Thursday, August 13, 2009

Ravelstein, by Saul Bellow

I first heard of Ravelstein when it came out in the year 2000, back in my senior in high school. The term ‘roman a clef’ would have been unfamiliar to me then (I just learned it last month, actually, and feel pretty cool using it), but this book is a prototypical example: the title character is based on a real person, Allan Bloom, author of the controversial book The Closing of the American Mind. Although Saul Bellow is of course considered one of our Great American Writers, a prose genius, a wonderful confabulator of the high and the low, etc., etc., an interest in Allan Bloom was my reason for picking up this book. Reviews on show that I am not alone in this.

The Closing of the American Mind, for those who haven’t had the chance to experience it, is a strange sort of political touchstone. Published in 1987, it’s one of those books that is more cranky/snotty than it is conservative, but, due to its place in history, it became a text that conservatives could claim as their own during the culture wars. In it, Bloom railed against the modern university’s denigration of Great Books, modern students’ passivity, and rock music. (In the book’s argument, all three are interrelated; an example of its datedness can be seen in how Sir Mick Jagger, now an aged member of the establishment, is quoted as the one figure most often named by collegians as a person who they would like to be.) I suppose that the only reason this is of interest to me is that a paperback copy of Closing, bought by my sister Angela at a Sioux Falls Goodwill, floated around one of our family station wagons in high school, introducing me to guys like Rousseau, Nietzsche, and Heidegger for the first time. Reading it as an adolescent, you’d think that college is (or, at least, can be) a place of discovery where earnest students can discover the wisdom of the ages by reading and passionately acting out the works of the great dead whites.

The book was loved by many and hated by many, and in the process Bloom became an international academic celebrity. That’s where Ravelstein starts out: Bloom’s placeholder, Abe Ravelstein, is on a trip to Paris with Bellow’s placeholder, Chick. As Chick leisurely points out, “Nobody in the days before he struck it rich had ever questioned Ravelstein’s need for Armani suits or Vuitton luggage, for Cuban cigars, unobtainable in the U.S., for the Dunhill accessories, for solid-gold Mont Blanc pens or Baccarat or Lalique crystal to serve wine in—or to have it served.” And now that he has “struck it rich” in book sales, Ravelstein has the resources to live in the style in that he prefers; the opening conversation takes place in the posh Hotel Crillon, where Michael Jackson (‘Miekell Jack-sown’ to the French, Chick jokes) has simultaneously rented out the entire floor below them.

In the 1st act, Chick and Ravelstein hobnob about, allowing readers to observe the regular, lush habits of the book’s hero. Chick heaps endless praise on Ravelstein. Though he co-teaches a class with him at ‘the university’ (always unnamed, but a stand-in for the University of Chicago), Chick is consistently in awe of Ravelstein’s intellect, at one point commenting that although he is Ravelstein’s elder, Ravelstein is his teacher. Being a novel and not a strict biography, this could be a case of the unreliable narrator, but there don’t seem to be any of the conventional signs. The admiration seems to be genuine, backed up by the laudatory preface he churned out for Bloom’s real-life bestseller.

But what reason do we readers have to love Ravelstein? Is it the way that he berates his cleaning lady for not appreciating the cost of his deluxe wine glasses? (“You can’t help thinking these women are just as rough with men’s penises,” he comments to Chick.) Is it the way he heralds himself as the last bastion of the civilized culture, putting himself as one apart who can separate wheat from chaff? (All popular music, as mentioned, dismissed as vulgar, while Mel Brooks—that paragon of refinement—gets a free pass, as a fellow Jew.) Is it the way he separates out his students, pairing them, judging over their good or bad matches? (Indeed, he judges over Eros for all people. Chick’s wife at the novel’s beginning, a “chaos physicist,” is treated as a constant nuisance; Ravelstein is glad when she is replaced by a younger, more suitable candidate: one of his (Ravelstein’s) fawning graduate students.) Or is it just that charming way he has of dismissing scientific accomplishments as obviously secondary to the self knowledge of great-souled men like himself?

Well, no matter; Chick still loves him. Which is good, since Ravelstein needs companions during his struggle with AIDS that makes up the book’s 2nd act. To the surprise of all his conservative champions—they only found out when this novel was published—Ravelstein/Bloom was an openly gay man, with some kinky tastes. His companion is a much younger man here named Nikki, with whom he shares a taste for finely tailored clothing and not too much else. (With his disease, we are told that the relationship has become more paternal than romantic, for the obvious reasons.) Sickness makes any character more pitiable, which meanwhile rescues the book. Ravelstein’s extravagance, at least to me, was suddenly tinged by the heroic—a stubborn unwillingness to cede the things that he valued in life, no matter how unworthy those things might be.

This is all dealt with a light touch. Bellow manages to fill Act 2 with both the death of his title character and the dissolution of Chick and Vela’s marriage (Vela being the ‘chaos physicist’) but somehow renders it without becoming ponderous or pompous. This is something of a miracle. It is even more extraordinary when you consider that the other main themes of the section are just the decline of western culture and the exile of the Jews. No biggie.

Ravelstein’s death 2/3 of the way through might have paralyzed some novelists, but, to my mind, the last third is the best of the book. In it, the abstractions of the earlier sections are made concrete. Chick struggles for many years—which, in the novel’s plastic sense of time, are passed over in a few sentences—over the Ravelstein book that his late friend asked him to write. Rosamund, the ex-Ravelstinian graduate student and Chick’s current wife, is as sensitive and caring as Vela was bitchy and soulless (Bellow could be accused of stereotyping his women, an especially damning charge when you find out that, along with the rest, they’re based on his actual wives, too), so when she suggests a Caribbean holiday, he acquiesces. Once there, he is poisoned by undercooked fish and bumbles near death himself. Unlike Ravelstein, whose coming death is well-acknowledged and respected, Chick has a hard time admitting his sickness. To reflect this, the novel grows hallucinatory and figures of the past mingle with the present. Even at the edge of the abyss, he continues to observe the minutiae of life, continues to see comedy instead of drama. Recalling his late friend Ravelstein, he says, “Better Bizet and Carmen than Wagner and the Ring.”

Though I did not know it at the time of reading, this was Bellow’s last novel, written when he was 85 years old. If we consider literature as just another form of human communication, this fact lends extra poignancy to this already remarkable book. As a meditation on the experience of modern death, I’ve not seen a fiction so detailed and so authentic. As one of the underling, Midwestern schlubs, I sort of resent some of the book's characters—with the conditioning we get toward modesty and self-effacement around here, I have a hard time liking a group of guys who scoff at the entire world while they slap each other’s backs, proclaiming themselves alone to be brilliant and worthwhile—but through their books, both Saul Bellow’s and Allan Bloom’s attitudes continue to influence me.

Somewhere in Northwest Iowa, Angela’s old copy of The Closing of the American Mind probably still exists, though she might declaim it now. As Bellow puts it in the last line of his book, “You don’t easily give up a creature like Ravelstein to death.”

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