I read my first Bellow some months ago--Henderson the Rain King. I suppose I liked bits of it, but the general effect on me was this sort of painful embarrassment and so I left off somewhere around page 100 with the feeling of impending humorous doom, and read the last five pages or so, which left me rather unsatisfied about what had transpired. After all, it is not a Mike Hammer mystery with the killer revealed on the last page. But anyway, I just couldn't concentrate on finishing the book, and moved on.
While I was in Chicago I stopped by the Old Neighborhood, and by Unabridged Books. They have a rather large Penguin collection, and I found Mr. Sammler's Planet, and encouraged by the description, I bought it. I did, after all, need something to read on the trip back. This book, too had a similar point-of-no-continuing for me (somewhere in the 80s, I think) but I persisted onward this time. I think (before I get down to the novel itself) that Saul Bellow's ideas appeal to me, but I find the particular way he executes them tiresome.
Mr. Sammler's Planet is about an academic--a Holocaust survivor too--in what must have seemed like a tumultuous 1970. The plot defies explanation (perhaps to Sammler's satisfaction: early in the novel he disparages the culture of explanation). Also, interestingly, this character Sammler seems like he might be an approximation of Bellow himself. I wondered, as the book's narrative snakes in and out of Sammler's long reveries, if these thoughts are the thoughts Bellow was having as he travelled through the city, observed its inhabitants, interacted with his friends and family. But, I realize this is too easy an assumption to make. At any rate, Sammler is less than capable of human feeling (compassion, maybe), though he approximates it. The book takes him through a series of historical events in his own life (and outside it) and through modern life of 1970, introducing us to his remaining family and his friends and benefactors. They are all subject to Sammler's silent and scathing criticism, though he appears to love them too. Modern life though--or modern thought--distresses, angers, unnerves, makes no sense to him. He is particularly concerned with sexual paradigm, and with the emphasis on individuality (as demonstrated in psychotherapy, clothing, the increased interest in cultural ancestry, art, etc.) which he perceives as self-serving behavior.
Oddly, Sammler's main complaint with one of his more likable family-members, Margotte, is that she talks on and on about theoretical subjects--which Sammler himself does even more often--which suggests what he lacks is not exactly compassion, but insight. He has also (in the search for a common? old world? civilized? existence) forsaken emotion, humor, sentimentality ("a man who looks upon all mortal foolishness with hostile condescension," writes Stanley Crouch). It is arguable what exactly happens... I suspect the events that take place as his friend Elya nears death (the assault on the pickpocket, the incident with Govinda Lal's manuscript, his daughter's mental illness and Elya's children's shortcomings) are like small steps toward humanity for Sammler. It occurs to me, as it may have to others, that a survivor of attempted genocide would find compassion a difficult, maybe foreign emotion, just as Holocaust survivors often renounced faith. Sammler reluctantly and irritably believes in God, because he cannot conceive the absence of God, but instead he has renounced humanity--and then returned to it.
One of the most fascinating and encouraging things about this novel was reading Sammler's thoughts: untruncated, difficult, far-reaching and diverse. The thoughts are tenuously connected, but attaching and detaching themselves like electrons to a molecule, or like brief connections between neurons. History, philosophy and science tied together with the lightest of strings, like a web--I loved the speed of the connections. Not stream-of-consciousness, but a consciousness accurately described in writing. This book does not end neatly--just as it does not read neatly. However, it is strangely and touchingly, multifacetedly human.
Guard goat, Milton (mew)