By Charles Matthews

Saturday, March 12, 2011

1. Mr. Sammler's Planet, by Saul Bellow, pp. 1-41

Mr. Sammler's Planet (Penguin Classics)I
Artur Sammler, "a man of seventy-plus, and at leisure," wakes and prepares breakfast in his bedroom on Manhattan's West Side. It's early in the morning, but Sammler can't sleep, partly because he's obsessed with the pickpocket he has seen at work on the bus he takes to and from the Forty-Second Street Library, "a powerful Negro in a camel's-hair coat, dressed with extraordinary elegance, as if by Mr. Fish of the West End, or Turnbull and Asser of Jermyn Street. (Mr. Sammler knew his London.)"

He knows London because, though born in Poland, he spent "two decades in London as correspondent for Warsaw papers and journals." Though the Anglophilia he had developed "as a schoolboy in Cracow before World War I ... had been knocked out of him," his stay in London "had left him with attitudes not especially useful to a refugee in Manhattan," especially the Manhattan of the late 1960s. "New York was getting worse than Naples or Salonika. It was like an Asian, an African town, from this standpoint."

As he makes his coffee, grinding the beans in an old-fashioned hand-cranked grinder, he reflects, "In Poland, France, England, students, young gentlemen of his time, had been unacquainted with kitchens. Now he did things that cooks and maids had once done. He did them with a certain priestly stiffness. Acknowledgment of social descent." He shares the apartment with his daughter, Shula, and his niece, Margotte Arkin, whose apartment it is. Margotte was widowed three years earlier when her husband, Ussher, died in a plane crash. After Ussher's death, Margotte had invited him to take a bedroom in the apartment on West Ninetieth Street; she was not, in fact, his niece but that of his wife, who died in Poland in 1940.

Artur and Shula had come to the States in 1947 when Arnold Gruner, known as Elya, had discovered from an article in the Yiddish papers that they were in a displaced-persons camp in Salzburg. Elya's daughter, Angela, visits Artur frequently. "She was one of those handsome, passionate, rich girls who were always an important social and human category.... Angela sent money to defense funds for black murderers and rapists."

Sammler has seen the pickpocket at work several times since the first sighting, but when he tried to report him to the police, they said there was nothing they could do: "We haven't got a man to put on the bus." He is annoyed by this failure: "America! (he was speaking to himself). Advertised throughout the universe as the most desirable, most exemplary of all nations."

As the war broke out Sammler had made the mistake of returning to Poland with his wife, Antonina, and Shula to try to liquidate Antonina's father's optical-instrument business. They were trapped there, and Antonina was killed in 1940. He had never been indemnified for his father-in-law's business, which was taken over by the Nazis and moved to Austria. "Margotte received payment from the West German government for her family's property in Frankfurt," though she had fled from Germany in 1937 before the war, whereas Sammler "had actually gone through it, lost his wife, lost an eye" -- his left one. Although Margotte is "A bothersome creature, willing, cheerful, purposeful, maladroit," she elicits his sympathy: "As though to be Jewish weren't trouble enough, the poor woman was German too."

Worst of all, Margotte wants to discuss things with him like "Hannah Arendt's phrase The Banality of Evil." He listens to her patiently for as long as he can stand, and then replies,
"The idea of making the century's great crime look dull is not banal. Politically, psychologically, the Germans had an idea of genius. The banality was only camouflage. What better way to get the curse out of murder than to make it look ordinary, boring, or trite. With horrible political insight they found a way to disguise the thing. Intellectuals do not understand. They get their notions about matters like this from literature. They expect a wicked hero like Richard III.... This woman professor's enemy is modern civilization itself. She is only using the Germans to attack the twentieth century -- to denounce it in terms invented by Germans." 
Sammler is a relic of "the lovely twenties and thirties when he lived in Great Russell Street, when he was acquainted with Maynard Keynes, Lytton Strachey, and H.G. Wells, and loved 'British' views."

He regards his daughter, Shula, as an eccentric. "She seemed to know lots of rabbis in famous temples and synagogues on Central Park West and on the East Side.... But she had Christian periods as well. Hidden in a Polish convent for four years, she had been called Slawa, and now there were times when she answered only to that name. Almost always at Easter she was a Catholic." She had been married to a man named Eisen, who beat her, and Elya Gruner had paid for Sammler to go to Israel ten years ago to rescue her from the marriage.

For a time after Sammler returned from Israel with Shula, they lived together. But she got on his nerves -- "his claim for indemnity from the Bonn government was based upon damage to his nervous system as well as his eye." Shula agreed that he should move, and "told everyone that her father's lifework, his memoir of H.G. Wells, made him too tense to live with.... She had been a small girl when the Sammlers lived in Woburn Square, Bloomsbury, and with childish genius accurately read the passions of her parents -- their pride in high connections, their snobbery, how contented they were with the cultural best of England."

The memoir of Wells mostly exists in Shula's imagination. "Nowadays Sammler would recall him as a little lower-class Limey, and as an aging man of declining ability and appeal," as well as "a horny man of labyrinthine extraordinary sensuality." Angela Gruner is amused by Shula's "Wells routine," and asks Sammler if he really was close to Wells. He says, "The man's company was very pleasant" and that "on the whole he was a sensible intelligent person, certainly on the right side of many questions." But he's really more interested in Angela's physical presence: "Angela was in her thirties now, independently wealthy, with ruddy skin, gold-whitish hair, big lips. She was afraid of obesity. She either fasted or ate like a stevedore. She trained in a fashionable gym."

She is also his portal into the contemporary world, which unnerves him with its "libidinous privileges, the right to be uninhibited, spontaneous, urinating, defecating, belching, coupling in all positions, tripling, quadrupling, polymorphous, noble in being natural, primitive, combining the leisure and luxurious inventiveness of Versailles with the hibiscus-covered erotic ease of Samoa.... The dreams of nineteenth-century poets polluted the psychic atmosphere of the great boroughs and suburbs of New York.... Like many people who had seen the world collapse once, Mr. Sammler entertained the possibility it might collapse twice."

He also makes contact with contemporary young people through the university students Shula hires to read to him, fearing for his remaining good eye. He is impatient with them: "To judge by their reading ability, the young people had had a meager education.... Hairy, dirty, without style, levelers, ignorant." But one of his former readers, Lionel Feffer, invites him to lecture to a seminar at Columbia. Feffer picks him up in a cab, but when the driver refuses to wait while Sammler delivers his lecture, Feffer is angry and refuses to tip him. Sammler urges Feffer not to treat the driver, who is black, so harshly. "'I won't make any distinction because he's black,' said Lionel. 'I hear from Margotte that you've been running into a black pickpocket, by the way.'"

He is surprised to find that the lecture is taking place in a large hall and not a small seminar room. He stands before them, "Doubly foreign, Polish-Oxonian," and "began to speak of the mental atmosphere of England before the Second World War." Suddenly he is "interrupted by a clear loud voice.... A man in Levi's, thick-bearded but possibly young, a figure of compact distortion, was standing shouting at him. 'Hey! Old Man!'" the man is taking exception to Sammler's quoting George Orwell as saying "that British radicals were protected by the Royal Navy." "That's a lot of shit," the man says.
"'Orwell was a fink. He was a sick counterrevolutionary. It's good he died when he did. And what you are saying is shit.' Turning to the audience, extending violent arms and raising his palms like a Greek dancer, he said, 'Why do you listen to this effete old shit? What has he got to tell you? His balls are dry? He's dead. He can't come.'" 
Feffer is not in the room, and the auditorium is full of uproar. He finds himself guided from the room "by a young girl who had rushed up to express indignation and sympathy, saying it was a scandal to break up such a good lecture." Sammler "was not so much personally offended by the event as struck by the will to offend. What a passion to be real. But real was also brutal."

He makes his way to the bus, on which he finds the pickpocket again. He has cornered an old man and is going through the man's wallet, in which he finds what seems to be a Social Security check, which he pockets. "It was at this moment that, in a quick turn of the head, he saw Mr. Sammler. Mr. Sammler seen seeing was still in rapid currents with his heart. Like an escaping creature racing away from him." Sammler pulls the cord and gets off the bus, hoping that the pickpocket won't follow. He dodges into a building and waits for a while, then makes his way to a hamburger joint where he orders a cup of tea. He doesn't see the pickpocket and thinks he has eluded him. "By now Sammler's greatest need was for his bed. But he knew something about lying low. He had learned in Poland, in the war, in forests, cellars, passageways, cemeteries."

But when he gets to his apartment house and enters "the lobby of his building the man came up behind him quickly, and not simply behind but pressing him bodily, belly to back." He never hears the man speak, but he forces Sammler into a corner and holds him against the wall.
He was directed, silently, to look downward. The black man had opened his fly and taken out his penis. It was displayed to Sammler with great oval testicles, a large tan-and-purple uncircumcised thing -- a tube, a snake; metallic hairs bristled at the thick base and the tip curled beyond the supporting, demonstrating hand, suggesting the fleshly mobility of an elephant's trunk, though the skin was somewhat iridescent rather than thick or rough.
Then the man releases Sammler and leaves. Sammler goes up to his bed, where he finds a notebook left for him by Shula. It contains, Shula's note explains, "lectures on the moon by Doctor V. Govinda Lal." She urges him to read the lectures quickly -- "They connect with the Memoir" -- and return them because Dr. Lal is lecturing at Columbia and needs them back. He is irritated by "his daughter's single-minded, persistent, prosecuting, horrible-comical obsession," but he opens the notebook, titled The Future of the Moon, and reads, "How long ... will this earth remain the only home of Man?" And he reflects on the possibility: "To blow this great blue, white, green planet, or to be blown from it."  

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