By Charles Matthews

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

6. Mr. Sammler's Planet, by Saul Bellow, pp. 211-260

Mr. Sammler's Planet (Penguin Classics)VI
Sammler arises to find the house empty except for Shula. Emil has taken Wallace to the airport and Margotte and Lal have gone off in the car they rented. Sammler wants to get back to the hospital to see Gruner, but his only option is to wait for Emil to return and take him either to the train station or all the way into the city. Shula goes out into the garden to talk to the flowers while Sammler waits and ponders:
First, how apt it was that Wallace should flood the attic. Why, it was a metaphor for Elya's condition. In connection with that condition there arose other images -- a blistering of the brain, a froth or rusty scum of blood over that other plant which lay in one's head. Something like convolvulus. No, like fatty cauliflower.
He desperately wants to speak with Gruner. "One could declare something like this: 'However actual I amy seem to you and you to me, we are not as actual as all that. We will die. Nevertheless there is a bond. There is a bond.... Elya at this moment had a most particular need for a sign and he, Sammler, should be there to meet that need." Finally he reaches Gruner in the hospital and assures him that he'll be there soon. Elya wants him to bring some clippings from the Polish newspapers for which he wrote during the Six-Day War -- a Polish doctor at the hospital has expressed interest in seeing them. He then tells Sammler that he may be going downstairs in the hospital for some tests, but something in the tone of his voice makes Sammler feel uneasy. He also mentions that Angela is coming to see him. Sammler says, "Good-by, for now." Gruner replies simply, "Good-by, Uncle Sammler."

He opens the French window so he can talk to Shula, and she asks why he had described Lal as "just a bushy black little fellow." He tries to discourage her interest in Lal: "scientists make bad husbands. Sixteen hours a day in the laboratory, absorbed in research. You'd be neglected. You'd be hurt. I wouldn't allow it." When she asks, "Even if I loved him," Sammler reminds her that she thought she loved Eisen. Besides, he tells her, Margotte is a better match for Lal because if he "was mentally absent for weeks at a time, she'd never notice." Shula is unconvinced, of course.

"Is Emil coming straight back or waiting for that lunatic," he asks, meaning Wallace. Shula asks why he calls Wallace a lunatic and Sammler is stumped: "To a lunatic, how would you define a lunatic?" He also asks her not to get involved in Wallace's search for the hidden money, and she confesses that she already is, and that Wallace has offered her a reward if she finds it. She notices that his shoes are still wet from the previous night's flood and takes them to dry in the kitchen.

Emil arrives, and just as he does a yellow plane flies over the house. He tells Sammler that it's Wallace. He agrees to take Sammler back to the city, and to stop at his apartment before going to the hospital. Wallace, he says, is going to return to Newark and take the bus. Wallace flies so low that Sammler is concerned that he's going to crash into the house.

They hear the phone ringing, and when Sammler says Shula is in the house and will answer it, Emil informs him that she isn't:  "When I drove up I saw her in the road, walking along with her purse." Emil answers the phone: It's Margotte, calling for Sammler. She tells him that they opened the lockers, and although the first one was filled with "one of Shula's shopping bags" containing "the usual stuff," the manuscript was in the second. She is going to take Lal home for lunch with her, but confesses, "I'm insecure about my ability to interest a man like Dr. Lal on the mental level." He advises her not to "get on the mental level."

Margotte talks on, but Sammler doesn't listen. His mind has turned to Elya Gruner, who "must have believed that he had some unusual power, magical perhaps, to affirm the human bond. What had he done to generate this belief? How had he induced it? By coming back from the dead, probably."
By coming back, by preoccupation with the subject, the dying, the mystery of dying, the state of death. Also by having been inside death. By having been given the shovel and told to dig. By digging beside his digging wife. When she faltered he tried to help her. By this digging, not speaking, he tried to convey something to her and fortify her. But as it had turned out, he had prepared her for death without sharing it. She was killed, not he. She had passed the course, and he had not.... There was no special merit, there was no wizardry. There was only suffocation escaped. And had the war lasted a few months more, he would have died like the rest. Not a Jew would have avoided death. 
He tunes back into Margotte when she asks if the cleaning woman is there: "I hear the vacuum running." He tells her it's Wallace buzzing the house in his plane, and ends the call. In the kitchen he finds his shoes ruined: "Shula had set them on the open door of the electric oven and the toes were smoking."

When Emil returns from picking up the cleaning woman, they get in the car and head for the city. Along the way Sammler reflects on urban decay and the state of the world. They stop at the apartment and pick up the clippings Gruner requested and resume their trip to the hospital. But when they get near Lincoln Center, Emil stops: "There's something happening across the street.... Don't you recognize those people, Mr. Sammler?" One of them is Eisen, and the other, who is involved in a fight of some sort, is Feffer. "On the east side of the slant street a bus had pulled to the curb at a wide angle, obstructing traffic. Sammler could see now that someone was struggling there, in the midst of a crowd.... Feffer, in the midst of the crowd, was fighting the black man, the pickpocket." Feffer is holding up his Minox camera, and the pickpocket is trying to take it away from him.

Sammler gets out of the Rolls-Royce and pushes through the crowd, urging them to help break it up. Finally he reaches Eisen, who says, "I was with my young friend on the bus when he took the picture. Of a purse being opened. I saw it myself." Eisen is carrying the green baize bag with the heavy medallions he had shown Sammler at the hospital. When Sammler urges him to help Feffer, Eisen refuses because he's a foreigner who has just got to the United States.

Sammler approaches the pickpocket and asks him to let go. "The man's large face turned. New York was reflected in the lenses [of his sunglasses], under the stiff curves of the homburg. Perhaps he recognized Sammler. But nothing was said." Sammler then tries to persuade Feffer to let go of the camera, and once again pleads with Eisen to do something. Eisen replies, "'Let them do something.' He motioned with the baize bag to the bystanders. 'I only came forty-eight hours ago.'" Sammler looks at the crowd: "They were expecting gratification, oh! at last! of teased, cheated, famished needs. Someone was going to get it! Yes.... Then it struck him that what united everybody was a beatitude of presence. As if it were -- yes -- blessed are the present. They are here and not here."

Sammler also becomes aware of his utter powerlessness. "To be so powerless was death. And suddenly he saw himself not so much standing as strangely leaning, as reclining, and peculiarly in profile, and as a past person." The pickpocket is now choking Feffer, and Sammler once again pleads with Eisen to do something: "Please. Just take the camera. Take it. That will stop this."
Then handsome Eisen, shrugging, grinning, making a crooked movement of the shoulders, working them free from the tight denim, stepped away from Sammler as though he were doing a very amusing thing at his special request. He drew up the sleeve of his right arm. The dark hairs were thick. Then shortening his grip on the cords of the baize bag he swung it very wide, swung with full force and struck the pickpocket on the side of the face. It was a hard blow. The glasses flew. The hat. Feffer was not immediately freed. The man seemed to rest on him. Obviously stunned. Eisen was a laborer, a foundry worker. He had the strength not only of his trade but also of madness.
And Eisen strikes again and again, to Sammler's horror. "What have I done! This is much worse!" Sammler finally grabs Eisen's arm and makes him stop, though Eisen protests that Sammler had told him that he had to do something. "The pickpocket had tried to brace himself on his elbows. His body now rested on his doubled arms. He bled thickly on the asphalt." And Feffer proudly tells him that he got two shots of the pickpocket at work, and asks Sammler, "Why are you so angry with me?"

Sammler sees a police car arrive. Emil comes over and advises, "You don't want any of this. We have to go." Sammler agrees and they leave.
Sammler was sick with rage at Eisen. The black man? The black man was a megalomaniac. But there was a certain -- a certain princeliness. The clothing, the shades, the sumptuous colors, the barbarous-majestical manner. He was probably a mad spirit. But mad with an idea of noblesse. And how much Sammler sympathized with him -- how much he would have done to prevent such atrocious blows!
They arrive at the hospital where Sammler finds Angela alone in the hospital room, dressed in "a low-necked satin blouse" and "a microskirt, a band of green across the thighs." She tells him that Wallace has crashed the plane: Flying too low over a house in Westchester he stripped off the landing gear on the roof and had to crash land. "Wallace is in seventh heaven. Overjoyed. He had to have stitches in his cheek.... You know we'll be sued for damages to the house. The plane is wrecked. Civil Aeronautics will take away his license. I wish they'd take him away, too."

They talk about her breakup with Horricker, and he chides her for distressing her father with that as well as her manner of dress: "But really, how do you expect your father not to be excited, to feel bitter, when he sees this provoking Baby Doll costume?" She is offended, and insists "Everybody wears these skirts." He confronts her with the fact that her father is about to die, and she says, "I'm sure you love Daddy.... Apart from the practical reasons, I mean." He replies that it's no secret that he's grateful to Gruner for having supported him and Shula. "If I were practical, if I were very practical, I would be careful not to antagonize you." She admits "I don't like the opinion I think you have of me."

He says that the prolongation of her father's death has given Gruner an opportunity to resolve some things with his family. "If you love him, you can make some sign. He's grieving. He's in a rage. He's disappointed. And I don't really think it is the sex. At this moment that might well be a trivial consideration." She says, "I should ask him to forgive me? Are you serious?" "I am perfectly serious." But she is furious at the suggestion.
What she threw at him was what the young man at Columbia had also cried out. He was out of it. A tallk, dry, not agreeable old man, censorious, giving himself airs. Who in hell was he? ... He ought not perhaps to have provoked Angela so painfully. By now he was shaking. 
Then the nurse comes in to tell him that he has a phone call from Shula. She has found Gruner's hidden money in a hassock in the den where Sammler had slept the night before. He tells her not to let Wallace know about it but to call Widick, Gruner's lawyer. "Call him to come and get it, and tell him you want a receipt for it." She protests, and then asks, "What will you live on, Father, when Elya is gone?" He admits that it's a good question, "a shrewd, relevant question." But he says, "We will live on what there is." She chides him for not commenting on how clever she was in finding it, and he admits that it was "damn clever." She also demonstrates some shrewdness in saying, "Of course I didn't say anything to Wallace. He'd squander it in a week. I thought I'd buy some clothes. If I was dressed at Lord and Taylor, maybe I'd be less of an eccentric type, and I'd have a chance with somebody." "Like Govinda Lal." "Yes, why not?" Sammler is amazed at her self-awareness.

She tells him that she thinks they should keep the money, and that Gruner would agree, but Sammler insists that they aren't thieves and that Gruner may already have informed the lawyer of the existence of the money. But he knows she will keep some of it.

He returns from the phone call to find Gruner's doctor waiting for him. He knows from the doctor's expression that Gruner has died. The "tests" had been a ruse to spare Angela from witnessing his death. The doctor asks if he wants to tell Angela, but Sammler says the doctor should do it. "What I want is to see my nephew. How do I get to him?" The doctor says it's against regulations, but when Sammler tells him he'll make "a bad scene out here in the corridor," he agrees to let the nurse take Sammler to see the body. And over Gruner's corpse he says,
"Remember, God, the soul of Elya Gruner, who, as willingly as possible and as well as he was able, and even to an intolerable point, and even in suffocation and even as death was coming was eager, even childishly perhaps (may I be forgiven for this), even with a certain servility, to do what was required of him.... He ... did meet the terms of his contract. The terms which, in his inmost heart, each man knows. As I know mine. As all know. For that is the truth of it -- that we all know, God, that we know, that we know, we know, we know."

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