The end of things-as-known

Read in ‘Mr. Sammler’s Planet’ (1970) of Saul Bellow:

Saul Bellow’s ‘Mr. Sammler’s Planet’, published in 1970, is a must read. Mr. Sammler, a survivor of the Holocaust and an intellectual, is the hero of the novel. He lives in New York. His age: seventy-something. Every day he takes the bus from his apartment on the West Side to the Fourty-second street library. This is Bellow’s description of Sammler’s daily urban trip on the bus: “Such was Sammler’s eastward view, a soft asphalt belly rising, in which lay steaming sewer navels. Spalled sidewalks with clusters of ash cans. Brownstones. The yellow brick of elevator buildings like his own. Little copses of television antennas. Whiplike, graceful thrilling metral dendrites drawing images from the air, bringing brotherhood, communion to immured apartment people. Westward the Hudson came between Sammler and the great Spry industries of New Jersey. These flashed their electric message through intervening night. SPRY. But then he was half blind.” New York gives Sammler no hope. Not only the pickpocket at work on the bus depresses him. Also racism, tourism, erotic persuasions, the crazy violence of fanatics. “Like many people who had seen the world collapse once, Mr. Sammler entertained the possibility it might collapse twice.”

In the novel Mr. Sammler tries to get a grip on New York. In his introduction to the Penguin Classic, Stanley Crouch writes: “We get the feeling of a human being in repose, in grief, in rage, in self-protective contemplation, in unsparing self-examination, in attentive motion through Manhattan, on foot, in public transportation, in chauffeured limousine.” According to Mr. Crouch, Bellow chose New York for his novel as the capital of capitalism, the power of the city over the country was evident. But then, in chapter 6, there is a telephone crisis. In New York! Sammler is at the house of his benefactor Elya Gruner in New Rochelle, who is dying in a hospital on Manhattan. Trains are not running. The servant will bring him in the silver Rolls Royce. There he goes. “It would soon be full spring. The Cross County, the Saw Mill River, the Henry Hudson thick with reviving grass and dandelions, the oven of the sun baking green life again.” They’re getting nearer to Manhattan. So in the end he is positive, isn’t he? “Looking from the window, passing all in state, in an automobile costing upwards of twenty thousand dollars, Mr. Sammler still saw that together with the end of things-as-known the feeling for new beginnings was nevertheless very strong.” He drives from north to south, up Broadway. “And away from this death-burdened, rotting, spoiled, sullied, exasperating, sinful earth but already looking toward the moon and Mars with plans for founding cities.”  There he finds Elya in the hospital at last, dead.





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