A Writer’s Soul
By SANFORD PINSKER
By Saul Bellow
240 pages. Penguin Books. $14.00.
the magisterial Abe Ravelstein! Drawn from the real-life model of Allan Bloom,
Saul Bellow’s friend and colleague at the University of Chicago’s Committee on
Social Thought, he is a world-class intellectual with a wide network of former
students, and a man who never stopped thinking about the condition of his soul.
Bellow has always been fatally attracted to the type, especially if, as is the
case with Ravelstein, he also has enough hard cash to indulge his outrageously
expensive tastes and to stay—often for extended periods—in the finest hotels
Paris can offer.
Bellow tries hard to separate Ravelstein, his fictional character, and the real Allan Bloom, but those who have
read Bellow’s remarks at Bloom's funeral know better. There, he said this:
What I was
seeing, as I well knew, was the avidity for life particularly keen in him....
On a lesser level this avidity was apparent also in the delight he took in acquiring
Persian carpets, Chinese chests, Hermes porcelain, Ultimo cashmere coats, and
Mercedes-Benzes. In general, his attitude toward money was that it was
something to be thrown away, scattered from the rear platform of luxury trains.
Many of the same examples and turns of phrase find their way into Ravelstein. No doubt some will take
Bellow to task for writing a book that lets Ravelstein/Bloom off the hook too
easily, but such people have been dogging Bellow’s heels ever since he wrote
the introduction to The Closing of the
American Mind (l987), a surprising best-seller given the book’s difficult,
no-holds-barred arguments about higher education and American culture. To say a
few kind words about Bloom—even if they are balanced by a realistic assessment
of his foibles and eccentric folly—is to risk the censure of those who are
quite willing to write off both Bellow and Bloom as pinch-faced conservatives.
Such critics badly miss the fact that Bellow’s novel is less about cultural
politics than it is about friendship.
But Ravelstein, or Bloom, if you prefer, is not reducible to a simple,
formulated phrase—and that’s where the continuing strength of Bellow’s style
comes in. In old age, he can still write rings around most of the younger
competition. Which contemporary American novelist, one wonders, could pen lines
as tightly packed with ideas and their consequences as these:
[Ravelstein was going to give his
students]... a higher life, full of variety and diversity, governed by
rationality—anything but the arid kind. If they were lucky, if they were bright
and willing, Ravelstein would give them the greatest gift they could hope to
receive and lead them through Plato, introduce them to the esoteric secrets of
Maimonides, teach them the correct interpretation of Machievelli, acquaint them
with the higher humanity of Shakespeare—up to and beyond Nietzsche. It wasn’t
an academic program that he offered—it was more freewheeling than that.
The novel’s narrative crackles with sharp observations and memorably turned
sentences. Bellow’s narrator, Chick, is superb here—this, surprisingly,
wonderfully, as death and the Death Question press ever more urgently. Ravelstein gives him the opportunity to
reflect not only about Allan Bloom’s death and about the true nature of male
friendship but also about the life-threatening cigua toxin he got from eating
poisoned fish during a Caribbean vacation. Like Papa Hemingway after his two
plane crashes in Africa, Bellow was written off, prematurely, as a goner.
The extraordinary thing about Saul Bellow is that cultures high and low have
always managed to co-exist in his fictional worlds (Ravelstein, the deep
thinker, loves vaudeville patter, Michael Jordan, and Mel Brooks movies), and
that he remains possibly the only contemporary American novelist not ashamed to
use the word “soul.” All this and much, much more is compressed into the
biographical portrait of Ravelstein that Chick had reluctantly agreed to write.
Ravelstein is that biographical
sketch. In outlining how the chain-smoking Ravelstein looked in his sleek
Japanese kimono or what he thought about Athens and Jerusalem—for him, the twin towers of
our civilization—Chick (and Bellow) tells us what life means, or can mean, in
our new century.