The New Canon focuses on
great works of fiction
published since 1985.  These
books represent the finest
literature of the current era,
and are gaining recognition as
the new classics of our time. In
this installment of
The New
Canon
, Ted Gioia reviews
Ravelstein
 by Saul Bellow.
Ravelstein
by Saul Bellow

Reviewed by Ted Gioia

“I’d like you to write me up after I’m gone,” Professor
Ravelstein asks the narrator, a writer named Chick, in Saul
Bellow’s final novel
Ravelstein.   The professor is ill,
apparently ravaged by AIDS, but he is
thinking of posterity.  “You could do a
really fine memoir.   It's not just a
request....I’m laying this on you as
an obligation.  Do it in your after-
supper-reminisces manner, when
you've had a few glasses of wine and
you’re laid back and making remarks.  
I love listening when you are free-
wheeling about Edmund Wilson or
John Berryman or Whittaker Chambers
when you were hired at
Time in the
morning and fired by him before lunch."


Those seeking fiction here immediately bump up against real
life details. In 1945, Saul Bellow, on his first day at
Time
magazine was fired by the master of the pumpkin papers—
ostensibly for his deficiency in assessing Wordsworth.  But the
true-to-life anecdotes of the narrator were not the reason for
the scandal that surrounded the publication of this novel in
2000.   The title character is based on Allan Bloom, the
classicist and University of Chicago professor best known for
his 1987 bestseller
The Closing of the American Mind, which
was a major event in the “culture wars” of the period.   The
revelation that Bloom might have died from AIDS—a likely
surmise yet not universally accepted by those who knew the
scholar well—stirred controversy, both for its apparent
violation of privacy but also because Bloom was much
admired by conservatives who were unaware of his sexual
preference.  And an outed public figure on the right—for the
record, Bloom refused to be labeled a conservative, but never
denied being gay—is a perennial media favorite.  Hence, the
literary discussion of Mr. Bellow’s novel quickly collapsed into
journalistic scandal-mongering.  

Are you really surprised?

At times
Ravelstein is reminiscent of Truman Capote's last,
uncompleted novel
Answered Prayers, a fiction based on real-
life gossip that shocked many of his friends with impolite
disclosures when parts of it were published
Esquire.   Bellow
dishes the dirt on the literati and intellectuals here, but was
saved the Capote cold shoulder because most of the people he
dealt with were already dead when he published this book.   He
may have stirred up the press, but the friends he might have
offended were in no position to complain.  Legal trivia:  the
deceased can not sue for libel.   

Bellow took full advantage of this license.  Robert Frost is
dismissed as a “sententious old guy whose conversation was
mainly about his own doings, about is accomplishments and
triumphs.  It can’t be denied he was a self-promoter. "  E.M.
Cioran is pigeonholed as one of those Eastern Europeans who
“cling to France, they have no life at home, home is disgusting,
and they need to see themselves in a French light only.”  
Mircea Eliade, thinly-disguised under the name Radu
Grielescu, is scorched as a fascist. Rakhmiel Kogon, a stand-in
for Edward Shils, is a tyrant who works to disguise the
“wickedness of his nature.” The narrator’s ex-wife, dealt with
bluntly in these pages, bears a strong resemblance to
Alexandra Bellow, the Romanian mathematician who was the
author’s spouse from 1974 to 1985.  

A few critics argued that this novel should be dealt with as
fiction, not as memoir, and that any attempt to respond to it as
gossip and rumor merely distract readers from the essence of
the book.  I have sympathy with this view, but Bellow does not
make it easy for the reader to attain the disinterested state of
the connoisseur of fiction.  As the book progresses it reads
more and more like autobiography, especially when the
narrator steps forward as the main character in the final
pages.  Here Bellow draws on his narrow escape from death
after a severe case of food poisoning, and presents it in a
manner that feels less like a chapter in a novel and more like
extracts from his own diary.  

By the same token,it’s hard to read a passage such as the
following one without hearing it as Bellow reflecting on his own
advancing years:  “What I had was some fifty years of walking
these sun-striped pavements, past buildings once occupied by
friends….On every one of the surrounding streets there were
front rooms where friends had lived—and at the sides, the
windows of bedrooms where they died.   There were more of
those than I cared to think about. At my age, you don’t want to
be too tender-hearted. It's different if you lead an active life.  
And I am active, on the whole,  But there are gaps, and these
gaps tend to fill up with your dead.”

And who else can put down his friends, but wrap it up in a nice
philosophical position?  Bellow is in fine, snarky form here:
“The challenge of modern freedom, or the combination of
isolation and freedom which confronts you, is to make
yourself up.  The danger is that you may emerge from the
process as a not-entirely human creature.  The arts of disguise
are so well developed tat you are sure to undercount the
number of bastards you have known.”  

The narrative is convoluted at times.  Bellow does not
maintain a consistent chronology, often his asides move from
one decade to another, then shift back so quickly as to give the
reader vertigo.  The story is full of repeated details—the
narrator mentions the odd way his ex-wife walks, then repeats
it again a few pages later, and many other specifics, large and
small, are similarly reiterated.  I can’t help feeling that Bellow
deserved a more aggressive editor, who would weed out these
duplications, and clean up some other soft spots and errors.   
When Bellow writes that Professor Ravelstein preferred the
Renaissance composer Palestrina’s music performed on the
original instruments, I would hope that someone at his
publisher would tell him that Palestrina’s surviving
compositions are for the voice, not instruments.   

But the dialogue is the main attraction here, and what a joy to
encounter a novel in the new millennium which still dares to
include intelligent discussion of ideas in the context of a work
of fiction.  I once had the pleasure of sitting at the same table
as Saul Bellow at a dinner, and this book reminds me of the
vigor of his casual conversation.  The only difference is that
this novel captures what it must have been like to listen not
just to Bellow unleashed in an off-the-cuff session, but also to
the provocative Professor Bloom.  

Ravelstein falls below the standard of Bellow’s finest work.  
But this author reminds me of the great piano virtuoso, who
asked whether he had bad days at he keyboard, replied:  “Even
when I play not so good, it is still good enough.”  Certainly
Ravelstein is more than good enough, and a fitting parting shot
for one of the twentieth century’s greatest novelists.
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The Best in Fiction Since 1985
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