Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Saul Bellow confined himself to shorter fictions. Not that this old master ever dabbled in minimalism: novellas such as The Actual and The Bellarosa Connection are bursting at the seams with wit, plot, and the intellectual equivalent of high fiber. Still, Bellow's readers wondered if he would ever pull another full-sized novel from his hat. With Ravelstein, the author has done just that--and he 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.
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 of AIDS, 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, which 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, favorable 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 [via]