Isn’t it amazing how good death can be for a writer–as long as it’s somebody else’s death? That at least was my feeling reading Ravelstein. And frankly, even the looming shadow of Bellow’s own death seems to have stimulated him to greatness at an age when most writers falter or fail altogether. I’m very excited about having this strange and wonderful book to discuss with you. I can’t quite call it a novel; it feels like something much weirder. Sort of “A Portrait of the Artist as an Old Man.” Unlike the young-man variety, I haven’t read too many geriatric versions of imaginative awakening, and I found it a deeply stirring, genuinely inspiring affirmation of the creative life.
By now, I suppose, most people know that this book is Bellow’s tribute to (or betrayal of) his friend Allan Bloom, who taught with him at the Committee on Social Thought and who was politically conservative, personally flamboyant, and who, in the last years of his life, was also very rich as a result of writing The Closing of the American Mind, which Bellow wrote the introduction for. Bloom was gay, and a recent New York Times article quotes both Bellow and Bellow’s biographer James Atlas as saying that Bloom died of AIDS. That’s what Ravelstein dies of, and Bellow’s apparent outing of his friend, however novelistically, seems to have disturbed some people.
Personally, I’ve never cared too much about the literal models for fictional subjects. Who posed for the Mona Lisa just never mattered to me. Nevertheless, I did find myself automatically deciding that the extravagant, political, philosophical Ravelstein was Bloom; the wise but ingenuous Chick was Bellow; the cold, mathematical Eastern European Vela was the most recent of Bellow’s former wives; and the tender, motherly and youthful Rosamund was Bellow’s young present wife.
In the novel, just to review for the reader, Ravelstein asks Chick–who is a writer but not a novelist–to write his memoir. “Ravelstein’s legacy to me was a subject,” Chick observes. But after Ravelstein dies, Chick finds himself unable to fulfil his promise to render an unsentimental account of his friend until Chick himself almost dies of food poisoning in the Caribbean. He is nursed back to health by his loving wife, herself a former Ravelstein student. We leave the recovered Chick on the brink of writing the promised account–which is, in a sort of Proustian way, the novel we’ve just read.
I’m eager to learn how you responded to this book because I myself changed my mind about it about a third of the way through. I felt immediately that the mimetic powers I’ve always admired in Bellow were amazingly intact–the uncanny ability to render the physical world in words: “The Japanese kimono fell away from legs paler than milk. He had the calves of a sedentary man–the shinbone long and the calf muscle abrupt, without roundness.” But I also felt that something was wrong–that the novel had no energy or movement, that there was something inert about it. There were repetitions and inconsistencies, and even Chick, the “Bellow character,” seemed an amalgam of old Bellow characters, as if the author would rather remember former creations than face himself. Bellow seemed to me at times to be wearing the mask of his old self, assuming a jauntiness and false vigor that I initially found unpersuasive.
But then something happened and I stopped caring about the novel’s flaws in the same way that I suddenly stopped caring who each character represented. Bellow was having a dialogue with himself, I thought–the philosophical vs. the experiential, the believer vs. the doubter, the Jewish vs. the self-hater (or self-escaper), the mystic vs. the materialist, the ageless soul vs. the aging body, the lover of women and friends vs. the hater and cannibalizer of women and friends. This made the book much more compelling for me.
Ravelstein really is Bellow as much as Chick is Bellow. How could I have been persuaded otherwise by a few newspaper articles and some literary chitchat? And as I recovered my sense of what fiction is, I realized that the power of the book wasn’t in its polish, which it lacks, but in something deeper. Bellow himself is consciously dispensing with certain requirements of form. “I may come back to this, I probably won’t,” Chick says, and I feel that’s Bellow’s attitude, too. The very incompleteness of the thing is part of its point. It made me think of those late Picasso drawings where the artist is depicted in his studio with all the tokens of his art around him–a nude, a monster, an easel. Nothing is completed and yet everything seems sufficient. The great fleeting renderings of physical life in Ravelstein were enough for me. This book feels like the work of a late master. I wonder how you see it?