Ravelstein (Penguin Classics)

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9780143107576: Ravelstein (Penguin Classics)

Abe Ravelstein is a brilliant professor at a prominent midwestern university and a man who glories in training the movers and shakers of the political world. He has lived grandly and ferociously-and much beyond his means. His close friend Chick has suggested that he put forth a book of his convictions about the ideas which sustain humankind, or kill it, and much to Ravelstein's own surprise, he does and becomes a millionaire. Ravelstein suggests in turn that Chick write a memoir or a life of him, and during the course of a celebratory trip to Paris the two share thoughts on mortality, philosophy and history, loves and friends, old and new, and vaudeville routines from the remote past. The mood turns more somber once they have returned to the Midwest and Ravelstein succumbs to AIDS and Chick himself nearly dies.

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Review:

With his latest novel Ravelstein, Saul Bellow 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. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Bellow confined himself to shorter fictions. Not that this old master ever dabbled in minimalism: his novella The Actual was bursting at the seams with wit, plot and the intellectual equivalent of high fibre. Still, Bellow's readers wondered if he would ever pull another full-sized novel from his hat. Well, he has.

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 from an AIDS-related illness, 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, that 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, favourable 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

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Press reviews
"The novel I would most like to have in my hands now is Saul Bellow's Ravelstein, in which a would-be writer notonly writes a book of ideas, but also becomes widely famous. Bellow... remains one of the great writers of the century, and as his late novellas demonstrate, he has lost none of his vision or sharpness." - Eileen Battersby, Irish Times.

"Saul Bellow's 13th novel is both familiar and fresh, streetwise and lyric, possessing all the ease expected of a literary master... This is the writer who has best summed up human experience, 'we are, for the time being, the living, the maimed and defective'. Above all, he has invariably presented his views through protagonists who are credible, wised-up victims of life... The genius of this exciting, thoughtful narrative lies in its honesty, its gentle tone, lack of pretension and the portrayal of the central character... Both sombre and exhilarating." - Eileen Battersby, Irish Times.

"Full of the old, cascading power... His people are embodied with souls; they wear their stretched essences on their bodies, and it is Bellow's delight to, as it were, 'read' their souls through their surfaces, as a Victorian phrenologist might have read the skull." -James Wood, Guardian.

"Abe Ravelstein is the American mind and Bellow its finest living (thank God) voice. We should all have such friends." -John Sutherland, Sunday Times.

"Saul Bellow's profound and luminous new novel, published in his 85th year, is a thinly fictionalised memoir of the philosopher and political theorist Allan Bloom... The novel is suffused with sharp-eyed, hard-edged love." Zachary Leader, Saturday Independent.

"A wonderfully sympathetic addition to this (Bellow's) cast of bruised romantics." -Graham Caveney, Sunday Express.

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