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Saul Bellow: Mr. Sammler’s Planet

This work received a certain amount of criticism for not only is it misogynistic and, some would say, racist, it seems to be the work of an old man out of touch with the young. The eponymous Mr. Sammler was the Jewish son of a Polish aristocrat. He had gone to England in the 1930s where he had mixed with the Bloomsbury Group and had become a sophisticated Anglophile intellectual. In 1939 he has to return to Poland to help his wife settle her father’s estate and they, with their daughter, are caught up in the Nazi invasion. His wife dies, his daughter is sheltered by nuns and Sammler, after killing a Nazi, manages to hide out for the duration. After the war, he and his daughter go the USA but his experiences, particularly his war experiences, have left him bitter and misanthropic.

He lives in New York but to his relatives in New York he is an anachronism while he himself hates modern New York and its values. His colleague, Dr. Lal, proposes colonising the moon but Sammler rejects the idea. When Sammler’s daughter steals Lal’s manuscript to help her father, he is concerned with quickly returning it to Dr. Lal. He is bitterly opposed to 1960s sexual and other mores and blames feminism for the demise of the values he cherishes. Two things give him his Bellow epiphany moment. The first is when he has previously been threatened by a black pickpocket. He later sees the same pickpocket attacking a young colleague, while the New York crowd stands around and watches. He urges his son-in-law to intervene. The son-in-law not only intervenes but nearly kills the pickpocket. For Sammler, this reaction is excessive. When he saw this event, he was on the way to the hospital to visit his dying nephew, Elya Gruner. Gruner has fallen out with his daughter, Angela. Sammler tries to reconcile the two but fails. Gruner dies and Sammler, like other Bellow heroes, realises that he, Sammler, had done what he had to do in being with the dying man and that that is what is important for him and for any Bellow hero.

Publishing history

First published 1970 by Viking