Mr Sammler’s Planet by Saul Bellow

I actually finished my second book by Saul Bellow!   I have tried to read Bellow’s works for many years and only one time got through more than a couple chapters.  That book was “The Adventures of Augie March” –  I wasn’t impressed –  it was tough.    I’ve also tried “Herzog,”   “Humboldt’s Gift, ”  “Mr Sammler’s  Planet,”  and “Henderson the Rain King,”  trying “Herzog” more than once.  This has been ongoing since the 1970s.  Just as with “Augie March,” ” Mr Sammler’s Planet”  was a reading group selection.


Mr Sammler’s Planet
by Saul Bellow
1970 /  288  pages
read by Wolfram Kandinsky 11h 35m
rating:   8 (for the theme)   / US classic 
(both read and listened) 

Mr Sammler is an old Jewish man who lives in New York in the year the book was published  – 1970.  He’s cranky and arrogant,  but he has very interesting thoughts about many things.   Furthermore,  he is a survivor and a widower of  the Holocaust which was still not too far from some people’s minds at that point having occurred only 35 years prior.  Actually,  I think it’s a big part of the book – just in the background.

The story consists of a series of little adventures which involve his daughter and son-in-law, a few friends and relative and a large elegantly dressed black man who works as a pick-pocket and flasher (he pulls it out to impress Sammler – Sammler is horrified – the book continues).

Although the writing is lush, the characters interesting and  the ideas are thought provoking,  the result. on the whole, is this book is mostly incredibly boring.

I was listening and reading which is what I often do with complex novels. – The narrator might have been part of the problem as he had a gravelly-nasal tone to his voice and read at an incredibly slow rate.  I came to realize at about 30%  that this was his idea of a New York Jewish accent.  Maybe it was good – his southern accent and European accents were great.

Because it’s a novel written by a middle age man in 1970 there are a lot of references to sex – it seems to go with the territory.   It’s about how he thinks the world (generalizing from his own little corner of Manhattan I guess)  is obsessed with sex.  I’ve seen other middle aged writers seem like they wish they were young again – or recount the sexual adventures of their youth.   Sammler wants the old days back – pre-mini-skirt.

Bellow really was quite the intellectual so there are plenty of literary and other kinds of allusions and probably because Bellow was Jewish there are lots of Jewish references, jokes, observations.  And I guess because 1970 was the year of the US moon landing there’s a chunk about that –  but that’s just Sammler wishing he were going elsewhere to start over.   lol –  He loves H.G. Wells.

The structure is basically a picaresque like The Adventures of Augie March –  this is NOT my favorite structure.  That said there is a plot of sorts which concerns the imminent death of Elya Gruner,   a rich doctor who has been supporting Sammler for a long time. There are other winding plot threads concerning Wallace Gruner who is trying to find money he thinks his father has hidden and Shula,  Sammler’s divorced daughter,  who steals a manuscript to help her father.

And the narrator makes it worse reading very, very slowly with his gravelly nasal voice. Imagine the following read aloud:

“Numbers also bear an important relation to people. The series of numbers is like the series of human beings— infinite numbers of individuals. The characteristics of numbers are like the characteristics of matter, otherwise mathematical expressions could not tell us what matter will or may do. Mathematical equations lead us to physical realities. Things not yet seen. Like the turbulence of heated gases. Do you see now?”

For the most part the book is boring,   but there were some parts which held my attention really well – that’s when I thought about the possibility of a reread but …

I need to tell you all that the ending is good.

Also,  I found a mention of Hannah Arendt which sparked some interest about the possibility of a “message” of  “evil is NOT banal,  it’s real and we have to fight it.”   That kind of stirred my soul for about an hour.   lol –

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