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Broken shards of a cliff dweller

November 25, 2008

Re: Mr. Sammler’s Planet, by Saul Bellow.

Mr. Sammler is homeless.  While New York is the ideal and only place for this novel—it is the heart of Jewish America, then and now—he belongs nowhere.  He is still European in aspect and outlook, troubled by the callow youth of the day and his own money-grubbing progeny:

“The children were setting fire to the libraries.  And putting on Persian trousers, letting their sideburns grow.  This was their symbolic wholeness.  An oligarchy of technicians, engineers, the men who ran the grand machines, infinitely more sophisticated than this automobile, would come to govern vast slums filled with bohemian adolescents, narcotized, beflowered, and “whole.”  He himself was a fragment, Mr. Sammler understood.”

And New York is decaying:

“Then a right turn, downtown on Broadway.  The street rose while the subway was lowering.  Up, the brown masonry; and down, the black shadow and steel tracks.  Then tenements, the Puerto Rican squalor.  Then the University, squalid in a different way.  It was already too warm in the city.  Spring lost the touch of winter and got the summer rankness.  Between the pillars at One hundred-sixteenth Street Sammler looked into the brick quadrangles…The old-time poetry of parks was banned. Obsolete thickness of shade leading to private meditation.  Truth was now slummier and called for litter in the setting—leafy reverie?  A thing of the past.”

But, in the end, death rewards.  The early death of his nephew and benefactor—nearly the only sympathetic character in the novel—prompts Sammler to utter one of the most moving prayers in American literature:

“Sammler in a mental whisper said, “Well, Elya.  Well, well, Elya.”  And then in the same way he said, “Remember, God, the soul of Elya Gruner,” he intones, while honoring Elya for his willingness to meet his human contract–“terms which, in his inmost heart, each man knows. As I know mine. As all know. For that is the truth of it–that we all know, God, that we know, that we know, we know, we know.” 

Like a broken shard, a fragment of a lonely cliff-dwelling 20th century Lear found on the hard sidewalks of New York, Sammler redeems himself and we can then quietly replace the novel on the shelf among its brethren novels of modern dignity.



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