For as long as I’ve had this blog, I have been itching to write about Saul Bellow. No writer has influenced me more. At least, no writer has influenced my reading more. After three years studying the English canon, I finished my literature degree feeling rather canon-ed out and went through a period where I didn’t read very much. Bellow got me going again. Exactly why my parents had a copy of Humboldt’s Gift I (and they) don’t know. Nor do I know what moved me to read it. What I do know is that my folks aren’t getting their book back anytime soon. For me, that novel was so brimming with life, so electrically charged, that it completely re-energised my reading and set me off on a whole odyssey of American literature that I am still on. Naturally, there have been many more Bellows along the way, but I am only now getting around to his last novel, Ravelstein. It was worth the wait.
Published in 2000, when Bellow was eighty-four, Ravelstein is inevitably mellower than Herzog and Humboldt, less rambunctious. At 230-odd pages, it is also significantly shorter. Neither fact should surprise. Shorter and mellower was the direction in which Bellow’s fiction had been heading for a while, with stories that dwelt increasingly on the past, that weren’t always barrelling forward. Though it rarely receives attention, some great writing emerged from this period: the 1989 novella The Bellarosa Connection is up there with his best novels for me, and short stories like ‘Something to Remember Me By’ and ‘A Silver Dish’ are wonderfully moving. At 230-odd pages, then, Ravelstein is actually a lot longer than you might expect, and a whole lot more vigorous.
This late-career burst of energy is indebted to the novel’s subject, Abe Ravelstein, in whom Bellow found the perfect outlet for his talents. As with Humboldt’s eponymous poet, this maverick philosopher is seen through the eyes of another, Chick. Though Chick is considerably older than Ravelstein, the two are “close friends, none closer”: the former in awe of the latter’s dazzling intellect; the latter indebted to the former for convincing him to put his ideas down in a book. That book, remarkably, has become a bestseller, and when we meet our two characters in Paris at the beginning of the novel, Ravelstein is putting his newly acquired millions to good use, whirlwinding his friend around cafés, restaurants and boutiques. Ravelstein is in his element here and seems to practically crackle with energy:
Ravelstein scribbled his name wildly on the check while bringing a bun to his mouth. I was the neater eater. Ravelstein when he was feeding and speaking made you feel that something biological was going on, that he was stoking his system and nourishing his ideas.
This rapaciousness predates Ravelstein’s wealth; he has always been excessive, his engine-like body fizzing with so many ideas, so much talk, that his hands literally tremble with the stimulation.
People are understandably drawn to this force of nature. At the unnamed university where Ravelstein teaches (clearly Chicago), he is worshipped by his students,
who dressed as he did, smoked the same Marlboros, and found in [Ravelstein’s pizza-and-basketball parties] a common ground between the fan clubs of childhood and the Promised Land of the intellect toward which Ravelstein, their Moses and their Socrates, led them.
I share their fascination. Indeed, I would almost go so far as to say that Ravelstein is one of Bellow’s greatest creations, except that he is not Bellow’s creation. So clearly is the character modelled on Bellow’s close friend Allan Bloom that Ravelstein can sometimes read as straight biography. He has the same bald head as Bloom, wonderfully likened to a “honeydew melon”; he has the same gangly frame; and, of course, Bloom too was the author of an unlikely bestseller, The Closing of the American Mind. And the Bloom connection means another thing: that Ravelstein cannot possibly end well. A homosexual, Bloom died of AIDS at the age of 62, and the same happens to his fictional self.
Knowing that he will die before his friend, Ravelstein canvasses Chick to write his biography:
Ravelstein’s legacy to me was a subject – he thought he was giving me a subject, perhaps the best one I ever had, perhaps the only really important one.
In a rather meta kind of way, Bloom gave Bellow a great subject, too, and were Philip Roth the author of this book, no doubt he would have had all sorts of postmodern fun with that. But this is Bellow writing, the least postmodern of authors, and what interests him is the human cost of this legacy: how Chick “may have nothing more to do in this life than commemorate [Ravelstein]”; how this “unfinished work” might be the only thing keeping him alive. These concerns become very real when, a few years after Ravelstein’s death and with the biography still not written, Chick eats a diseased fish while on holiday and almost dies. Having almost died of the same thing himself, Bellow is clearly writing from experience here and the last fifty or so pages of the novel give a breathless and convincing account of illness, from the first twinges of fatigue to the intervention of the life support machine.
Even so, I missed Ravelstein in these pages; he is barely mentioned, only reappearing in the last few. Bellow has written too strong a character to leave out. So let’s return to him for a moment. For me, Ravelstein’s appeal is Bellow’s appeal. “[J]ust as familiar with entertainers like Mel Brooks as with the classics,” Ravelstein too moves between the high and the low, pop culture and high culture, street talk and Socratic dialogue. For both Ravelstein and Bellow these things are one and the same, are all part of the human comedy, so that, even in a book full of death, there is more than enough life to keep you laughing.
Ravelstein is published by Penguin and is available here.