Several short stories have been expanded into novels, but Ravelstein may be the first novel expanded from a eulogy. Almost every incident, every sentence Saul Bellow delivered in memory of Allan Bloom at his funeral service in 1992, and published two years later in his essay collection, It All Adds Up, reappears in his portrait of Abe Ravelstein, a Chicago academic who writes an unlikely philosophical best-seller (unnamed) and succumbs to AIDS. Bellow, ever the mensch, changes not only the names of friends, but machines, too; Bloom’s beloved Mercedes is Ravelstein’s beloved BMW. In his last months, Ravelstein prevails on his close and much older friend, Chick (no last name), to write his biography. Did Bloom make such a request of Bellow? Does it matter?
Bellow begins so offhandedly, so autobiographically, that you have every reason to fear a roman locked tight by its clef; but he keeps pulling aces out of his sleeves, and by the time you’ve made the trip—a characteristically time-warped journey that juts one way and then another, with more talk than anecdote—you know you have been had as only Bellow can have you. Might as well forget Bloom’s detestable book, The Closing of the American Mind (favorite bit: Louis Armstrong betrayed Weimar culture), because Ravelstein’s book is ignored, notwithstanding an occasional reference to relativism and obligatory puffery of the most general sort.
Chick says repeatedly—he says several things repeatedly—that he is ill equipped to discuss philosophy, and, besides, his friend Abe did not expect him to explicate his book, but rather to portray him as a character. “I am not interested in presenting his ideas. More than anything else, just now, I want to avoid them.” Me too. At Chick’s suggestion, Ravelstein typed up his lecture notes and became a millionaire. At Ravelstein’s suggestion, Chick attempted a biography of Keynes, and Abe’s favorite part was a Bellow-like description of Lloyd George’s Jew-baiting. Chick prefers the physical—for example, Macaulay’s Britannica entry on Dr. Johnson: “Thanks to him I still see poor convulsive Johnson touching every lamppost on the street and eating spoiled meat and rancid puddings.” Thanks to Chick, Ravelstein will be remembered as a strutting dandy and self-described “invert” who collects Lalique crystal and Mont Blanc pens and purchases in Paris—this is the punch line to a wildly discursive opening section—a $4500 Lanvin sport jacket on which he promptly spills coffee and takes umbrage when Chick advises he might want to have it cleaned.
At 85, the most philosophical novelist in American letters has written, inevitably, an inquiry into memory, friendship, and death, also obligation and longing. “In my trade you have to make more allowances,” Chick observes, “taking all sorts of ambiguities into account—to avoid hard-edged judgments.” Ravelstein is Bellow’s knottiest fiction in a decade—lengthwise, it splits the difference between Seize the Day and The Victim—and ravels enough threads from his earlier work to imply a valedictory. “We have to keep life going, one way or another. Marriages must be made. In adultery men and women hope for a brief reprieve from the lifelong pain of privation.” “The best we can hope for in modernity is not love but a sexual attachment—a bourgeois solution, in bohemian dress.” Still, and for the first time, Bellow’s agnostics bet firmly on an afterlife.
Ravelstein is one of those outsized Bellow heroes whom V.S. Pritchett once described as moral types who play the clown, an attitude buoyantly conveyed by his delightful name. Bellow makes a point of inventing names that are ambiguously Jewish or slightly askew from those you might find in a phone book: Citrine, Tamkin, Corde, Kreiggstein, Wulpy, Fonstein, Velde, Trellman, Wustrin, and the pre-Ravelstein champ, Rinaldo Cantabile, the Humboldt’s Gift mafioso (what TV music The Cantabiles might have made). Putting aside symbolic niceties concerning the raveling and unraveling of biography, the resulting tangle held in a musical stein, the master of 11th chords denoting the 11th hour, not to mention France, et cetera ad ridiculum, Ravelstein passes the Dickensian test of sounding good, twinkling with wit. The character is less persuasive, because Chick tells more of his search for love, his humor, his brilliance, than he shows. Ravelstein, like Humboldt, gets the show on the road, but the novel’s soul is Chick.
Yet Chick is a cipher. What precisely is his trade? We hear of his attempts at nonfiction, his essays on subjects Bellow has himself explored, but nothing of fiction or his stature and fame. He is Bellow in every detail but the accomplishment. For a writer of fact, he is surprisingly trusting of his memory; he conflates Macaulay’s essay on Johnson with the one he wrote about Boswell’s life; guesses Remagen as the scene of a famous Second World War incident that happened at Bastogne; and, unforgivably, misquotes a Mel Brooks routine, cited as an example of Abe’s love of Jewish vaudeville humor, though since the bit derives from a 1981 movie, it hardly seems the stuff of prodigious nostalgia. No matter, or, as Chick says, “Not to worry” (he also says “shan’t,” twice). His brain and not Ravelstein’s poses the quandaries, and his strangely hallucinogenic near-fatal illness—the result of food poisoning in the tropics—powers the narrative, enabling him to fulfill his promise to write about Abe, despite a comical intervening obsession with cannibalism, reminiscent of Humboldt, though here with the inevitable hint of biography as self-fattening.
In an especially affecting passage, Chick discusses The Death of Ivan Ilyich with his wife, Rosamund, and spells out his obsession with seizing, literally, the day—slowing it down to the cadences realized by children. “If only we could bring back the full days we knew as kids. But we become too familiar with the data of experience. . . . Art is one rescue from this chaotic acceleration. Meter in poetry, tempo in music, form and color in painting.” Unlike Ilyich, who did not begin to ask the big ones until cancer claimed him, Chick is a veteran questioner.
If Chick’s pensées fill a vacuum created by his amusingly modest refusal to explore Abe’s, his vivid autobiographical fragments upstage the man as well. The novel’s most startling image is of Chick’s imperious European scientist ex-wife, Vela (imagine Minna of The Dean’s December turned into Countess Dracula), pushing her pubic hair into his face, then walking off, her way of announcing her intention to get a divorce. Perhaps she was thinking of the pickpocket in Mr. Sammler’s Planet. Other characters are etched in wonderfully detailed grotesquerie, as is the city of Chicago, ornamented with a nest of parrots. It’s been said countless times, but say it again: No one since Dreiser has the urban pulse in his blood like Bellow. So when Chick reprises Ravelstein for his closing pages, he is something of an anticlimax. True, Ravelstein slowed the day with his concentration on clothing, luxury, music, the mating habits of students, the political secrets harbored by graduates. But it is difficult to share Chick’s pleasure in him. Chick is the one you’d want at a dinner party. He evokes what the legendary con man Yellow Kid Weill once told Saul Bellow, “My purpose was invisible. When they looked at me they saw themselves. I only showed them their own purpose.”