by Saul Bellow
Published by Viking Adult Books
Published April 24, 2000
240 pgs. • Find on Amazon.com
Reviewed by Stephen O. Murray
July 30, 2000
Writing about The Married Man increased my irritations with Saul Bellow’s roman à clef Ravelstein. Beginning each, I was aware that they were fictionalized memoirs of real men who died of AIDS. There is no suspense in the narratives about Julien’s or Abe’s deaths in the time just before the protease, multi-drug combination therapy pulled many American HIV+ people back from the edge of the abyss of physical deterioration.
Both Julien and Abe (and Nicky—I’ll get to him) have very developed tastes for luxury. Julien is half Abe’s age and does not live long enough to hit a vein of gold as Abe Ravelstein’s real-life model Allan Bloom did in his commercially successful The Closing of the American Mind (which was taken up by political and cultural conservatives who either did not read it or did not understand it). But, for the novelized memoir, the point is that the book’s commercial success allowed Bloom (Ravelstein) to indulge his vulgar longings for expensive things.
Julien inherits a small legacy, but the enhancement of his lifestyle is mostly paid for by his lover, Austin (Edmund White), as Nicky’s is by Ravelstein. However, Julien’s chic is not primarily dependent on priciness whereas price tags loom far larger to Chick (the hack novelist who is Bellow’s alter ego) and, seemingly, to Ravelstein.
The dying men remain greedy for experience until their ends—travel in the case of Julien, and the vicarious experiences of former students now in government positions in Ravelstein’s case along with enjoying Nicky’s enjoyment of fine things. (The “Asian prince” seems to require fine—not merely expensive—things, unlike Ravelstein himself and the various Jewish-American princesses of Bellow’s considerable acquaintance.)
The two thinly-fictionalized memoirs are similar in that the surviving
writer is the main and most thoroughly rounded character. But, whereas White shows what it is like for someone one loves to die a prolonged and agonizing death and the incredible toll of being what is called the “caregiver,” Bellow (/Chick) makes only a few perfunctory and moralistic lamentations that his friend is dying. Bellow utterly fails to show Abe’s suffering or even to conceive that Nicky felt anything for Abe (or, indeed, anything at all, except pleasure at the presents Abe lavishes on him). Like the women protagonists have sexual relationships with in various Bellow novels, including the two wives in Ravelstein, Nicky has no subjectivity (in contrast, Julien’s may be sometimes elusive, but there is no doubt that he has one).
Julien’s model, Hubert Sorin, was an artist, not an intellectual. It is not surprising that White (Austin) did not fully understand how his lover viewed relationships, including their own. Bloom, however, was not only an intellectual but one who wrote a big book, published posthumously in 1993, about Love and Friendship. (It is dedicated to Michael Z. Wu, presumably the model for Nicky.)
There is ample public evidence about Bloom’s values in regard to human relationships. Moreover, these are not at all those Bellow portrays. Yes, yes, I know it’s labeled a novel, and Chick is not supposed to be as cosmic and public an intellectual as Saul Bellow is. Nevertheless, it seems to me that it is Bellow’s failure to understand Ravelstein’s love for Nicky (and Bloom’s for Michael Wu) indicates a failure of imagination—and more.
It is not just Ravelstein’s love for Nicky that Bellow/Chick cannot imagine. He also fails to make credible Chick’s wives. Bellow himself has had a series of wives, one of whom he particularly eviscerates in this roman à clef and one of whom he celebrates. Neither of them comes across as a person. One is a soul-draining bitch, the other an angel who nurses him back to health. In the vast award-winning body of Bellow’s work is there a single credible female character? None that I remember (although I have not read it all and no other part of it recently). Nor has this misogynist and homophobic public intellectual done much in the way of portraying mutually fulfilling heterosexual relationships.
Another aspect of Bellow’s failure of imagination is that Chick (and, surely, he speaks for or as Bellow here) see AIDS as divine wrath for Ravelstein’s “reckless sex habits.” Given that the reader learns nothing of Ravelstein’s sexual modus operandi—in particular, there is not the slightest wisp of indication of any unsafe sex after the discovery of HIV—why is AIDS divine punishment, yet the toxin that nearly kills Chick is not? Chick put what nearly killed him in his mouth (on the model of Eve, perhaps—at a woman’s urging). Is this contrast there to show that one can recover from heterosexually induced illnesses but not homosexually induced ones? If so, this is not merely a failure or imagination but a failure to understand the mechanics of either his/Chick’s illness or Bloom’s/Ravelstein’s.
And why is smoking as soon as Ravelstein is out of intensive care celebrated, but his homosexuality is treated as necessarily and recklessly fatal?
Perhaps the failures of empathy for or any imaginative understanding of Ravelstein’s same-sex loves are supposed to be part of Chick’s smallness, but I doubt it. I wonder if there is any separation here between the minor writer and the much-honored Nobel Prize-winner. As I’ve said, Bellow does not have to imagine Bloom’s conceptions of love and friendship—they have been published! Yet Bellow’s book provides no sense of the ideas and values that mattered most to Bloom.
Of particular relevance, Bellow seems to have missed Bloom’s view of Falstaff.
Moreover, Bellow fails to convince this reader that Chick and Ravelstein are soulmates and, therefore, to wonder whether Bellow and Bloom were. How could they be with Bellow so lacking any sense of ancient Greek erotics, politics, or sense of honor? I don’t see any evidence in Love and Friendship that Bloom had turned his back on Athens metaphorically to dwell with Bellow in valorizing Jerusalem as superior to Athens as the place to contemplate and learn wisdom.
The last third of this short book, about the fictionalized dying Bloom, is padded out with the story of Bellow’s own brush with death. But I don’t see that this has given him any insight into Bloom, Bloom’s death, or death in general (a subject of recurrent ethical examination in Bloom’s writings).
There is some snappy dialog and amusingly vicious social comedy, at least in the first third of Ravelstein. Bellow is good at portraying Jewish libertinage and fairly good at portraying Jewish male camaraderie. It has been so long since Bellow has drawn a relatively rounded portrait of anything except his own grumpiness (since his novel about another dead friend, Delmore Schwartz in Humboldt’s Gift, to be precise) that Bellow’s admirers have been euphoric in praise of this work of his old age.
In retrospect (of two months) and in comparison with The Married Man, I find Ravelstein less satisfactory then I did when I read it (and wrote a more appreciative capsule review on amazon.com). I now think that what’s wrong with this book is what’s wrong with Bellow’s work in general: in a word bigotry (primarily until now, directed at African Americans and women).
posted on epinions 31 July 2000
© 2000, 2016 by Stephen O. Murray