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
“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. Sammler’s 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. Sammler’s 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. Sammler’s 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.
Nathan Hilu, an 89-year-old veteran who lives on New York’s Lower East Side, makes frenzied art from his potent memories of Jewish life and loss