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Ravelstein Hardcover – April 24, 2000
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Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Saul Bellow confined himself to shorter fictions. Not that this old master ever dabbled in minimalism: novellas such as The Actual and The Bellarosa Connection are bursting at the seams with wit, plot, and the intellectual equivalent of high fiber. Still, Bellow's readers wondered if he would ever pull another full-sized novel from his hat. With Ravelstein, the author has done just that--and he proves that even in his ninth decade, he can pin a character to the page more vividly, and more permanently, than just about anybody on the planet.
Character is very much the issue in Ravelstein, whose eponymous subject is a thinly disguised version of Bellow's boon companion, the late Allan Bloom. Like Bloom, Abe Ravelstein has spent much of his career at the University of Chicago, fighting a rearguard action against the creeping boobism and vulgarity of American life. What's more, he's written a surprise bestseller (a ringer, of course, for The Closing of the American Mind), which has made him into a millionaire. And finally, he's dying--has died of AIDS, in fact, six years before the opening of the novel. What we're reading, then, is a faux memoir by his best friend and anointed Boswell, a Bellovian body-double named Chick:
Ravelstein was willing to lay it all out for me. Now why did he bother to tell me such things, this large Jewish man from Dayton, Ohio? Because it very urgently needed to be said. He was HIV-positive, he was dying of complications from it. Weakened, he became the host of an endless list of infections. Still, he insisted on telling me over and over again what love was--the neediness, the awareness of incompleteness, the longing for wholeness, and how the pains of Eros were joined to the most ecstatic pleasures.Ravelstein is a little thin in the plot department--or more accurately, it has an anti-plot, which consists of Chick's inability to write his memoir. But seldom has a case of writer's block been so supremely productive. The narrator dredges up anecdote after anecdote about his subject, assembling a composite portrait: "In approaching a man like Ravelstein, a piecemeal method is perhaps best." We see this very worldly philosopher teaching, kvetching, eating, drinking, and dying, the last in melancholic increments. His death, and Chick's own brush with what Henry James called "the distinguished thing," give much of the novel a kind of black-crepe coloration. But fortunately, Bellow shares Ravelstein's "Nietzschean view, favorable to comedy and bandstands," and there can't be many eulogies as funny as this one.
As always, the author is lavish with physical detail, bringing not only his star but a large gallery of minor players to rude and resounding life ("Rahkmiel was a non-benevolent Santa Claus, a dangerous person, ruddy, with a red-eyed scowl and a face in which the anger muscles were highly developed"). His sympathies are also stretched in some interesting directions by his homosexual protagonist. Bellow hasn't, to be sure, transformed himself into an affirmative-action novelist. But his famously capacious view of human nature has been enriched by this additional wrinkle: "In art you become familiar with due process. You can't simply write people off or send them to hell." A world-class portrait, a piercing intimation of mortality, Ravelstein is truly that other distinguished thing: a great novel. --James Marcus
From Publishers Weekly
Age does not wither Saul Bellow. The 84-year-old writer's new novel is echt Bellow--the grab-bag paragraphs stuffed with truculent observations; the comedic mix of admiration and rivalry that subtends the friendships of intellectual men; the impossible and possible wives. Abe Ravelstein, a professor at a well-known Midwestern college, is obviously modeled on the late Allan Bloom. To clinch the identification, Bellow's narrator, Chick, a writer 20 years older than Ravelstein, uses phrases to describe Ravelstein that are almost identical to phrases Bellow used about Bloom in his published eulogy. Like Bloom, Ravelstein operates his phone like a "command post," getting information from his former students in high positions in various governments. Like Bloom, Ravelstein writes a bestseller using his special brand of political philosophy to comment on American failings. And like Bloom, Ravelstein throws money around as if "from the rear end of an express train." In fact, Chick is so obsessed with the price of Ravelstein's possessions that at times the work reads like a garage sale of his student's effects. Ravelstein also spends lavishly on his boyfriend, Nikki, a princely young Singaporean. Chick's wife, at the beginning of the memoir, is Vela, an East European physicist. Ravelstein dislikes her, and suspects that her Balkan friends are anti-Semites. Eventually, Vela kicks Chick out of his house and divorces him (fans will not be surprised that Bellow, as seems to be his habit, makes this a thinly veiled attack on his ex-wife). Chick ends up marrying one of Ravelstein's students, Rosamund. When Ravelstein succumbs to AIDS, Chick mulls over his obligation to write a memoir of his friend, but he is blocked until he himself suffers a threatening illness. Chick's alternate na?vet? and subconscious rivalry with Ravelstein is the subtext here. Amply rewarding, this late work from the Nobel laureate flourishes his inimitable linguistic virtuosity, combining intimations of mortality with gossipy tattle in a biting and enlightening narrative. First serial to the New Yorker. (Apr.)
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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Chick and Ravelstein spend much time together, sharing memories, ideas and thoughts. Realizing that Chick is the fictional counterpart of Saul Bellow, and Ravelstein the counterpart of Allan Bloom, author of The Closing of the American Mind, it seems apparent to the reader that many of those ideas belong to Bellow himself.
Although Chick finds himself unable to write a memoir of his friend, he reveals enough of Ravelstein's history, his personality and character, his philosophical and political ideas, his sexual identity, and finally his death by Aids, so that the reader must conclude that while the fictional Chick failed to write the fictional Ravelstein's memoir, the real Bellow did indeed write a memoir of his real life friend, Bloom.
Some readers may feel that Bellow's book is "anti-gay." I believe Bellow presents a non-judgmental view. Whenever Chick speaks of Ravelstein's sexual "irregular behavior," it is without censure or judgment. Bellow credits mythology in explaining the yearning of one person for another as he writes: "He (Ravelstein) rated longing very highly. Looking for love, falling in love, you were pining for the other half you had lost, as Aristophanes had said. Only it wasn't Aristophanes at all, but Plato in a speech attributed to Aristophanes. In the beginning men and women were round like the sun and moon, they were both male and female and had two sets of sexual organs. In some cases both the organs were male. So the myth went. These were proud, self-sufficient beings. They defied the Olympian Gods who punished them by splitting them in half. This is the mutilation that mankind suffered. So that generation after generation we seek the missing half, longing to be whole again." That, of course, explains man yearning for man but not woman for woman. However, in this case, it seems irrelevant as only the "gay" is at issue.
Bellow is always interesting and worth reading.
The Ravelstein of the title is the flamboyant political philosophy and classics professor Allan Bloom, who before dying of AIDS in 1992 tasked his friend Saul Bellow to write a memoir about their friendship.
What Bellow finally wrote was a novel where only the names were changed to protect the innocent or protect Bellow from legal actions. I'm not sure.
Ravelstein is an entertaining meditation on dying without surrendering.
Bloom, who had recently become rich and famous as the author of The Closing of the American Mind, was dying in a way that a writer of lesser talents than Bellow might have turned into a maudlin tragedy.
But Bellow saw the book and the life as a triumph of Bloom being Bloom: “It's no small matter to become rich and famous by saying exactly what you think — to say it in your own words, without compromise.”
Suddenly Bloom had millions of dollars to indulge his taste for the finer things in life that were unattainable on a university professor's salary.
Fancy dinners, designer clothes, luxury apartments in Chicago and Paris. It was a dream come true.
Then the raging AIDS epidemic of the late 1980s took it all away.
But even as he knew he was dying, Bloom refused to give up who he was.
Smoking cigarettes when he was fresh out of an oxygen tent. Jet setting to Paris when he could barely walk. Buying a BMW he couldn't drive.
It was outrageous but as Bellow makes clear, it wasn't out of character for Bloom, who lived as he always had -- politically incorrect habits and all -- right up to his final days.