By Charles Matthews

Sunday, March 13, 2011

3. Mr. Sammler's Planet, by Saul Bellow, pp. 85-122

Mr. Sammler's Planet (Penguin Classics)III
On his way home, Sammler encounters Lionel Feffer, who apologizes for the behavior of his students, though not for abandoning Sammler during the lecture: "I assigned a girl to look after you," he says. Sammler asks if she was his wife, and Feffer replies, "Just a girl I fuck now and then, and look after." The man who denounced Sammler, he says "wrote a book about homosexuals in prison; he's like a poor man's Jean Genet." Sammler's offense was talking favorably about Orwell: "Lots of young radicals see Orwell as part of the cold-war anti-Communist gang."

They talk a bit about Wallace Gruner's money-making scheme, which Feffer insists is "really a very good business idea," and then he reveals that Shula didn't just borrow Dr. Lal's manuscript, she stole it. "Disappeared with the only copy of the work." Sammler, who is carrying the manuscript, makes sure that Feffer doesn't see it. The university has hired Pinkertons to investigate.
To hear what Shula-Slawa had done (folly-devotion-to-Papa-comedy-theft) filled oppressively certain spaces for oppression which had opened and widened during the last three decades... Sammler himself was treated like some sort of Enchanter by Shula. She thought he was Prospero.
He decides to get in touch with Shula immediately, though he hates the prospect of her making a scene. The fact that Shula is "his only contribution to the continuation of the species ... filled him with heartache and pity that he and Antonina had not blended better." His chief concern right now is what Dr. Lal might do: "Who knew what Asiatic form that man's despair was taking." Then he questions the stereotype, but not so much because it's a stereotype, because "he himself, a Jew, no matter how Britannicized or Americanized, was also an Asian. The last time he was in Israel, and that was very recent, he had wondered how European, after all, Jews weere. The crisis he witnessed there had brought out a certain deeper Orientalism."

Now, when he heads for the subway entrance to go home, he is confronted by Feffer, who guesses that Sammler is avoiding the bus because of the pickpocket he had seen on it. "So you're afraid of him. Why? Has he spotted you?" Sammler doesn't want to talk about it, and asks Feffer to "drop the matter," but Feffer persists until Sammler tells him about the encounter in the apartment lobby. Feffer's immediate response is to suggest that Sammler talk about it on TV: "I know a guy at NBC television who has a talk show.... You should denounce New York. You should speak like a prophet, like from another world.... Catch a criminal, sell the story to Look. Do a job on the police at the same time, and on Lindsay, who has no business being mayor while running for president. A triple killing."

Finally, Sammler gets to his apartment and is able to ditch Feffer. After making himself a sandwich he goes to Shula's apartment, but she doesn't answer his knock. When he returns to his apartment, Margotte tells him that he has had a telephone call from Eisen, his son-in-law. He is in fact in New York, and is looking for a studio. Sammler goes to his room and writes a letter to Dr. Lal, explaining that he has the manuscript and trying to get Shula off the hook: "My daughter evidently believed you were lending her this document."

He explains the situation to Margotte, who suggests that he should send Dr. Lal a telegram, but they both agree that telegrams are not being delivered anymore, and that the mail would be too slow: As Sammler puts it, "Even Cracow in the days of Franz Josef was more efficient than the U.S. postal system. And sula may be picked up by the police, that's what I'm afraid of." He doesn't want to take it himself, "especially at night, when people are being mugged." Finally, Margotte suggests that she deliver it, and Sammler agrees: "The Indian temperament is so excitable, you know.... Coming from a woman, it might have a softening effect."

So Margotte leaves to deliver the letter to Dr. Lal, and Sammler, finally alone, is left to his reveries, which include thoughts about Dr. Lal's topic: colonization of the moon. "Since the earth altogether was now a platform, a point of embarkation, you could think with a very minimum of terror about going.... The earth a memorial park, a merry-go-round cemetery. The seas powdering our bones like quartz, making sand, grinding our peace for us by the aeon. Well, that would be good -- a melancholy good." But then his thoughts turn to a story Feffer had told him about an encounter with a man with a gun, and he thinks of his wartime experiences. He does not regard them as unique or even unusual: "Others had gone through the like. Before and after."
Things that happen, happen. 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 New York he feels as if "there were live New York bodies passing as there had been dead ones piled on top of him." In the gutters he sees discarded food. "Bones, chicken bones, which, once, he would have thanked God to have" When he had joined the partisans fighting the Germans in Zamosht Forest in Poland, they ate "roots and grasses to stay alive."
There at very close range he shot a man he had disarmed. He made him fling away his carbine. To the side. A good five feet into snow. It landed flat and sank. Sammler ordered the man to take off his coat. Then the tunic. The sweater, the boots. After this, he said to Sammler in a low voice, 'Nicht schiessen.' ... Sammler pulled the triger. The body then lay in the snow. A second shot went through the head and shattered it. Bone burst. Matter flew out....He was then not entirely human.
Later, the Poles he had fought alongside turned against him and the other Jews. "The war was ending, the Russians advancing, and the decision seems to have been taken to reconstruct a Jewless Poland." It was then that he hid in the mausoleum until he felt it safe to emerge, "One of the doomed who had lasted it all out."
Mr. Sammler himself was able to add, to basic wisdom, that to kill the man he ambushed in the snow had given him pleasure. Was it only pleasure? It was more. It was joy. You would call it a dark action? On the contrary, it was also a bright one. It was mainly bright. When he fired his gun, Sammler, himself nearly a corpse, burst into life.
Now he gets ready to go back to the hospital to see Gruner, as he had told Margotte he was going to do.
And as he puts on his shoes, he reflects that they are the same ones he had worn in Israel in 1967, during the Six-Day War. He had felt compelled to go, "as a journalist, and cover the events." A friend in London arranged a press pass for him, and Gruner financed the trip. He was seventy-two, but "he could not sit in New York reading the world press. If only because for the second time in twenty-five years the same people were threatened by extermination: the so-called powers letting things drift toward disaster; men armed for a massacre.... He would not read a second day's reports on Shukairy's Arabs in Tel Aviv killing thousands. He told Gruner that. Gruner said, 'If you feel so strongly about it, I think you should go.' Now Sammler thought that he had been guilty of exaggeration. He had lost his head. Still he had been right to go.
Now he reflects on contemporary revolutionary talk: "In a revolution you took away the privileges of an aristocracy and redistributed them.... Killing was an ancient privilege. This was why revolutions plunged into blood." And the train of thought leads him back to the colonization of the moon, where civilization might make a new start.
What one sees on Broadway while bound for the bus. All human types reproduced, the barbarian, redskin, or Fiji, the dandy, the buffalo hunter, the desperado, the queer, the sexual fantasist, the squaw; bluestocking, princess, poet, painter, prospector, troubadour, guerrilla, Che Guevara, the new Thomas à Becket. Not imitated are the businessman, the soldier, the priest, and the square. The standard is aesthetic. As Mr. Sammler saw the thing, human beings, when they have room, when they have liberty and are supplied also with ideas, mythologize themselves.... One could not be the thing itself -- Reality. One must be satisfied with the symbols. Make it the object of imitation to reach and release the high qualities. Make peace therefore with immediacy and representation. But choose higher representations.
And so he boards the Crosstown bus, "a perfectly safe bus to take."

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