, his son Wallace, a lifelong schlemiel, is convinced that his father has hidden cash in the pipes in their New Rochelle home and nearly wrecks the place trying to find it. Meanwhile, Sammler’s daughter, the mentally unbalanced Shula, has stolen an irreplaceable manuscript about moon exploration from an Indian scientist, Dr. Govinda Lal, and Sammler must see to its return before the police get involved.

Yet the weird slapstick of these stories takes place strictly in the margins of the novel’s consciousness, which is always the consciousness of Sammler himself. And Sammler, like most of Bellow’s protagonists, is clearly a proxy and scout for Bellow’s own intelligence as it moves through the world. This is what gives the novel its characteristically Bellovian intensity and richness, the sense that the jagged prose is immediately registering the turbulence of its author’s mind:

Such was Sammler’s eastward view, a soft asphalt belly rising, in which lay steaming sewer navels. Spilled sidewalks with clusters of ash cans. Brownstones. The yellow brick of elevator buildings like his own. Little copses of television antennae. Whiplike, graceful thrilling metal dendrites drawing images from the air, bringing brotherhood, communion to immured apartment people. Westward the Hudson came between Sammler and the great Spry industries of New Jersey. These flashed their electric message through the intervening night. SPRY.

But this Bellovian energy sits uneasily alongside the much drier, more detached, and pessimistic tones of Sammler, whose authority comes less from its literary qualities than from Sammler’s biography. And unlike Moses Herzog in Herzog or Chick in Ravelstein, who are often indistinguishable from Bellow himself, Sammler’s life is quite irreconcilable with his creator’s. As a Holocaust survivor, he lays claim to an altogether deeper resonance and dignity: “Mr. Sammler had a symbolic character,” Bellow writes. “He, personally, was a symbol. His friends and family had made him a judge and a priest.” He gains this symbolic dimension because, like someone in a myth, he came back from the dead:

So, for his part, 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 the mass grave. … Sammler had already that day been struck in the eye by a gun butt and blinded. In contraction from life, when naked, he already felt himself dead. But somehow he had failed, unlike the others, to be connected. Comparing the event, as mentally he sometimes did, to a telephone circuit: death had not picked up the receiver to answer his ring.

This way of talking about surviving makes it seem less an achievement than a failure. And it is in this deflationary spirit that Sammler speaks of his Holocaust experiences; he is reluctant to claim the authority that seems to belong to him as a survivor. “Also his experiences were respected. The war. Holocaust. Suffering,” he reflects sarcastically. “And of what was he a symbol? He didn’t even know.” In Greek myth, Tiresias’ blindness is the price of his ability to see the future, but Sammler, who has lost only one eye, seems to have gained only partial insight into the cosmos—enough to ask questions, not enough to find answers. This incomplete mysticism is captured in one of the novel’s most memorable passages, when Sammler sees some illegible graffiti on a vacant building: “Most scrawls could be ignored. These for some reason caught on with Mr. Sammler as pertinent. Eloquent. Of what? Of future nonbeing. … But also of the greatness of eternity which shall lift us from this present shallowness.”

There is, however, a basic paradox in the way Bellow makes use of Sammler’s voice. Even as Sammler disclaims the moral authority of the survivor, the logic of Mr. Sammlers Planet depends on that very authority to sustain its deep criticisms of American society. Bellow elides the contradiction somewhat by making Sammler a very untypical Polish Jew. We learn that he spent most of the interwar years as a journalist in London, palling around with English intellectuals and the Bloomsbury set. In particular, he was good friends with H.G. Wells, who acts in several ways as the novel’s imaginative foil. Wells wrote a novel about the colonization of the moon, and Sammler is living through the first moon landing. More broadly, however, Wells represents a style of progressive, rational optimism that could not be more obsolete in the chaotic 1960s. The future has not turned out the way the past hoped it would; instead of redemption, it teeters on the brink of apocalypse.

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M. Brukhes says:

Mr Kirsch offers a characteristically well-considered and thorough assessment of what is in fact the worst novel in a terrible literary career. Saul Bellow is the Henry Kissinger of American letters: his Nobel prize wasn’t just undeserved, it was destructive to the cause it was intended to promote. No author has less legitimate claims to the American literary canon. I predict, moreover, that this claim will have proven over time to be fleeting.

Carol Zemel says:

My thanks to Adam Kirsch for a wonderful presentation of Bellow’s book and project, tempting me back to the novel.
A possibly relevant comment, heard crossing the Columbia campus one rainy night in the 60s,just after the second moonwalk:

“Jesus Christ, everytime they f–k around with the g–damn moon, it rains.”

This reminded me of a Brent Staples piece that went into some depth about his own attitudes toward Bellow and his work, including Sammler:

http://www.nytimes.com/1994/02/06/magazine/into-the-ivory-tower.html?pagewanted=all&src=pm

jacob arnon says:

Bellow is still an under-rated.

I have mixed feelings about Kirsch’s review of Sammler’s Planet.

Do we need more than a half century after the novel was published another review?

Bellow’s novel is complex and to use one incident in the novel to damn the whole book is ridiculous.

I’d bet that Mr. Kirsch wouldn’t just damn Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice but talk about it’s multifaceted aspect. It’s “ambivalence towards Shylock,”….etc.

Why not accord a Jewish writer of genius the same treatment?

I just finished reading Bellow’s first two novels and especially The Victim has some stunning descriptive scenes while Dangling Man offers a varied array of well rounded minor character. This in a very short novella that takes the form of a diary.

People who condemn Bellow don’t know much about literature and attack him for political reasons.

jacob arnon says:

I have met a lot of people who thought of themselves as leftists (and often antisemitic) and who hated Saul Bellow; mostly because he wasn’t one of them.

But I never thought that they would show up on a Jewish website.

lazer says:

Haven’t you read Bashevis? Not all Holocaust survivors are saints. Heck, same goes for the protagonist in Ozick’s The Shawl, who is disturbed by homosexuality.

Earl Ganz says:

Adam,

A lovely reading and the beginning of a good conversation. I’m the same age as Philip Roth and have been a Jewish writer all my adult life, though not a successful one.

Among many things The Holocaust means to my generation of American Jews is the sympathy
of the gentile world that defeated the Nazis, a sympathy we did nothing to earn but which we consciously and unconsciously worked to our advantage.

You have hit upon the false step Bellow has taken in Mr. Sammler’s Planet, the fear of the sexual revolution bringing us to the
same place The Holocaust had twenty years before. It’s a good point, an attempt by the author to have parallel lines meet. It
almost works but I agree with you that it finally doesn’t.

I think it could have worked if Bellow had been aware of what he was doing. After all Sammler’s name sounds like “similar” and things that are “similar” are different also. If Bellow had presented us with the differences between Holocaust racism and sexual revolution racism as well as their sameness, he would’ve created a world in true tension with its past.

A terrific review.

Earl

jacob arnon says:

Many good points Earl.

More later.

jacob arnon says:

Earl, I looked up your novel and will want to read when it appears on kindle. (I just asked kindle to issue it on their digital device.)

Howard Berman says:

The Holocaust is a big issue, very. My speech at my Bar Mitzvah was about it and said what the congregation wanted to hear.
I am an Israeli. I spent a year in the IDF. I wept with the sirens on Yom HaShoah. I got out of the IDF without having or being killed which is a genuinely human accomplishment.
Two things: though I am not a Holocaust victim; like all Jews I am a Holocaust survivor. If the Jewish People is a family, the victims deserved to be mourned. Second, if all humanity is a family, I think it’s an open task to place our suffering in the context of all human suffering, which is painful and hard but neceassary and much needed.
The Holocaust was a unique trauma for a unique, even world historical people.
They live through us; yet The Holocaust however primal might not serve as the best archetype or paradigm for today’s threats.
As for Bellow, he has the touch of the Russian Nobility to him and his book on Israel is one reason I made Aliyah- thank you for your articles

Luke Lea says:

A great novel, Bellow’s best.  

fabnatan says:

Bellow’s novels are unique, his writing style gives them always a special charm. The holocaust seal within us is somehow something like a birth mark in our souls , a mark which is within us at all times and we are dragging this involuntary seal all along our life span. Mr. Sammler’s Planet is a profound New York event, such as some other, and loaded with peculiar events and stories in the jewish life.

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Flower Children

Saul Bellow’s Mr. Sammler’s Planet is a document of the cravings of 1960s America, and an attempt to bring the Holocaust to bear on America