Page 25 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 29

Basic HTML Version

by reversing the thrust of the Yiddish words and rhythms, so Bellow
turns Roth against himself by reversing the thrust of Portnoy’s
verbal extravagance and his self-righteous Oedipal outrage.
Whereas Portnoy is constantly pouring out feelings and words to
his silent psychoanalyst, Dr. Spielvogel, Sammler is an almost
pure receptor. Portnoy creates a world of sexual, domestic, and
primeval images by firing at his non-answering psychoanalyst bursts
of obscenity and four letter words that explode with primitive
force on the sensibility of the reader. Sammler, on the other hand,
absorbs scenes, events, physical details, the words of others, and
blends them into the movements of a mind that is constantly medi-
tating, transforming the data by subjecting them to the play of
thought, imagination, past experience, knowledge of historical
People come to Sammler revealing their most banal ideas as
well as their most intimate feelings and activities. Sammler tries
to maintain silence because there has been too much explaining
already: “Intellectual man had become an explaining creature.
Fathers to children, wives to husbands, lecturers to listeners, ex-
perts to laymen, colleagues to colleagues, doctors to patients, man
to his own soul explained.” Nevertheless, Sammler’s mind goes
on explaining, sifting, distinguishing, a reflex action, not to be
controlled. And, of course, he cannot hold his tongue. Ironically,
tired of explanations and people who make and demand them,
he is destined to go on making them, living with a niece who
loves nothing so much as explanations: “Anything fascinating
she was prepared to discuss all day, from every point of view
with full German pedantry.” When his niece assaults him with
her need for explanations he answers in spite of himself because
“. . . he was addressed by another human being. He was old-fash-
ioned. The courtesy of some reply was necessary.”
Sammler must listen, also, when another niece, Angela, a female
Portnoy, wants to confess (or is it boast of?) her sexual exploits;
and again he is bound to listen to Walter Bruch, sixty-year old
survivor of the Holocaust (in some ways a superannuated Portnoy)
who comes to tell Sammler how he masturbates in public places
because he has a habit of falling irresistibly in love with women’s
Mr. Sammler’s Planet
goes a step beyond
Portnoy’s Complaint.
In the latter the reader sees Portnoy, the newest of new Adams,
a sexual automaton dancing on the strings of his own nerve
endings. But in Mr.
Sammler’s Planet
it is Sammler rather than
the reader who watches this bizarre show, his one good eye scan-
ning the grotesqueries and atrocities of modern crippledom: “All
this confused sex-excrement-militancy, explosiveness, abusiveness,
tooth-showing, Barbary ape howling.” If Roth depicts the spiritual
ew ish
ew ish
uffer ing