If chatter about particular novels is any kind of bellwether for the state of the world, we’re in a bad way—there have been plenty of references lately to The Grapes of Wrath and, dispiritingly, Atlas Shrugged. (If you want to romanticize the second novel’s grim brand of self-righteousness, congratulations—you’ll have a bank on your side.) But lately I’ve been more curious about what seems to be a spike in conversation about Saul Bellow‘s 1970 novel, Mr. Sammler’s Planet. Last summer Myron Magnet wrote a lengthy piece on the novel’s perspective on run-down late-’60s Manhattan for City Journal; more recently, the Berkshire Review used the novel as a launchpad to discuss the construction of Lincoln Center, while both Andrew Seal and D.G. Myers smartly wrestled with the misogyny and racism baked into the novel’s protagonist, Artur Sammler. The book appeared to be symbolic of new sense that the center isn’t holding, but maybe we didn’t want to consider the matter too directly—better to read about the worries of 1968 through Bellow’s rambling intellectual than through, say, a history book like Mark Kurlansky‘s 1968.
All of which is to say that the all the discussion did what good discussions are supposed to do—it compelled me to read the book. To go from the Bellow I’d read just a couple of months ago, The Adventures of Augie March, to Sammler isn’t just to fast-forward a couple of decades in Bellow’s life—it’s like being yanked from a busy city street into a cavernous library, from life to thought. Sammler’s existence is as interior as March’s is exterior; when the Holocaust survivor steps outside it’s as a detached observer who’s had too much of people. He scrutinizes the world too much for the world to have any patience for him, Bellow seems to say, and Bellow’s chosen punishment for Sammler is what’s sparked all the discussion about racism. Early in the novel, Sammler is cornered by a black pickpocket who he’s been staring at on the bus too long; the thief exposes himself to Sammler, and it’s a vision he can’t quite shake.
It gets ugly, the way Sammler processes race, and women as well. (He’s bizarrely obsessed with how women smell.) Toward the end of the novel Sammler cops to his own shallowness, but only in the context of others’ shallowness. The names below aren’t meaningful if you haven’t read the book, but Bellow’s treatment suggests how Sammler packages the people he interacts with:
[A]t the moment of launching from this planet to another something was ended, finalities were demanded, summaries…. Thus Wallace, on the day of destiny for his father, roared and snored in the Cessna snapping photographs. Thus Shula, hiding from Sammler, was undoubtedly going to hunt for treasure, for the alleged abortion dollars. Thus Angela, making more experiments in sensuality, in sexology, smearing all with her female fluids. Thus Eisen with his art, the Negro with his penis. And in the series, but not finally, himself with his condensed views. Eliminating the superfluous. Identifying the necessary.
It may be similarly reductionist to say that Mr. Sammler’s Planet is simply a novel about fear of social change, but that’s largely what seems to drive Sammler into his interior life. The big stuff like his near-death during the Holocaust or the carnage he sees reporting on the Six Day War—the big stuff he can handle. It’s all the little changes in money and sex and race that baffle the man, which makes the novel an interesting read if you’re living, as you are, in the middle of a cultural inflection point, where much of what we’ve understood about our economy, our work, and how we get and process information, is being blown up. Bellow is brilliant at exposing the thoughts that shuttle around a busy mind in the midst of that; the bad news for the reader is that we’re not going to like every thought that moves around.