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B : quite well-written but puzzling and unfocussed memoir and homage -- and meditation on friendship, love, and death
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The complete review's Review:
Ravelstein is a puzzling creation.
As most everyone with any interest in Bellow or American literary matters knows by now, the character Abe Ravelstein is a thinly disguised version of Bellow's late friend, Allan Bloom, author of the unlikely bestseller, The Closing of the American Mind.
The disguise is paper-thin -- only the names have been changed.
This is the first part of the puzzle: why the fictional form ?
Why not a straightforward memoir or homage or extended eulogy ?
(Bellow's eulogy for Bloom has, in fact, been incorporated into the novel practically in its entirety and practically unchanged -- except for the names and labels).
It is certainly not to protect the innocent -- though perhaps it is to savage the guilty.
Still, it is an odd way of doing things
Curiously, the other portraits are of less concern to reviewers. Of the reviews we surveyed (see summaries) only two identified Eliade as a character portrayed in the book. One -- John Sutherland, in The Sunday Times -- fails to identify the character corresponding to Eliade, while the other -- John Leonard, in The Nation -- circumspectly writes: "we are told in the April Lingua Franca that (...) Radu Grielescu is Mircea Eliade." The fact that Eliade and Shills really get the treatment in Ravelstein is almost completely sidestepped.
(For what its worth: if we had not been privy to the whole to do the only characters we would have been able to identify unaided are "Vela" and "Radu Grielescu" (and, of course, "Chick"). The former Mrs. Bellow is familiar from previous Bellow works, and Eliade's distinctive biography leaves no doubt that he must be Grielescu. Bloom wasn't large enough a figure outside his select circle for us to recognize him as Ravelstein.)
Real people are often used in fiction; Philip Roth is another author who likes to rely on this tired device (or lacks the imagination to do otherwise). When fictionalized portrayals move beyond what was reality this might be a valid approach (as Bellow himself showed, with his Delmore Schwartz portrayal in the excellent Humboldt's Gift), but when -- as here, in Ravelstein -- everything mirrors what actually occurred then it is quite baffling. It is also a burden on a book that claims to be a novel.
Ravelstein is a novel almost devoid of fictional elements. How then to consider it ? The portrait of Bloom -- and Eliade and the others --, the self-portrait of Bellow: they can not be seen as fiction, try as one might.
The novel is told in the first person, by Chick. His colleague and dear friend, the brilliant Abe Ravelstein, has asked Chick to write his memoir, after his death. Ravelstein does not believe Chick is the best equipped to capture his intellectual legacy, but he thinks that Chick is best-suited to capture and portray his human side.
Chick begins by recounting a trip to Paris, years before, when Ravelstein first makes the suggestion. In fact, it is only many years after Ravelstein's death that Chick writes the memoir. Much of the book is about the difficulties of writing such a memoir, and Chick acknowledges the difficulties he has, and the variety of approaches he considers.
Ravelstein is a flamboyant homosexual (though not necessarily flamboyantly homosexual). Finally free of financial worries after the success of his book (which Bellow ... pardon us, Chick convinced him to write) he can indulge in all his designer-label fantasies. Bellow portrays Ravelstein's prissy vanity very well. Bellow seems to mean it affectionately -- or possibly there is even some envy of Ravelstein's rarefied and supposedly impeccable tastes. (As fedoras appear in the text Ravelstein's tastes can certainly not be considered impeccable.) Ravelstein likes the high life, and his buddy Chick admires him for it.
Ravelstein is also an impressive academic figure. So we are repeatedly told. He molds young minds -- first getting them to forget "the opinions of their parents", then guiding, teaching, leading them. The chosen ones -- the ones for whom he is a mentor, those he believes can achieve great things -- do go on to achieve, becoming the future leaders of the world. And they never forget their great teacher: he constantly stays in touch with them, exchanging gossip and ideas, continuing to lead and push them as is necessary. Chick is in awe of this coterie.
Chick's descriptions of father-figure Ravelstein and his acolytes are hard to take seriously. In fact, the descriptions of his followers' devotion are so absurd and unfounded that they could pass for a right-wing extremist's description of a subversive Jewish-led cabal intent on taking over the country.
The problem with all the lavish praise of the brilliant mind Ravelstein is that that mind is nowhere in evidence. Yes, he lectures on Plato and many of the high and mighty turn to him for sage advice, and yes, there is some half-way decent dialogue between him and Chick (though most of it is sheer and fairly empty repartee), but there is no convincing evidence of his being a heavyweight (or even a welterweight) intellectual. The only evidence of Ravelstein's intellectual prowess that Chick can show the reader is that he prefers French terms to the English:
Abe always preferred French expressions to American ones; he didn't say "a chaser" or "a womanizer" or "ladies' man" -- he said "un homme à femmes."There is even a certain good-old American type anti-intellectualism, recognizing the importance of superficialities:
Ravelstein had come to agree that it was important to note how people looked. Their ideas are not enough -- their theoretical convictions and political views. If you don't take into account their haircuts, the hang of their pants, their taste in skirts and blouses, their style of driving a car or eating a dinner, your knowledge is incomplete.(While this may help complete knowledge about people note also how much is missing -- Bellow only speaks of this and "their ideas (...) -- their theoretical convictions and political views". Yeah, there's a well-rounded look at any given individual .....)
Ravelstein comes across as quite the poseur. The kind of guy who has his neckties "sent via air express to a silk specialist in Paris" to get them cleaned. (Enough information right there to make it hard to take him seriously.) Though, on the other hand, he is also willing to watch the Chicago Bulls with his students over pizza. And he is also a notoriously messy eater, undermining his supposed refinement (in judging a person decent table manners are surely on par with snazzy outfits).
The HIV bombshell is only dropped on page 94, the descent into debilitating AIDS-related diseases even later. Ravelstein bravely and earnestly forges on, never letting up, rarely letting on about his true suffering. Noble.
Chick loves his friend. In that manly, Platonic-friendship way, at least. For his other needs Ravelstein has an exotic boy-toy (Nikki) who is devoted to him, an exotic little thing that stays up until all hours of the morning and sleeps in. Though Nikki does prove his mettle by lovingly tending to Ravelstein in his dying days.
Love is hugely important to Ravelstein -- as is Eros, though given how deadly Eros proved to be to him one wonders whether there isn't a subtle subtext here that both should be approached with the greatest care.
Love is the highest function of our species -- its vocation. This simply can't be set aside in considering Ravelstein. He never forgot this conviction. It figures in all his judgments.So Chick would have us believe. But Ravelstein's love rarely convinces either. Nikki seems devoted, but he is also bought off with a fancy car, and the relationship becomes one of dependence (as it perhaps always was, only with the roles now switched). Ravelstein's friendship with Chick seems deep but never strikes one as completely true.
The last chunk of the novel covers the time after Ravelstein's death. It is here the story finally culminates, focussing on its true subject, Chick-Bellow himself. Chick and his wife decide to move away from the university and the Midwest, at least for a while, and Chick accepts a position in Boston. They vacation in the Caribbean and Chick manages to get himself poisoned by the dreaded ciguatera toxin (a really nasty piece of work). Chick very nearly dies. More may die of heartbreak but this toxin has a pretty good fatality record as well. In Chick-Bellow's case it's not entirely clear which is more likely to kill him -- though the love of his good woman seems to be an important factor in getting him back among the living. (All this actually happened to Mr. Bellow, and he manages to convey these experiences very well.)
Eros leads to AIDS, platonic love lost leads to ... well, near-death experiences of one sort or another ? It's one way of looking at the novel.
Allan Bloom haunts this book, but not in any good way. Perhaps for those that knew him this is a complementary account that helps round their picture of the man. For the general reader there is too little of the man. We must take Chick-Bellow's word, and he does not manage to convince with what he decks out for us.
As to the question of betrayal: perhaps a confidence was betrayed here, though Bloom presumably knew what he was in for (and also apparently did not live the most closeted of lives -- though he had discrete friends). Mircea Eliade and Edward Shills might have more to complain about (as does the former Mrs. Bellow -- though she has been through the wringer before).
As to Bellow's "outing" of Bloom -- who could possibly care whether or not the guy was a sodomite ? A conservative academic who likes to bugger the lads ? Don't they all ? And of what possible relevance is it whether or not they do (unless of course their official pronouncements are at odds with their preferred lifestyles) ? In fact, Bellow admirably manages to keep Ravelstein's sexual orientation from being much of an issue. Unlike the critics and reviewers, who seem fascinated by this.
There is more to the novel, including some philosophizing -- though Chick always reminds the reader that philosophy is not his subject. There are the aforementioned jabs at former University of Chicago colleagues such as Mircea Eliade, and some musings about Judaism, life, death, love, friendship, and whatnot. Bellow is less than effective in conveying many of these thoughts and ideas.
Bellow is a good writer, and much of the book reads fairly effortlessly. The sum, however, does not seem quite the equal of even these disparate and not always successful parts. There a number of decent scenes and fine passages here, but the book seems to aspire to be much more -- and falls short.
Ravelstein would frequently say to me, "There's something in the way you tell anecdotes that gets to me, Chick. But you need a real subject. I'd like you to write me up, after I'm gone ...."To his credit, Chick-Bellow seems to recognize that in fact a "real subject" is the last thing he needs. His inability to write for such a long time is, surely, a reflection of this. Chick says: "He felt he was giving me a great subject -- the subject of subjects", but Chick knows that Ravelstein was mistaken, not because Ravelstein wasn't a proper subject but because Chick-Bellow wasn't the man for the job.
Memoir writing continues to be all the fashion, in whatever guise -- whether ultra-realist or semi-pseudo-fictional or anything in between. Bellow seems not to trust his art in paying homage to his friend, Allan Bloom. Bellow is -- or was -- a master, and should have trusted his talents. Changing a few names, a few labels does not suffice.
Near Perigord Ezra Pound wrote: "End fact. Try fiction." May Bellow -- and others -- heed the call !
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Canadian-born American author Saul Bellow was born in 1917 and died 5 April 2005. He is the author of numerous novels, and was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1976.
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