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Bellow's "Ravelstein" is an unfinished portrait

By William Corbett

APRIL 24, 2000: 

Ravelstein by Saul Bellow (Viking), 233 pages, $24.95.

Ravelstein, Saul Bellow has made clear in at least one published interview, is a portrait of Bellow's friend and colleague Allan Bloom. For more than two-thirds of its length it will remind readers of Bellow's Humboldt's Gift. After that the novel becomes a valentine to Bellow's current wife, and as Abe Ravelstein/Bloom fades from its pages, so does the book's drive. In the end, this is an unsatisfying novel, good enough that it should have been better.

In 1987, Bloom, with whom Bellow taught at the University of Chicago, published The Closing of the American Mind, to which Bellow contributed an introduction. The book decried American liberalism, focusing on its subtitle, "How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today's Students." It was fervently praised and damned with venomous intensity. You did not have to know the people involved to recognize the attacks as personal. All this might be of marginal interest had the book not become a #1 bestseller and Bloom that rarity, an American rewarded and celebrated for his intellect. Big money came his way.

Ravelstein shares the same fate. Chick, the narrator, tells us that "it took the genius of capitalism to make a valuable commodity out of thoughts, opinions, teachings." The novel begins just past the zenith of Ravelstein's life. He has AIDS, he's dying, and he asks Chick to write a memoir about him. Not a biography (as he wrote this book, Bellow himself was having his life written by James Atlas) but a portrait.

And that is what Chick has given us. The prose, at least through the portrait section, is muscular, funny, and alive. Bellow's novels have rarely had plots. They put a voice in your ear and off they go. That voice has been named March, Henderson, Herzog, Sammler, Citrine, Corde, and now Chick, who's older than Ravelstein but still gets nicknamed -- a spring chicken. This emphasizes the "sophomoric qualities" that Chick says he shares with Ravelstein. He may not be the man's intellectual equal, but he is attentive to the surfaces of Ravelstein's life.

It is in these surfaces that Ravelstein comes across most powerfully. You feel his presence most as a physical being. Chick says he wants to avoid the man's ideas (how could you portray ideas?) and he does. He records Ravelstein's opinions, but just as remarks are not literature, opinions are not intelligence. What we get is Ravelstein's bald head described so that his skull, seat of his brain, is as memorable as his great height and the way his hands shake, charged with nervous energy. Ravelstein loves to clothe his body in finery, and as always, Bellow writes lovingly about clothes. The best scene in the book depicts Ravelstein drinking espresso in Paris, where the novel begins, at the Café de Flore. He is wearing the ravishing Lanvin sportscoat he just paid $4500 for, and as his shaking hands bring coffee to his lips, some of it spills, staining the coat's lapel. This does not bother him in the least. Ravelstein may want only the best of everything, but, Jewish, gay, politically contrarian, he is no crass materialist.

Chick notices the stain, and after Ravelstein sees it and says, "I've fucked up again," Chick suggests the hotel's valet service will be able to take care of it. Ravelstein's response is a key to the man's character. Chick tells us, "Obviously, my purpose in mentioning the Crillon's valet service was to comfort Abe for spilling the Flore's strongest coffee on his brand-new jacket. But Abe didn't want to me to console him for being who he was . . . he didn't think well of my weak, liberal let's-make-it-all-better motive -- my foolish kindness." Abe Ravelstein, whose subject is political philosophy and whose texts begin with Plato and span the core Western tradition, insists on being exactly as human as he is, alive in all his contradictions and, in Nietzsche's phrase, "a fighter against his time." We can believe that Ravelstein pissed off a great many people, but we have to take Chick's word for it. In this regard, as in the man's ideas, Ravelstein is not a full-dress portrait. Chick, it seems, cannot pause to get down the man in full.

Then, six years after Ravelstein's death, Chick's wife Rosamund talks him into a Caribbean vacation. He doesn't like the tropics and doesn't want to go, but he goes and after a few bites of undercooked fish -- disaster! His nervous system poisoned, he nearly dies. More or less what befell Bellow, at least from what I remember reading in the newspapers. But Chick lives, nursed back to good health by his devoted wife and a gruff Boston doctor. These mawkish pages erase Ravelstein until he returns for a brief vivid moment. The novel's last sentence reads, "You don't easily give up a creature like Ravelstein to death."

No, I imagine you don't, and it may also be true that you don't easily give up a creature like Ravelstein to fiction. Bellow has a great subject and he can never be anything but a sharp observer with a head full of ideas and opinions and a quick, original tongue. The problem is that Ravelstein is too big a creature for this book. He deserves the scale of Herzog, Humboldt or Sammler, Bellow's companion portraits of Jewish intellectual stars. But Ravelstein dominates Chick. Awe is an intimidating perspective from which to describe someone. It will let you get only so far.

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