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Ravelstein by Saul Bellow
Next weekend, at the Tin House Winter Writer’s Workshop, Jon Raymond will join Whitney Otto, Vanessa Veselka, and 18 workshop participants in Newport, Oregon to immerse in discussion of the craft of fiction writing (and local flavor). Here, from Issue 40, Raymond discusses Saul Bellow’s last novel, Ravelstein.
It’s perhaps no big surprise that Chicago, America’s meatpacking town, is also America’s great abattoir of politics. In the last decade alone the city has spit out not only a chief executive in its liberal Saul Alinsky mold but an entire administration packed with goons from its Leo Straussian neoconservative wing. One could almost define a national political dialectic by way of the Windy City alone, with its opposing poles of populism and snobbery fighting for primacy, though who’d be the populist and who the elitist would probably be subject to debate.
In any case, the community-organizing side of the equation is currently in ascendance, leaving those of us still puzzling over the reign of Greenspan and co.—indeed, over the soul life of neoconservatism in general—to keep the candle of memory alive. For this, we turn to Saul Bellow’s final novel, Ravelstein (2000), in search of lingering clues. Published the very year George W. Bush was first elected, the book’s fictionalized subject is none other than University of Chicago culture warrior, mentor of Paul Wolfowitz and Norman Podhoretz, among others, and decades-long Bellow confrere Allan Bloom, most famous as the author of The Closing of the American Mind—a jeremiad against multiculturalism, feminism, and all things non-canonical—and as a grandee at the center of a veritable fraternity of Republican power-mongers. Bellow, a neocon fellow traveler himself, paints a portrait of his dear friend in vivid colors, offering the reader insight, one hopes, not only into a daring conservative thinker, but also, perhaps, into a whole intellectual movement as well.
The book opens, ironically enough, in France, with Bellow surrogate Chick sharing coffee and brioche with Bloom surrogate Ravelstein in the Hôtel de Crillon. Ravelstein is in an effulgent mood, having recently published a gigantic bestseller and thus finally coming into the money he has always spent so profligately anyway. He registers immediately as a creature of large and eccentric habits, splayed out in his kimono, smoking his Dunhills, holding forth on Keynes and the Bloomsbury group. “Nobody in the days before he struck it rich had ever questioned Ravelstein’s need for Armani suits or Vuitton luggage,” the demure Chick observes, “for Cuban cigars, unobtainable in the U.S., for the Dunhill accessories, for solid-gold Mont Blanc pens or Baccarat or Lalique crystal to serve wine in—or have it served. Ravelstein was one of those large men—large, not stout—whose hands shake when there are small chores to perform. The cause was not weakness but a tremendous eager energy that shook him when it was discharged.”
The two friends proceed to talk. The first seventy pages or so of the book are mostly pure, high-minded Bellowian conversation, delivered, as usual, with a gusto bordering on ADD. We’re treated to heavy-duty philosophizing cut with American concreteness of thinking, aggressively painted sketches of faces and backstories, anthropological non sequiturs, and learned political analysis. Along the way we find ourselves caught up in the genuinely affectionate rapport between two great lovers of ideas, eagerly glimpsing the intellectual world they inhabit, a world thick with big ideas, sure, but also lewd gossip, psychoanalytic speculation, and risible Borscht-belt jokes. It’s a world not so different from the one seen in Bellow’s long short stories, “Cousins” and “What Kind of Day Did You Have?” or even Hertzog in a way—a place that no one, barring perhaps Bellow himself, has ever actually lived in, but a powerful fantasy region nonetheless, at least as much so as the Left’s dingier, more bohemian version. In Bellow’s world, belletristic Jews jet-set between Chicago, New York, and Europe, parsing geopolitics with world leaders, making snap judgments of foreign academics, wearing Hermès ties, drinking wine from fine crystal. It’s a heady scene, a veritable theater of masculine power, and in the male conversation one starts to make out the shape not only of Bellow’s imagination, but the imaginations of his and Bloom’s student offspring as well. Wolfowitz et al gain some color and scent in this well-appointed milieu, their postures and mental tics cohering into something like an overall weltanschauung. One hopes that, on the day this junta returns to power, as it most definitely will, this book remains near the top of the Bellow reading list, waiting to shed light onto the extra-ideological facets, the aesthetics, if you will, of the neocon lifestyle.
In the second half of the book, however, the tone shifts considerably, as Ravelstein, a gay man of decidedly pre-Stonewall vintage (he prefers the term “invert”), is stricken with AIDS, and here the book vaults far beyond any simple political reading. As Chick’s friend deteriorates, and as Chick himself ponders the breakup of his marriage and the beginning of another, the specter of death falls all around. A man with a transplanted heart visits Ravelstein’s deathbed, as does an elderly couple contemplating suicide. Chick debates the ethics of his acquaintance with a man named Grielescu, a former Romanian fascist most likely responsible, in some fashion, for mass murder. And then, in the book’s final third, our portraitist himself undergoes a near-death experience following food poisoning in the Caribbean, and the book’s ruminations on nihilism, Judaism, and the afterlife take on a harrowing, even hallucinatory aspect. What happens when death arrives? Chick is pressed to contemplate. “The pictures will stop” is the best he can come up with, though he approaches the question from many angles.
John Updike said that an author’s successful late works are often characterized by a “translucent thinness.” Relatively speaking, Ravelstein would be a decent example of that thesis. In it, we’re no longer dished up the thick, rich liver pâté of Bellow’s heartiest writing, but rather something smoother, a little less heart-clogging. The Bellow that emerges here is a surprisingly mellow guy, almost chastened with age, still disinterested to the point of subtle racism and misogyny in the world outside his class, but capacious within the folds of twentieth-century Jewish experience. In other words, he comes across as a pretty circumspect fellow, quite unlike the neocons we have come to know on TV and in the American Spectator, with their self-serving hawkishness, their highly selective consciences, their pseudo-Nietzschean contempt for human weakness of any kind.
The one thing we do learn from the book about that ilk is how they came to love their University of Chicago teachers so much. Ravelstein/Bloom is presented in a fiercely loving light, irascible, buoyant, charismatic to the end, and Chick/Bellow, his dutiful biographer, is at his most tender. But then again, the problem was never Bellow or Bloom themselves anyway, great writers and devoted teachers both. The problem was their students, who have so gladly adopted the teachers’ poses—the Turnbull and Asser shirts, the Maria Callas recordings—as well as their prejudices, but so rarely their passionate practice of self-analysis.
Jon Raymond is the author of the novels Rain Dragon and The Half-Life, as well as the short story collection Livability, winner of the 2009 Ken Kesey Award for Fiction. He is the writer of several films, including Wendy and Lucy and Meek’s Cutoff, and cowriter of the Emmy-nominated screenplay for the HBO miniseries Mildred Pierce. A 2009 Oregon Book Award winner, Jon lives in Portland with his family.