IT IS PERFECTLY true that ‘Jewish Writers in America’ (a repulsive category) missed what should have been for them the central event of their time, the destruction of European Jewry,” Saul Bellow wrote to Cynthia Ozick in 1987. “I can’t say how our responsibility can be assessed. We (I speak of Jews now and not merely of writers) should have reckoned more fully, more deeply with it.” Bellow’s quasi-confession suggests something of the perplexity that has always faced American Jewish novelists dealing with the Holocaust.
Vasily Grossman, Elie Wiesel, Giorgio Bassani: what these and other Jewish writers had in common is that they were to one degree or another directly touched by the Holocaust: it was the story of their own lives and their own communities. American novelists such as Bellow, on the other hand, were faced with the strange conundrum that the World War II years, the very years during which European Jewry was being wiped off the face of the earth, were a watershed in the successful assimilation of American Jews. Jewish writers of Bellow’s generation grew up in immigrant poverty and emerged into adulthood during the Depression. The 1940s and ’50s were the years that first gave them a taste of America’s plenty, as they accumulated honors and readers. How could they do justice both to their own bright experience as Americans and to the darkness of the essential Jewish experience of their time?
Despite what he wrote to Ozick, the truth is that Bellow tried to answer that question several times in his long career—first in “The Victim,” in 1947, his parable of anti-Semitism, and much later, in 1989, in the novella “The Bellarosa Connection.” But Bellow’s most significant, and problematic, attempt to write about the Holocaust came in Mr. Sammler’s Planet, which appeared in 1970 and remains even now his most troubling novel.
Mr. Sammler’s Planet is not a “Holocaust novel.” It is, emphatically, a novel about its own time and place—New York in 1969, during the summer of the moon landing. But by viewing that cultural moment through the eyes of Artur Sammler, a Polish-born Holocaust survivor living in New York, Bellow ensures that the 1930s hover behind the 1960s as a ghost and a menacing prophecy. Having lived through the death of one world, Sammler now wonders if he is about to experience the death of another: “New York makes one think about the collapse of civilization, about Sodom and Gomorrah, the end of the world,” he reflects. “The end wouldn’t come as a surprise here. Many people already bank on it.” The success of the novel hangs, to a great degree, on the emotional force of this parallel.
As with most of Bellow’s fiction, the plot of Mr. Sammler’s Planet is both manically inventive and oddly desultory. The book chronicles a couple of days in the life of Sammler, as he prepares for the death of his relative and benefactor Elya Gruner, a rich surgeon laid low by an aneurysm. A good deal of frantic maneuvering takes place around Gruner’s bedside. His son Wallace, a lifelong schlemiel, is convinced that his father has hidden cash in the pipes in their New Rochelle home, and nearly wrecks the place trying to find it. Meanwhile Sammler’s own daughter, the mentally unbalanced Shula, has stolen an irreplaceable manuscript about moon exploration from an Indian scientist, Dr. Govinda Lal, and Sammler must see to its return before the police get involved.
Yet the weird slapstick of these stories takes place strictly in the margins of the novel’s consciousness, which is always the consciousness of Sammler himself. And Sammler, like most of Bellow’s protagonists, is clearly a proxy and a scout for Bellow’s own intelligence as it moves through the world. But unlike Moses Herzog in Herzog or Chick in Ravelstein, Sammler’s biography is irreconcilable with his creator’s. As a Holocaust survivor, he lays claim to an altogether deeper resonance and dignity: “Mr. Sammler had a symbolic character. He, personally, was a symbol. His friends and family had made him a judge and a priest.” He gains this symbolic dimension because, like someone in a myth, he came back from the dead:
So, for his part, it had happened that Sammler, with his wife and others, on a perfectly clear day, had had to strip naked. Waiting, then, to be shot in the mass grave. … Sammler had already that day been struck in the eye by a gun butt and blinded. In contraction from life, when naked, he already felt himself dead. But somehow he had failed, unlike the others, to be connected. Comparing the event, as mentally he sometimes did, to a telephone circuit: death had not picked up the receiver to answer his ring.
This way of talking about surviving makes it seem less an achievement than a failure. And it is in this deflationary spirit that Sammler speaks of his Holocaust experiences. He is reluctant to claim the authority that seems to belong to him as a survivor. “Also his experiences were respected. The war. Holocaust. Suffering,” he reflects sarcastically. “And of what was he a symbol? He didn’t even know.” In Greek myth, Tiresias’s blindness is the price of his ability to see the future, but Sammler, who has lost only one eye, seems to have gained only partial insight into the cosmos—enough to ask questions, not enough to find answers. This incomplete mysticism is captured in one of the novel’s most memorable passages, when Sammler sees some illegible graffiti on a vacant building: “Most scrawls could be ignored. These for some reason caught on with Mr. Sammler as pertinent. Eloquent. Of what? Of future nonbeing ... But also of the greatness of eternity which shall lift us from this present shallowness.”
There is a basic paradox in the way Bellow makes use of Sammler’s voice. Even as Sammler disclaims the moral authority of the survivor, the logic of the novel depends on that very authority to sustain its deep criticisms of American society. Bellow elides the contradiction somewhat by making Sammler a very untypical Polish Jew. We learn that he spent most of the interwar years as a journalist in London, palling around with English intellectuals and the Bloomsbury set. In particular, he was good friends with H.G. Wells, who acts in several ways the novel’s imaginative foil. Wells wrote a novel about the colonization of the moon, and Sammler is living through the first moon landing. More broadly, Wells represents a style of progressive, rational optimism that could not be more obsolete in the chaotic 1960s. The future has not turned out the way the past hoped it would; instead of redemption, it teeters on the brink of apocalypse.
The apocalypse that Sammler foresees is not nuclear, as we might expect, nor does he fear the return of fascism and genocide. Indeed, for a man who survived the Holocaust, Sammler seems very little interested in social and political questions. The disaster he sees unfolding around him is spiritual, moral, and above all sexual. And here the usefulness of Sammler as Bellow’s protagonist starts to become clear. To issue jeremiads one needs an unchallengeable Old Testament kind of authority; and over the course of the novel Sammler, despite his bohemian freethinking ways, becomes an embodiment of Jewish patriarchal sternness.
Any reader of Bellow’s biography knows that he was not an abstemious man. Whatever may have been the case for Philip Larkin, for Bellow sexual intercourse certainly did not begin in 1963. Yet something about the let-it-all-hang-out spirit of the 1960s provoked a profoundly hostile and frightened response in him. You can see it, in Mr. Sammler’s Planet, in the character of Angela Gruner, a rich, beautiful and promiscuous young woman whose sexuality is offensively ripe: “In Angela you confronted sensual womanhood without remission. You smelled it, too.” That comment on sexual smell is typically Bellovian, an example of the richness of his perceptions—but in this context it is also rather nasty, since it is meant to suggest the slovenliness and the animality of the sexually liberated woman. Indeed, Angela’s sexual escapades seem to Sammler to embody the spirit of the age:
Listening to Angela carefully, Sammler perceived different developments. The labor of Puritanism now was ending. The dark satanic mills changing into light satanic mills. The reprobates converted into children of joy, the sexual ways of the seraglio and of the Congo bush adopted by the emancipated masses of New York, Amsterdam, London.
The novel’s vengefulness towards Angela is expressed in the way it contrives her collision with her father, the dying Elya. Angela has a steady boyfriend who she hopes to marry, Wharton Horricker (one of the most wonderful of all Bellow’s Dickensian namings). But while on vacation with him in Mexico, she engages in partner-swapping with a couple they just met, and though Horricker participates he becomes extremely jealous. News of this incident somehow makes its way back to Elya, and he expresses his loathing for his daughter in terms that sound like a deathbed curse: “You see a woman who has done it in too many ways with too many men. By now she probably doesn’t know the name of the man between her legs. And she looks ... Her eyes—she has fucked-out eyes.”
This is the way the ’60s end, with a bang and a whimper. It is hard not to be reminded of The Merchant of Venice, with Angela playing the role of the ungrateful daughter Jessica, and Elya as the embittered Shylock. This resonance is all the clearer because, as Sammler insists, Angela’s sex life is a transgression against specifically Jewish moral instincts:
Sammler had known Angela’s grandparents. They had been Orthodox. This gave a queer edge to his acquaintance with her paganism. Somewhere he doubted the fitness of these Jews for this erotic Roman voodoo primitivism. He questioned whether release from long Jewish mental discipline, hereditary training in lawful control, was obtainable upon individual application.
Sexual incontinence, depending on Bellow’s choice of metaphor, can be Eastern or African or even Roman, but never Jewish. Unfortunately, and notoriously, he chooses in Mr. Sammler’s Planet to make it quite specifically African, and African-American. “From the black side, strong currents were sweeping over everyone ...,” Bellow writes. “Millions of civilized people wanted oceanic, boundless, primitive, neck-free nobility, experienced a strange release of galloping impulses, and acquired the peculiar aim of sexual niggerhood for everyone.”
In these lines the rhetorical mechanism of racism is laid bare in extraordinarily crude terms. When a group of people are turned into a symbol of certain ideas or emotions, they can no longer be seen as individual human beings; they are condemned to be bearers of abstractions—synecdoches for vice. This is precisely what happens with the only black character in the novel, a pickpocket who notices Sammler observing him at work on the Broadway bus. To intimidate Sammler, the man corners him in the lobby of his apartment building and exposes himself:
He no more spoke than a puma would. What he did was to force Sammler into a corner ... The pickpocket unbuttoned himself. Sammler heard the zipper descend. Then the smoked glasses were removed from Sammler's face and dropped on the table. He was directed, silently, to look downward. The black man had opened his fly and taken out his penis. It was displayed to Sammler with great oval testicles, a large tan-and-purple uncircumcised thing—a tube, a snake...
Bellow’s language insists on the animalization of the man, which of course means his dehumanization. It is especially disastrous that this should take place in a novel that is partly about the Holocaust, because something like this technique was used by anti-Semites to demonize Jews. To the Nazis, it was the Jews who were instinctively licentious, and emblems of “sexual Jewhood.” But instead of drawing the conclusion that this sort of racism is inherently false and cruel, Bellow simply reverses the polarities: the pickpocket’s bestiality is meant to stand in obvious contrast with Sammler’s Jewish and civilized impotence. One of the key scenes of the novel, loosely based on something that really happened to Bellow, comes when Sammler delivers a lecture at Columbia and gets interrupted by a militant heckler, who shouts, “Why do you listen to this effete old shit? What has he got to tell you? His balls are dry. He’s dead. He can’t come.”
The structural problem with Mr. Sammler’s Planet is that what Bellow is criticizing in the 1960s—the topsy-turvy elevation of youth over age, energy over wisdom—really has nothing to do with what Sammler experienced in the 1940s. As an American Jewish novelist, Bellow tries hard to seek a point of imaginative contact with the Holocaust, but the concerns of the present overshadow the realities of the past. Indeed, one feels that a man with Sammler’s experiences would not condemn the American present in quite such absolute terms. At the corner of Broadway and 96th Street, for instance, Sammler feels that the dismal scene seems to say “that the final truth about mankind was overwhelming and crushing”—but surely a man who was buried alive under the corpse of his wife would not need Broadway and 96th Street to enforce such a feeling.
Conversely, the sublime spiritual aspirations that Bellow voices in the novel also seem unrelated to what Sammler went through in the Holocaust. One of the book’s central concerns, alluded to in the title, is the prospect of mankind leaving planet Earth behind to strike out for a new existence on the moon. To Sammler, this prospect is appealing, not because the Earth has been befouled by the Holocaust, but because it is sultry with the sex cravings of the 1960s. He imagines life on the moon as “necessarily austere, drinking the fossil waters, considering basic questions only.”
This encounter with the cosmic is absolutely convincing on Bellovian terms, but makes little sense on Sammlerian ones. Mr. Sammler’s Planet is a novel utterly faithful to its moment, above all perhaps in the way it is morally disoriented by that moment: it is both a portrait of confusion and a document of it. By viewing that confusion through Sammler’s eyes, Bellow tries to lay claim to an essentially Jewish response to it, a response born of the ordeal of the Holocaust. Surely, he seems to say, a people that has so recently undergone such a tragedy must be inoculated against the unseriousness and the insobriety of the 1960s. Jews should be Sammlers. That they are not—remember that Portnoy’s Complaint was published in the year that Mr. Sammler’s Planet takes place—is in its way a hopeful sign. A people capable of folly and illusion is still in love with this world—as Bellow himself incurably was, despite the testimony of this wounded book.
This piece originally appeared in Tablet.
Adam Kirsch is a senior editor at The New Republic.