Ravelstein

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Ravelstein
RavelsteinNovel.jpg
First edition
Author Saul Bellow
Cover artist Richard Dunkley[1]
Country United States
Language English
Publisher Viking Press
Publication date
24 April 2000
Media type Print (Hardback & Paperback)
ISBN ISBN 0-670-84134-X (hardback edition)
OCLC 42780381
813/.52 21
LC Class PS3503.E4488 R38 2000
Preceded by The Actual

Ravelstein is Saul Bellow's final novel. Published in 2000, when Bellow was eighty-five years old, it received widespread critical acclaim. It tells the tale of a friendship between two university professors and the complications that animate their erotic and intellectual attachments in the face of impending death. The novel is a roman à clef, written in memoir-form. The narrator is in Paris with Abe Ravelstein, a renowned professor, and Nikki, his lover. Ravelstein, who is dying, asks the narrator to write a memoir about him after he dies. After his death, the narrator and his wife go on holiday to the Caribbean. The narrator catches a tropical disease and flies back to the United States in convalescence. Eventually, on recuperation, he decides to write the memoir.

The title character, Ravelstein, is based on the philosopher Allan Bloom, who taught alongside Bellow at the University of Chicago's Committee on Social Thought. Remembering Bloom in an interview, Bellow said, "Allan inhaled books and ideas the way the rest of us breathe air... People only want the factual truth. Well, the truth is that Allan was a very superior person, great-souled. When critics proclaim the death of the novel, I sometimes think they are really saying that there are no significant people to write about." But "Allan was certainly one."[2]

Characters[edit]

  • Abe Ravelstein, a 6'6" tall, renowned professor of philosophy at the University of Chicago, based on Allan Bloom. Ravelstein studied under Felix Davarr and Alexandre Kojève.
  • Nikki, Abe's Malaysian lover. Modeled on Bloom's real life lover, Michael Wu.
  • The narrator, a long-time friend of Ravelstein's who is somewhat older than the protagonist. While Ravelstein refers to him by the nickname "Chick", he otherwise remains nameless.
  • Vela, the narrator's previous wife, a beautiful Romanian chaos theorist. Vela is based on Alexandra Bellow.[3]
  • Rosamund, the narrator's current wife.
  • Rakhmiel Kogon, a professor. The character is based on Bellow's friend Edward Shils.[4]
  • Marla Glyph, the wife of the chair of Ravelstein's university department.
  • Ruby Tyson, Ravelstein's cleaning-lady.
  • Felix Davarr, a now-deceased prominent academic and a teacher of Ravelstein. The character is based on Leo Strauss.
  • Dr Schley, Ravelstein's cardiologist.
  • Professor Radu Grielescu, a famous Jungian professor, rumoured to have been Nazi sympathiser during the Second World War; the character is modelled directly on Bellow's friend, Romanian historian Mircea Eliade.[5]
  • Morris Herbst, a friend of Ravelstein's based on Bloom's friend Werner Dannhauser.
  • Battle, a professor who moves to Wisconsin with his wife to retire. The character is based on the British geographer Paul Wheatley.
  • Sam Partiger, a friend of the narrator's. He gets introduced to Ravelstein when the man is dying.
  • Roxie Durkin, a friend of Rosamund's.
  • Dr Bakst, the narrator's neurologist in hospital.

Literary significance and criticism[edit]

Literary Reception[edit]

Describing the novel in his memoir Experience, Martin Amis wrote: "Ravelstein is a full-length novel. It is also, in my view, a masterpiece with no analogues. The world has never heard this prose before: prose of such tremulous and crystallized beauty." For Ravelstein is "numinous. It constitutes an act of resuscitation, and in its pages Bloom lives."[6]

Literary theorist John Sutherland wrote: "The novel explores, in its attractively rambling way, two dauntingly large and touchy themes: death and American Jewishness ... Not quite American (as the Canadian-born Jew, Bellow, is not quite American), Abe Ravelstein is the American mind and Bellow its finest living (thank God) voice. We should all have such friends."[7]

The literary critic Sir Malcolm Bradbury, stated: "Just when we didn't expect it, there now wonderfully comes a large new novel from the master... Our world is a world of ideas, pervaded by minds, thoughts, notions, beyond which lies what we seek with such difficulty: wholeness, silence and love. Via print, Ravelstein survives; and Bellow survives. So does fiction itself."[8]

William Leith, writing in The Independent, argued: "As you would expect, Ravelstein, as a character, is beautifully drawn. He is "impatient with hygiene". He smokes constantly. "When he coughed you heard the sump at the bottom of a mine shaft echoing." His "biological patchiness was a given". Those who invite him to dinner must reckon with "the spilling, splashing, crumbling, the nastiness of his napkin after he had used it, the pieces of cooked meat scattered under the table". Like many Bellow characters, he has developed a mean streak. "Nothing", he declares, "is more bourgeois than the fear of death."... This is the late late message from Bellow: death is humiliating. But there might be consolations. I almost forgot to say that Ravelstein is a brilliant novel"[9]

For Ron Rosenbaum, Ravelstein was Bellow's greatest novel: "It's a rapturous celebration of the life of the mind, as well as a meditation on the glory of sensual life and on the tenebrous permeable boundary we all eventually pass over, the one between life and death... a novel Bellow wrote in his 80s, which I found absolutely, irresistibly seductive, both sensually and intellectually, one in which the sublimity and pathos of life and art are not joined to each other with heavy welds but transformed into a beautiful, seamless, unravelable fabric."[10]

On its publication, the Harvard literary critic James Wood wrote: "How extraordinary, then, that Bellow's substantial new novel, Ravelstein, written in his 85th year, should be so full of the old, cascading power... Ravelstein... is large, flamboyant, and excessively clumsy. When he laughs, he throws his head back "like Picasso's wounded horse in Guernica". He loves fine clothes, Lanvin jackets, Zegna ties, but tends to spill food on them. Hostesses know to put newspaper underneath Ravelstein's chair at a dinner party. At home, he wanders around in an exquisite silk dressing-gown, chain-smoking. His apartment is stuffed with beautiful glass and silverware, with the finest Italian and French linens, and thousands of CDs. He reclines on a black leather couch, listening to Baroque music, is enormously learned, and given to oration on a thousand subjects... By all accounts, including Bellow's, this is Allan Bloom as his friends knew him."[11]

Controversy[edit]

"There was no counting the cigarettes he lit in a day. Most of them he forgot or broke... But to prolong his life was not one of Ravelstein's aims. Risk, limit, death's blackout were present in every living moment." - Saul Bellow, Ravelstein

On its publication, the novel caused controversy[citation needed] for its frank depiction of Ravelstein's (and therefore Allan Bloom's) love of gossip, his free spending, his political influence, and his homosexuality, as well as the revelation, as the story unfolds, that he is dying from AIDS.

Bellow claimed that Bloom, a philosopher and social critic, ostensibly aligned with many American conservative ideas and ambitions, was anything but conservative in his private life, and in many of his philosophical views. Robert Fulford argued that, "[r]emarkably, no reference to Bloom's homosexuality has previously appeared in print—not in the publicity that surrounded his best-seller, or his obituaries, or even his posthumously published book, Love and Friendship.[12] Accordingly, some took Ravelstein as a betrayal of Bloom's private life; however, Bellow rigidly defended his claim, citing private conversations between Bloom and himself where, Bellow insists, the subject urged Bellow to tell it all. Bloom was not a 'closeted' homosexual: although he never spoke publicly of his sexual orientation, Bloom was openly gay, and his close friends, colleagues, and former students all knew of it.[13] He was a bachelor and never married or had children.

In his most famous book, Closing of the American Mind, Bloom criticizes homosexual politics in American universities on an issue relating to his core concern - liberal arts education, or 'Great Books' liberal arts curriculum, making a distinction between a politically self-defined group of homosexual activists and homosexuality per se. Although Bloom, in the wake of his literary stardom, explicitly stated, at a Harvard University gathering, published in Giants & Dwarfs, that he was not a conservative, he was much admired by conservative publications, like William F. Buckley, Jr's National Review.

Arguing in support of Bloom in The New Republic, Andrew Sullivan wrote: "Bloom was gay, and he died of AIDS. The salience of these facts is strengthened, not weakened, by Bloom's public silence about them. Of all people, he knew the centrality of the things about which we remain silent[...] Retaining the purity of that longing was his life's work. The reason he disliked the modern cult of easy sex was not because he scorned or feared the erotic life but because he revered it. He saw sexual longing as supremely expressed in individual love, and he wanted his students to experience both to the fullest. He not merely understood Nietzsche; he imbibed him. But this awareness of the abyss moved Bloom, unlike Nietzsche, toward love... One day, one hopes, there will be a conservatism civilized enough to deserve him...[14]

The text[edit]

University of Chicago

Typical of Bellow's most accessible fiction, like the short novel surrounding a father-son relationship and the New York Stock Exchange, Seize the Day, Ravelstein is a crisp mix of dialogue, narration, and unanswered questions. Abe Ravelstein is a paradox - the serious and mundane, the corporeal and spiritual, the conservative and radical. The one constant is the kindness and friendship between "Chick" and Ravelstein. Few intellectual or personal subjects are taboo; although Ravelstein's philosophical insights are not part of the story. Chick makes it clear Ravelstein thinks he is too old to become a philosopher. Thus, a comparison can be made to Xenophon's Socratic works and dialogues, such as Memorabilia, where a non-philosopher describes the outward life of a philosopher, for Chick most definitely believes Ravelstein is a great thinker, even if he cannot judge the merits of the man's wisdom.

The story follows the physical decline of Ravelstein, a University of Chicago professor, and how his recent literary fame and financial success impacted his life. After Ravelstein's death, the remainder of the work deals with the narrator's own illness and hospitalization. Ravelstein is not aloof or uninterested by the Heideggerian 'fallen-ness' of everyday life. He is a consumer of goods and gossip, eagerly meeting people where they exist, without constructing artificial barriers based on presumed superiority. His friendships do not solely revolve around his own interests and concerns. Thoughts and opinions expressed by Ravelstein are often humorous, precisely because they are so 'common' and 'clichéd'. Upon lighting a cigarette to open a class, he mentions that students who dislike tobacco more than they love ideas will not be missed. He even rearranges the love lives of his students, often without being asked, going so far as to ask them to return with any gossip that isn't treason to repeat.

"He didn't ask, "Where will you spend eternity?" as religious the-end-is-near picketers did but rather, "With what, in this modern democracy, will you meet the demands of your soul?""

- Saul Bellow, Ravelstein

In this virtual roman à clef, Ravelstein's mentor 'Davarr' is based on a real figure, Leo Strauss, his friend 'Morris Herbst' on Werner Dannhauser, and the narrator's friend 'Rakhmiel Kogon' has elements in his character of German sociologist Edward Shils – as well as Polish political philosopher Leszek Kołakowski. 'Radu Grielescu' is based on Mircea Eliade.

In many ways, Bellow depicts Ravelstein - and by association himself - as one of the few remaining Renaissance men in modern universities. Although the difference between the two is that Ravelstein would enthusiastically agree with being called a Renaissance man, and Chick would blush. The professor, turned best selling author, works to counter the impoverishment of the contemporary "market place of ideas", even if he is a little too attached to his own passions and personal vanity. Chick contrasts with Ravelstein as an older fellow, more cautious and predictable. When he claims he is saving Finnegans Wake for the nursing home, Ravelstein asks, "Why wait?" Intellectual honesty binds these friends.

Interpretation[edit]

"But I would rather see Ravelstein again than to explain matters it doesn't help to explain..."

"You don't easily give up a creature like Ravelstein to death." - Saul Bellow, Ravelstein

JFK Terminal 1.jpg

Bellow asks, via inference, in Ravelstein, how one is best remembered: for contributions to general knowledge; for contributions to humanity via the treatment of one's friends, intimates, and strangers; or for having attracted mass attention and a notoriety which thereafter decays. That last theme is poignantly exhibited in two instances: early on, in a chance encounter between Ravelstein and Chick and pop star Michael Jackson (and entourage) at Paris' Hôtel de Crillon, and later, when Ravelstein recalls having followed Elizabeth Taylor through an airport terminal in a sudden (and brief) obsession.

At Idlewild, once, he had spotted Elizabeth Taylor and for the better part of an hour tracked her through the crowds. It especially pleased him to have recognized her. Because she was so faded, it took some doing. She seemed to know that her glamour was gone.

Bellow, in Ravelstein, reveals the crossing paths of purpose and truth in the trajectories of remembrance. In this pattern of coming and going, Bellow seems to imply, the best recollection of a man is a complete depiction of complication and chance painted against the higher ambition of an authentically shared existence.

Adaptations[edit]

In 2009, Audible.com produced an audio version of Ravelstein, narrated by Peter Ganim, as part of its Modern Vanguard line of audiobooks.

References[edit]

  1. ^ Modern first editions - a set on Flickr
  2. ^ The wordly mystic's late bloom James Wood, The Guardian, Saturday 15 April 2000
  3. ^ A Bellow Novel Eulogizes a Friendship DINITIA SMITH, New York Times, January 27, 2000
  4. ^ The wordly mystic's late bloom James Woods, The Guardian, 15 April 2000
  5. ^ Chicago Dostoyevsky James Atlas, The New Criterion, February 2001
  6. ^ Amis, Experience, (London 2000).
  7. ^ Ravelstein by Saul Bellow Stephen Moss, The Guardian, Thursday 11 May 2000
  8. ^ Ravelstein by Saul Bellow Stephen Moss, The Guardian, Thursday 11 May 2000
  9. ^ Ravelstein by Saul Bellow Stephen Moss, The Guardian, Thursday 11 May 2000
  10. ^ Rosenbaum, Ron. "Saul Bellow and the Bad Fish." Slate. 3 Apr 2007
  11. ^ The wordly mystic's late bloom James Woods, The Guardian, 15 April 2000
  12. ^ Saul Bellow, Allan Bloom, and Abe Ravelstein" 2 November 1999, "Globe and Mail"
  13. ^ Longing: Remembering Allan Bloom, Andrew Sullivan, The New Republic, April 17, 2000
  14. ^ Longing: Remembering Allan Bloom, Andrew Sullivan, The New Republic, April 17, 2000

External links[edit]