"I stood back from myself and looked into Amys face. No one else on all this earth had such features. This was the most amazing thing in the life of the world."
These sentences come from the final page of Saul Bellows previous novel "The Actual", which, I seem to remember, he said would be his last. Perhaps, instead, it should be classed as a novella; it ends after only 104 pages. His latest novel "Ravelstein", at 233 pages, safely reaches novel-length. Perhaps this is the last. But maybe not, because it doesnt feel like a novel. There is a famous reason for this, and the reason is fame.
Abe Ravelstein, the eponymous character, is the late Allan Bloom, political philosopher at the University of Chicago and close friend of the novelist. In 1987, Bloom published a book called "The Closing of the American Mind", a singular polemic against what he saw as the betrayal of American values in the realm of Higher Education. The book became a surprise best-seller and made Bloom millions of dollars. Saul Bellow contributed a foreword to the book, and, it turns out, was the one who suggested he write it in the first place. Bloom died young in 1992, but before he died asked Bellow to write about him warts and all. This novel is the result.
So why doesnt he call Ravelstein by his famous name? After all, Martin Amis, Bellows wrong-headed protégé, hasnt changed the names in his recent autobiography Experience. In his book, Bellow cant be hoping to deny the link. And he isnt: he has been quite open about who Abe really is. Thats not the reason. The reason goes to the heart of the novel, and the novel in general.
The short explanation is Amys face, which Harry, the narrator of The Actual, sees, as if for the first time as the coffin containing her husband is lowered into its plot. Harry realises that Amy has always been the one (that is, The Actual), and asks her to marry him. The novel ends before she answers, restraining the sentimentality inherent in such a scenario. Before she can say anything, the plot is lowered, as it were, into its coffin. But read his sentence again: he sees Amys actual face only in standing back from himself. We, the readers, dont actually see her face but we sense the unique, mysterious, revelatory moment. Her distance is necessary for it to happen. A straight memoir is more likely to evade this solitary instant with anecdote, psychologising or uncomprehending sentiment. Here, the distance of fiction opens to the uncanny singularity of experience rather than stuffing it into the requirements of genre.
In Ravelstein, loving friendship has taken the place of romance. The six-times married Bellow is confident enough in his sexuality (and at 85, a father again) to make it clear he loved Bloom. By fictionalising his friend we get more than the schmaltz of a tribute. Its a familiar Bellow theme. His best novel Herzog is also about an academic seen in unfamiliar light. Bellows son Adam has since written of how it mirrored his fathers life at the time, and how Adam himself appears as Herzogs young daughter. He says he cant read the novel without unease as it portrays Herzogs wife, by extension Adams mother, in a very poor light. Yet the novel also shows how terrible it must have been to be married to Herzog. He is manic, paranoid, distracted and dishevelled. He scrawls mad, half-finished letters to the famous dead instead of writing his supposedly great academic treatise. Herzog blames his wifes affair with his best friend for his condition, but he protests too much; and he knows it.
Abe Ravelstein is a Herzog with more self-confidence, but we still take what he says with a pinch of salt. His best-seller advocates the clarity of ancient Greek rationality and condemns the dionysian, value-less chaos of popular culture. Yet while he blames blaring Rock music for the degeneration of America, he plays kitschy Italian operas at the highest possible volume, annoying his neighbours. And while he knows Plato like a man holed up in an ivory tower, he is also a world-class consumer; he spends like theres no tomorrow. In fact, he wrote the outline of his book only to get the small advance in order to placate his debtees.
In the end, he wrote the whole thing and was able to indulge his Liberace-like taste in clothes, furniture and hotels. The novel is rich in the textures of $4,000 jackets and silk dressing gowns. Ravelstein is like Liberace in another sense too: he is gay; and recklessly so. He dies of an AIDS-related illness. Yet he pours scorn on what he calls faggot behaviour. Love and its relations has been a Bellow theme from the start, and his interest coincides with his friends. Ravelstein constantly refers to the human striving to find his or her other half, as discussed in Platos Symposium. Yet while Ravelstein shares his life with a young man called Nikki, he also trawls the Parisian nights for rough trade.
While the narrator of the book, his friend Chick, recognises a contradiction, he doesnt set it up as emblematic; he leaves it as a foible that all great men have. Chicks professed innocence maybe a ruse of fiction, enabling avoidance. There are strong clues that Chick sees through him. Ravelstein encourages Chick to develop his monograph on the economist Maynard Keynes by studying the minutiae of his letters home from a post-First World War reparations conference. Such minutiae, he suggests, reveal the larger truth. Chick seems to be trying to do the same with Ravelstein: we see the way he holds his mobile phone between his bare knees, and as his expensive Japanese kimono falls away it reveals legs paler than milk the shinbone long and the calf muscle abrupt, without roundness.
Once Ravelstein is dead, the novel becomes more complex as Chick describes how he stalled for a few years before writing the book. Clearly, the facts werent enough. Before Ravelstein dies, Chick divorces his self-regarding physicist wife and, soon after, marries one of Ravelsteins pupils, the meeker, much younger Rosamund. On a tropical holiday, Chick eats a poisoned fish and becomes ill. Rosamund gets him home despite his unwillingness. It saves his life. Only after this near-death experience is Chick able to write the memoir of his dead friend. This happened in reality too. Bellow says he was nine-tenths gone. Perhaps being on the edge of oblivion gave him the necessary insight, just as it gave an insight into Rosamunds love.
While Ravelsteins hypocrisy is suggested, the bigger issue of America is barely mentioned. This is odd because it possessed Ravelstein and fuelled his best-seller. Perhaps Bellow could not step back from himself in this case. Bloom saw the Sixties as the beginning of the Fall of America. What led him to think this? The invasion of Cuba and South Vietnam? The subsequent three million native deaths and long-term chemical damage? No, it is the academic opposition. He says their questioning of long-accepted values, and subsequent pandering to the tastes of the permissive society equates with what the philosopher Heidegger did by supporting the Nazis from his University chair. One might argue the opposite, and say that US academics were in fact the true descendants of Americas founding fathers rebelling against unjust Imperial might. It is not even hinted at here despite Ravelsteins fascination.
He has many ex-pupils in high places in the US Administration. They are more like disciples. Ravelstein, we are told, sought out the best pupils and taught them to forget their parents. Ravelstein wanted each to be a tabula rasa, a blank slate onto which he could transfer his learning. Once in power, these disciples would call him up and tell him the latest inside news such as Bushs final decision to end the Gulf War. Chick is impressed. Ravelstein laps it up. There seems to be no irony intended as Bloom talks to one of his high-powered disciples, puffs away on a Cuban cigar – made illegal to punish a defiant nation – and dismisses the foolish anti-Americanism of French intellectuals. This knee-jerk conflation of opposites is meant to be an example of Ravelsteins common sense. One has to remember that as Bloom/Ravelstein published his book, thousands of men, women and children were being killed and maimed by US-funded terrorists as they undermined or overturned elected governments uncongenial to US business interests. And the extreme Right-wing charitable foundations who paid Bloom/Ravelstein extravagant salaries were among the most active supporters of these mercenaries and their Washington paymasters. There is no mention of such minutiae in the novel, except for talk of Americas higher need in the world. Such are the real echoes from Heideggers time.
My impatience with this omission could be dismissed as unfairly motivated. But I think it reveals the failure of the book to stand back enough. Essentially, Ravelsteins philosophy emerges out of a need to deny ones parents that is, to repress whatever stands behind the façade of desire, intellect, money and status. The man exhibits such lust for life because he was always on the edge of an abyss created by an inherent contradiction in his life and politics. Chick often wonders about Abes working class past but, like his sexuality, it is taboo and is dropped each time. He is perhaps too in thrall to the rumbling tank of denial to see the victims buried in the tracks. As a result, Abe remains a two-dimensional figure and the novel doesnt have any tension until he is dead.
What redeems the book, for me, is the brief re-emergence of Bellows lyrical intellectualism. There is a remarkable passage in the novel in which Chick talks of finding the way to "communicate certain incommunicables your private metaphysics"; something Ravelstein refused to do. Chick explains:
"To grasp this mystery, the world, was the occult challenge. You came into a fully developed and articulated reality from nowhere, from nonbeing or primal oblivion. You had never seen life before. In the interval of light between the darkness in which you awaited first birth and the darkness of death that would receive you, you must make what you could of reality, which was in a state of highly advanced development. I had waited millennia to see this."
He believes it can be done by returning to ones earliest memories, untainted by ideology or habit. He recalls when, soon after he learned to walk, he went down onto the street and saw
huge utility-pole timbers that lined the street. They were beaver-coloured, soft and rotted.
Maybe it is because this appears in relative isolation, like the limp silk fresh lilac drowning water on page 73 of Humboldts Gift, that these poles develop a presence like Amys face. The mystery is grasped, not dispersed. Early in the novel Chick mentions reading of the poor convulsive Samuel Johnson touching each lamppost on a street, and is fascinated, perhaps because it reminds him of his own experience. Ravelstein perhaps wanted Chick to be his Boswell, but it is Chick, Saul Bellow, who will be remembered, though not for this novel in particular. Generally, it has the tone of valediction-but-not-quite. This could be because Rosamund is the real inspiration of this book, with Ravelstein as the unlikely bonding agent. Though she appears, like Amys face in The Actual, at the end of the book, she is about the present and future; death is gratefully postponed. In the process, it resurrects Ravelstein.
In fact, the question of how the apparently dead past binds to the present weighs on the novel throughout. Ravelstein and Chick are both unpious Jews, but they know the facts of history. One of Chicks friends is a Romanian implicated in the Fascist Iron Guard of World War II. Ravelstein is appalled and tells Chick that if he is to meet the Romanian again to think of the Jews they hung on meat hooks: "we must not turn our backs on the millions who died" he says. Chick finds it difficult; he doesnt want to think about it. Anyway, he is amused by the Romanian. By the end, we are familiar with this characteristic.