Saul Bellow’s Ravelstein

RavelsteinThis is my first (long overdue) foray into Bellow’s works, and as such is something of an odd starting point: Ravelstein is less a work of fiction than a memoir, a small glimpse into Bellow’s friendship with renowned scholar and philosopher Allan Bloom. It is also the last book Bellow ever wrote, begun when he was 85 years old and not published until the year 2000, barely five years before his death. I came to this book by way of Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind, which remains the most important critique of the US educational system after the Second World War. The kind, elderly woman in the bookstore who pulled it off the shelf for me was profuse in her praise of Bloom, from whom she had taken classes at the University of Chicago, describing him, in much the same way that Bellow does, as a charming sophisticate with a cigarette permanently affixed to his mouth (at one point in the memoir, Bloom lights up a cigarette in his classroom and proudly declares that “anyone more concerned with my smoking than my ideas is better off leaving now”). Though the names are changed (to protect the innocent?), the factual details are unimpeachable, and Bellow gives a vivid and detailed portrait of his dead friend.

I suppose the proper starting point is the memoir’s subject, Allan Bloom aka Ravelstein. Ravelstein is six and a half feet tall with a shiny-bald pate and a love of Turnbull & Asser (“Kisser & Asser”) tailored suits, Cuban cigars, fine music and fine dining. His tastes, it is revealed, were towards the sophisticated and expensive long before his international best-seller, written at the behest of Bellow, made them financially feasible. He divides his time between Paris and Chicago, where he is a full-time professor. He is an engaged and passionate teacher, keeping in contact with favorite students long after they graduate and hosting dinner parties (wine & pizza) in his apartment every night Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls have a game. Ravelstein is also a gay man fighting a losing battle against HIV, a fact that, while rarely candidly discussed, forms the background of much of the narrative.

There is much Bellow discusses in this novel – the significance of ideas and the life of the mind, Jewish identity in America, the prospect of death – but the book stands or falls on its portrayal of Bloom and, in this, it cannot be other than an unqualified success. There are a small handful of authors capable of operating at that tenuous intersection of life and art, where distinguishing between the two becomes all but impossible, and Bellow, in Ravelstein, achieves such a conflation. Martin Amis offered my preferred compliment: “it constitutes an act of resuscitation, and in its pages Bloom lives.” This was what Bloom asked of Bellow: he charged him, who knew Bloom only for a fraction of his life, with reproducing it faithfully, truthfully, without gloss or embellishment, and this is what Bellow delivers.