Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Review: Ravelstein, by Saul Bellow

I have a confession to make: When I read what is arguably Saul Bellow’s best-known novel, Herzog, a few years back, I absolutely hated it. Maybe it was my disposition at the time, but I found that book infused with a kind of dick-swinging machismo that I had little patience for. I had written off Bellow as a result – I know, I know, he’s supposed to be one of the great American writers of the 20th century – but decided to give him another chance after reading about his published letters late last year. I chose one of his other novels at random and Ravelstein is what I picked.

Ravelstein was Bellow’s last novel before he died in 2005, and it’s very much an exploration of death by a man nearing the end of his life. It involves the narrator, a writer of some reputation named Chick, who has been charged with putting together a memoir for his good friend Abe Ravelstein, a revered (and often reviled) professor of philosophy at a Midwest college. (The novel’s subject is reportedly based on Bellow’s own good friend, Allan Bloom.) What unfolds is not so much a memoir in the narrative sense as it is an examination of a man’s ideas and lifestyle, and how those two things can conflict or cause friction.

In fact, Ravelstein the person is a paragon of contradictions: physically imposing at 6’6, he is nonetheless a man of the mind, molding the intellects of entire generations of young people at the university where he teaches. While staunchly conservative in his views about education, at least by the standards of late-20th century academia, he is anything but “right wing” in his private life: he is a confirmed homosexual, with a partner named Nikki who is several decades his junior. Ravelstein is by any measure a success in his chosen field, and yet laments on the disappointment of his father for not making it into a certain fraternity while a student. And though he works in the obtusely esoteric world of a university philosophy department, Ravelstein has achieved no small measure of fortune and fame: the novel opens after he has published a book of pop philosophy that has become a runaway international bestseller.

Our narrator Chick, by his own admission, finds the idea of writing Ravelstein’s memoir a daunting task. How to encapsulate a man of such varied interests and viewpoints, a subject of such relentless incongruity? The portrait that ensues begins with a detailing of Ravelstein’s spendthrift ways after he has published his massively popular book, but then becomes a cataloguing of a lifetime of wisdom and bon mots. This is Bellow’s great strength in the novel, the way he’s able to give us a multidimensional view of Ravelstein even as Chick struggles to get the man down on paper. It is a character sketch writ large, full of telling detail and sweeping statements about the man. So many passages of Ravelstein capture him in all his fuddy-duddy, pugnacious glory. For example, this one:

His pupils had turned into historians, teachers, journalists, experts, civil servants, think-tankers. Ravelstein had produced (indoctrinated) three or four generations of graduates. Moreover, his young men were mad for him. They didn’t limit themselves to his doctrines, his interpretations, but imitated his manners, and tried to walk and talk as he did – freely, wildly, pungently, with a brilliancy as close to his as they could make it … They smoked with Ravelstein’s erratic gestures. They played the same compact discs. He cured them of their taste for rock and they now listened to Mozart, Rossini … They sold their collections of the Beatles and the Grateful Dead and listened instead to Maria Callas singing La Traviata.

Or this one:

With a large No Smoking sign behind him, Ravelstein lit cigarettes with his Dunhill flame as he lectured, saying: “If you leave because you hate tobacco more than you love ideas, you won’t be missed.”

We all know professors like this, who snub their nose at changing times and become a quirky model to be imitated by adoring students. Every detail that Bellow provides becomes another brushstroke in that great depiction of the character he has created.

But in the end, this is all that Ravelstein really is – a 230-page character sketch done with panache, but still just a character sketch. There is no doubt that Bellow knows how to make a character come to life and become a universally recognizable entity on the page. (Just look at what he does with Chick’s ex-wife Vela: she is the very model of female vanity, a woman of astounding beauty and practically intoxicated by her own sense of narcissism.) And yet what is missing from this novel is a sense of story, a sense of rising action to tie it all together.

Indeed, what passes for a plot point is that Ravelstein contracts AIDS and begins dying. (It was unclear to me how he got sick. Did he cheat on Nikki?) Even in the bosom of death, Ravelstein continues to defy the expectations on him: he begins smoking again just hours after leaving intensive care, continues spending his money wildly even after materialism has become a moot point. And what passes for thematic integration is that, after Ravelstein has passed away, Chick contracts dengue fever while vacationing in the tropics and nearly dies himself. The disease brings about a bizarre symptom: Chick is unable to tolerate the taste or smell of any food whatsoever. So in other words, he quite literally loses a taste for life after his friend passes away. Get it?

There is a lot that a writer can learn from Bellow, and from this novel specifically. Ravelstein puts on a clinic in terms of making characters real for the reader and capturing details that seem part of an organic whole. And yet, I still would’ve liked to see more narrative, some level of intrigue to string everything together. But again, it might have been just my disposition at the time of reading this book. Ravelstein could be something close to perfection, and I just got hung up on something else.

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