Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that Saul Bellow at 84 has written a novel as graceful and funny as Ravelstein. But who could have predicted that he would also stir up a hornets’ nest of controversy? The character of Abe Ravelstein is based on Bellow’s late friend and colleague, Allan Bloom, author of The Closing of the American Mind, the 1987 best-seller that became a lightning rod for the culture wars of the Reagan era. What hasn’t heretofore been public knowledge is that Bloom, who died in 1992, was homosexual. By outing his friend and asserting that his death resulted from AIDS, Bellow is facing accusations of betrayal and exploitation.
Some have gone as far as to suggest that Ravelstein is a sort of jealous revenge enacted against Bloom, who wrote The Closing of the American Mind at Bellow’s urging. Bloom’s book championed the Greek classics and condemned modern college campuses as lax and ineffectual (with much of the blame placed on the 1960s counterculture and the burgeoning climate of political correctness). It made Bloom a millionaire and an unlikely egghead celebrity welcomed at White House dinners and invited on Oprah. He was vilified by left-wing critics to such a degree that potential detractors were just as anxious to read his book as were enthusiastic supporters. Not even Bellow’s 1976 Nobel Prize in Literature could equal the attention that was lavished on Bloom and his enormously successful jeremiad, which had the throat-clenching subtitle of "How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students."
Let the pundits have their field day with Ravelstein. Let them again dredge up the old charges that Bellow lacks the skills of a first-rate novelist, that he writes chit-chatty essays in the guise of fiction, that his characters are crudely cribbed from friends and family members and ex-wives, and that his own outsized ego is the star of the show. When the bickering dies down and the smoke of recrimination clears, Ravelstein should emerge as the heartfelt masterpiece it assuredly is. Regardless of who Abe Ravelstein is modeled after, he is a fully realized character that lives on the page with the elan of a modern-day Dickens eccentric. As with Humboldt’s Gift, Bellow’s other great roman � clef (based on his friendship with the poet Delmore Schwartz), Ravelstein evokes with detail and precision the map of a mind, the outline of a soul. While the earlier novel showed us the dark and punishing slide of a failed literary career, Ravelstein presents a tale of outrageous good fortune — it’s "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" with smarter questions and a French beret for Regis.
We first meet the sixtyish bald-pated Ravelstein attired in a Japanese kimono and ensconced on the seventh floor of the Hotel Crillon in Paris (two floors below is pop star Michael Jackson and his entourage). "He had written a book," we’re told by Ravelstein’s visiting friend, Chick, who is also the novel’s narrator (and Bellow’s surrogate), "a spirited, intelligent, warlike book, and it had sold and was still selling in both hemispheres and on both sides of the equator." Asleep in the next room is Ravelstein’s gay Asian lover, Nikki ("layers of black hair reaching his glossy shoulders"). Chick and Ravelstein dawdle over a tray of wild strawberries and hot coffee and begin an in-depth discussion of — what else? — the economic policies of John Maynard Keynes at the close of the First World War. It turns out that Chick has written a brief biographical sketch of Keynes at Ravelstein’s request, with the understanding that Chick might next attempt a memoir about Ravelstein.
Bellow has always enjoyed capturing the exuberance of intellectuals talking, thinking, and dazzling one another with high culture and low jokes:
Ravelstein, with his bald powerful head, was at ease with large statements, big issues, and famous men, with decades, eras, centuries. He was, however, just as familiar with entertainers like Mel Brooks as with the classics and could go from Thucydides’ huge tragedy to Moses as played by Brooks. "He comes down from Mount Sinai with the commandments. God had handed down twenty but ten fall from Mel Brooks’s arms when he sees the children of Israel rioting around the Golden Calf." Ravelstein loved these Catskill entertainments; he had a natural gift for them.
The refined Ravelstein chain-smokes Marlboros and laughs uproariously at bad puns. He thinks nothing of buying a $4,500 Lanvin sports jacket on impulse before lunch and then absentmindedly soiling the lapels with spilled espresso. Back home in Chicago, his apartment on Lake Shore Drive is stuffed with silver and crystal, pricey paintings, $10,000 stereo speakers, and — the holy of holies — an industrial-size espresso machine in the kitchen. Like the hero of Bellow’s Henderson the Rain King, Ravelstein embodies the rapacious American spirit of "I want, I want, I want, oh, I want…"
But there is no implied criticism of Yankee materialism in Ravelstein’s nouveau riche lifestyle. Indeed, we come to accept his insatiable hunger for luxury as indistinguishable from his mind’s thirst for philosophical truth. (Of course, it is this linkage between wealth, privilege, and intellectual refinement that often gets Bellow pegged — with some justification — as an elitist and a cultural conservative.) Ravelstein sees all human desire in lofty terms reflecting the Socratic pursuit of Eros in Plato’s Symposium. Philosophy and art are not sublimated sexuality, as Freud would have us believe. Rather, they are the very soul of eroticism. The thrust of Ravelstein’s (and Bloom’s) critique of academia isn’t simply that the free-love hippies and leftists had taken over the universities in the Sixties. Ravelstein/Bloom insists that the hippies and leftists destroyed the free-love that had always been a natural component of education and replaced it with slogans and political noise.
Ravelstein is diagnosed with HIV and his weakened immune system becomes increasingly susceptible to illness and infection. Yet, this is a remarkably unsentimental story. Ravelstein refuses to indulge in self-pity. He continues to chain-smoke and hold court from a hospital bed. He’s on the telephone to Germany debating the upholstery color and CD player for a new BMW he’s having shipped to the states for Nikki. Former students come to visit, many of whom are well-placed in their fields as "historians, teachers, journalists, experts, civil servants, think-tankers." (There’s a marvelous party scene earlier with Ravelstein receiving top-level Gulf War reports via phone calls from a former student working in the State Department.)
Grief seems to overtake Chick a few years after Ravelstein’s death. Bellow beautifully portrays the subtle ache of absence that occurs when the dead seem to reach out and touch us in silence and memory: "I shan’t pretend that he didn’t come in obliquely from wherever it was that he continued to exist." On a quotidian level, the aging Chick feels "the persistence of Ravelstein" in his life because "it had become my habit to tell him what had happened to me since we last met." And then, as if to better prepare him to write a book about his friend, Chick experiences "a rehearsal of my own with death" when he nearly dies from food poisoning while vacationing in the Caribbean. His young wife Rosamund — one of Ravelstein’s stellar graduates — manages to get him on a plane back to the U.S., where he survives heart failure and pneumonia in an intensive care unit. Once healthy again, Chick finds the clarity and inspiration to write the memoir that Ravelstein had asked him to undertake in the novel’s opening scene.
As Ravelstein makes its way up the best-seller list this summer, it will be interesting to observe what effect Bellow’s portrait has on Allan Bloom’s perceived reputation as an icon among the kind of hard-core conservatives who would frankly exclude him on the basis of his sexuality. At the height of his fame, Bloom argued that his cultural concerns were of a more radical nature than any party affiliation could satisfy, whether conservative or liberal. In a sense, this is the service Bellow has rendered unto his old friend: he’s rescued Bloom from the province of political hacks and axe-grinders by allowing us the full measure of his humanity. Bellow’s novel is an eloquent defense of Eros as unifying and inclusive.
– Bob Wake