Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Mr. Sammler's Planet

I lived in Manhattan from 1994 and 2000. This was a transformative time somewhat bookended between the Giuliani take-over and 9/11. An explosion of technology and financial markets emboldened the city with massive revenue. At every turn, it seemed something old, drab and tired was being rehabilitated into something fabulous and young. To live there during this time, you could not help but to feel a sense of invincibility and triumph that we all now know to have been tragically fleeting and delusional.

I suppose it is because my New York years were spent in that bubble that I’ve developed a fascination with the books, films and photographs that documented the city in the 1970’s, arguably the most trying times in modern memory. I was a child then living in Long Island. I have fleeting snapshot memories of visiting Manhattan but mostly I recall regular trips into the boroughs to visit relatives. Still, I distinctly recall two things; the city’s sheen of graffiti, defeat and disregard as well as the conversations between my parents as we’d pass through town. It was so nice once and now it’s gone to hell.

Saul Bellow’s Mr. Sammler’s Planet takes place in this very Manhattan. The elderly Mr. Sammler is many things a scholar, a journalist and survivor. He is a survivor in multiple ways. The story behind how this now kindly gentle older man survived the war and escaped the Nazis is unflinchingly raw. It required Sammler to transform himself into something almost animalistic and inhuman. Now he is a survivor once again, making his way through a New York that reason and morality have abandoned. Through his reminiscences of days past, his chaotic dealings with a cast of colorful relatives and the descriptions his present day concrete jungle, Mr. Stammler maintains an inner monologue that seeks to find meaning amid madness.

A note on my copy - Mr. Sammler's Planet is widely available but I lucked out with this one. This was from my local library and it had that creepy-old-forgotten-book smell. The photo at the top of this post was taken by Martha Cooper. Check out this recent article about her.

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