Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Review: Mr. Sammler's Planet


There's a reason why Mr. Sammler's Planet doesn't spring first to mind when making a list of favorite or best known Saul Bellow novels. People tend to mention The Adventures of Augie March, Herzog, Seize the Day, or Henderson the Rain King, but not Mr. Sammler's Planet, even though it won the National Book Award in 1971.

Mr. Sammler's Planet is not an easy novel, either to read or review. It has a typical Bellow plot, simple, funny, and shaggy, and a typical Bellow collection of wonderful, overblown characters. Here, Artur Sammler is an elderly, one-eyed Holocaust survivor and former minor member of London's Bloomsbury Set, living in Manhattan on the largesse of a nostalgic nephew, under the haphazard housekeeping care of a loony daughter and a couple of nieces, and attracting the attention of screwball hucksters, an Indian professor with theories of colonizing the moon, and a sharply dressed pickpocket with a peculiar method of intimidation.

But, also typical of Bellow's books, it is a novel of ideas – in this case dense and unrelenting ideas about the degradation of social mores, the philosophical underpinnings of human suffering, and the existence of God. That's a lot to get through in 285 pages.  And it is difficult to know how Sammler's ideas fit together or where they end up.  As the 1970 New York Times review noted:

There is something appealingly elegiac about Sammler. The book is not only his swan song, but civilization's as we once knew it. With his minutely articulated ideas as his only tools, Sammler is something like a watchmaker tinkering with the huge and faulty mechanism of modern life. And though he may not succeed in putting it back in working order, it is both moving and instructive to see him try.
Dedicated Bellow fans may end up adding Mr. Sammler's Planet to their personal list of Bellow's best, but newcomers may want to start with one of his more accessible books.


Commentary Magazine (1970)
New York Times (1970)

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Mr. Sammler's Planet counts as one of my National Book Award choices for the 2012 Battle of the Prizes, American Version.   With this one, I've now completed the challenge. Woo hoo!

It also counts for the Mt. TBR and Off the Shelf challenges, the TBR Pile challenge, and my "sky" choice for the What's in a Name challenge

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