Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Mr. Sammler's Planet by Saul Bellow

“Being right was largely a matter of explanations.”

Note: This will be the first of several reviews that I have neglected to write for the last little while. Considering that my memory remains quite poor and the fact that many of these novels were read at the beginning of the year, most of them will consist of scattered, jumbled thoughts.

No, this isn't a science fiction novel. It is about a Jewish holocaust survivor, haunted by his experiences during the war, who is now an elderly man living in New York during the late 60's. He finds himself alienated by the emerging radical counter-culture: race relations, sexism, social media, greed, capitalism and a whole host of other issues disorient Mr. Sammler's psyche, clashing with his 'old-fashioned' ways. Hence, the writing often reflects his fragmented state of mind with the use of stream-of-consciousness and discursive intrusions as he struggles to adapt to this new world that is now foreign to him. 

Similar to some of his other works such as Herzog or Humboldt's Gift, this is a novel about ideas, not plot. Mr. Sammler is a keen observer of human nature, an erudite scholar and intellectual who is trying to find a rational explanation for these changes to society and perhaps discover answers to the big questions that might aid humanity towards a brighter future instead of letting the world go to hell in a hand-basket. From his perspective, society  has gone completely insane with technological advancements, mass production and material obsession. "Enlightenment" which includes freedom, liberty, fraternity, equality, social security, democracy, etc has turned society into total chaos and hypocrisy. Leading the charge is this new hyper-active generation that is all about self-perseverance rather than the collective good and everyone prefers to remain oblivious to the important problems rather than face them head on. Truth has become obfuscated; the break-down of moral values has lead to anarchy. Inspired by the works of H.G. Wells and feeling disconnected from the rest of his fellow human beings, Mr. Sammler envisions that a possible solution would be to leave Earth in its current state of moral decay (or blow it up, whatever is easier) and start a new civilization on the moon. Here I am thinking that my view of the world was pessimistic. Yeesh. You win, Mr. Sammler.

Seeing as much of the action takes place within the mind of the protagonist, this provides the perfect springboard for Saul Bellow's signature style of protracted prose with its unsparing philosophical discourse, social commentary and critical analysis. His acerbic wit, and oddball humor provides a counter-balance to the lugubrious subject matter. Bellow displays  such a command of language that is most impressive to me. He has a magical way with words, composing long sentences simultaneously overwhelming and captivating. It is perfectly understandable why many people often find Bellow to be insufferable to read because he does can across as self-indulgent, ostentatious and his novels tend to take the form of academic dissertations instead of focusing on an actual story. I usually revere his writing techniques with much earnestness but this is the first time that his incessant ramblings irritated me. There is even a monologue that extends for several pages that attempts to encompass his extensive ideologies about Western Civilization--history, scientific principals, individualism, misanthropy, the millstone of the human soul, the contradictions of transcendence, universal morality. It's all too much. 

Furthermore, one of the most distasteful aspects of the novel for me is Bellow's portrayal of race, especially that of African-Americans, which comes across as discriminatory. At the beginning of the novel, Mr. Sammler gets accosted by a "Negro" who is a thief (typical, eh?) and during their little ordeal, the black man pulls down his pants to reveal his genitals. Bellow is keen to describe the Negro as an animal, a sub-human prone to sexual deviance and violence. Reading this part left me flabbergasted and I admit to losing a bit of respect for Mr. Bellow.

Overall, this novel failed to generate any high level of enthusiasm from me and does not even come close to what I have come to expect from an otherwise consistent author. I would classify this novel as a minor Saul Bellow work that has ambitious intentions but fails to reach its full potential.

This novel is part of my Saul Bellow Project.


  1. Glad to see you back, Jason! ……. which means that I get to enjoy your excellent reviews once more! :-)

    I've never read Bellow but he's on my list …….. or perhaps I should say lists……

  2. Thanks Cleo! Appreciate it. I'm trying to get back into the groove of reading/writing reviews again but with my unpredictable schedule, it's difficult to say how often I will update my blog.

    Not sure why but I have the feeling that you and Bellow wouldn't get along very well, hehe. Hopefully, I'm wrong though. If you do happen to give him a try one day, I recommend starting with "Seize the Day." It's a brilliant novella so you don't have to invest much time into reading it and gives you a good idea of his style.