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Ravelstein by Saul Bellow

Ravelstein (2000)

by Saul Bellow

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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This is Bellow's final novel, a sketch of a single character, or better put, a single relationship: the friendship between Ravelstein, the great-souled title character, a professor of political philosophy, and Chick, a novelist and confidante of Ravelstein, and the novel's narrator. The novel is a roman-a-clef based on Bellow's friendship with the controversial political philosopher Allan Bloom, who was most famous for his jeremiad on American education The Closing of the American Mind. But the novel isn't really *about* Bloom in the sense that it attempts to defend or even explore his ideas on education or politics or the classics in any depth. Rather, the book is about Ravelstein as a man, with passions, quirks, failings, and great loves, and it is about Ravelstein and Chick as American Jews after the Holocaust, especially the former's sense of having to continually fight the threat of extinction, whether it be physical or cultural. And of course it is about death, and the power of literature to defy it, though the novel would probably pose this as a question rather than advance it as an argument. I have a weakness for Bellow generally, but this ranks up there with the best of his work. ( )
  jalbacutler | Jan 10, 2017 |
When it was published critics called it one of Bellow's "minor" books. I disagree. It's softer and subtler than Augie March or Henderson the Rain King, but the narrative exuberance here is unsurpassed even by Bellow himself in earlier decades. Because the book is at its heart the story of friendship between two men who loved one another, Bellow's inability to write about women except in a misogynistic way is a minor flaw in this particular book, one that barely registered for me here, even though the same flaw made Herzog impossible going for me. Ok, I can do without women flaunting their pudenda in their ex-husband's faces as a mean way of saying goodbye, a scene that happens in Ravelstein, and in at least one other Bellow book. Augie March, I think. But even so. While reading Ravelstein I could forgive these trespasses, because I was swept along by the life force of these two main characters, Chick and Ravelstein. I was captivated by the depth of their friendship, and I was moved by this clear-headed, thoughtful, beautiful exploration of their own mortality as it played out in these pages. Only Henderson the Rain King came close for me to Ravelstein's moving and deep a portrayal of friendship and mortality. ( )
1 vote poingu | Jan 29, 2015 |
I’m not entirely convinced that the roman à clef is a worthy vehicle for a great writer. And there is little doubt that Saul Bellow is a great writer. Nor is there much doubt that numerous characters in his novels have been modelled directly on people he knew intimately, friend and foe. However, only a few of his novels so explicitly take up this correspondence with the non-fictional that they typically get labelled in this manner. Ravelstein, Bellow’s last novel, is one of these. In it, he sketches the larger-than-life character of a professor by the name of Ravelstein, who is a thinly disguised stand-in for Bellow’s friend, Allan Bloom. These are Ravelstein’s last days. He is HIV-positive, subject to numerous rare and unrelenting infections, but determined to see his way out of the world in much the way that he lived in it: unapologetic, highly opinionated, self-centred (in every sense), and fiercely devoted to his close friends. It took Bellow some eight years after the death of Bloom to pen this fictionalized memoir. In the interim he himself came perilously close to death. And so the book as a whole became as much a meditation on death as it is a depiction of one particular death.

At least part of the novel holds up well. In particular, the first section, which was published as a standalone in The New Yorker, is tightly written and full of the flamboyance that ever after gets associated with Ravelstein (and now Bloom). Thereafter the novel begins to unravel. Arguments and anecdotes re-emerge almost without change from their first mention. It begins to seem like Bellow is circling his subject but can’t quite lock it down. He meanders. He is subject to only periodic lucidity. He falters under the weight of the burden that his friend has laid upon him in requesting that he take up this biographical task. Maybe it’s all a brilliant representation of decline. Or, less charitably, it might simply be a less than fully edited effort. At some point, at any rate, I began to lose interest both in the subject, i.e. death, and in the subject, i.e. Ravelstein.

Any writer who lasts as long as Bellow will produce works of varying quality. Fortunately there are many other titles in his oeuvre that will capture, challenge, and delight the reader even if this is not one of them. ( )
1 vote RandyMetcalfe | Mar 27, 2014 |
I've read all of Bellow, the best American novelist during my lifetime, though Updike became, in his last books, a close second--and a better reviewer.
I do not say this simply because Bellow's best friend at the U MN was my Ph.D. advisor Leonard Unger: a charming photo of them on a sofa smoking and laughing, with their wives framing it, was printed in Rolling Stone in the 50s. (In the pic I think Leonard was just cracking one of his myriad jokes, probably a Jewish joke, according to his wife Sherley who was there.) Bellow and Unger together composed, over lunch at the UMN Faculty Club,
a translation of the first four lines of the Wasteland by TS Eliot (Leonard's early specialty)--into Yiddish.
Ravelstein's a remarkable book partly bec Bellow wrote it in age, and partly bec it's nearly impossible to focus a gripping novel on the life of an academic, here Bloom. My line on the book: It would have been a much better, wittier book had Bellow written it about another of his friends, Leonard Unger. ( )
  AlanWPowers | Sep 23, 2012 |
With this novel, Bellow fulfils a promise made to his friend Allan Bloom to write his biography. The novel is autobiographical as well, with Bellow portraying himself in the character Chick. But to dwell on the identification of the thinly disguised cast of characters and real-world circumstances is to miss the power with which Bellow presents life-as-art, the proposition that we create ourselves through a peculiar collage of eccentricities and habits and friends and personal ideals and ways of being. This is a powerful, lyrical, metaphysical work on the honesty of friendship and the continued presence of the dead for the living. Ravelstein was listed among the New York Times Notable Books and Library Journal's Best Books in 2000. As for me, I give it 9 out of 10 stars. ( )
  jeanned | May 25, 2011 |
Showing 1-5 of 11 (next | show all)
American English departments have proven themselves unworthy stewards of what is noble in human nature, in the great public.

» Add other authors (5 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Bellow, SaulAuthorprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Jonkers, RonaldTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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A la bella donna della mia mente.
To Janis,
The Star without whom I could not navigate.
And to the real Rosie.
First words
Odd that mankind's benefactors should be amusing people.
Information from the Italian Common Knowledge. Edit to localize it to your language.
Presto la vita sarebbe tornata, e io avrei preso posto sul treno della vita. La morte si sarebbe rincantucciata dov'era prima, ai bordi del paesaggio. Il desiderio del paziente è di tornare - strisciando, zoppicando o arrangiandosi in tutti i modi - alla vita che precedeva la malattia, e di trincerarsi e fortificarsi nella vecchia posizione.
Ravelstein era un educatore. Non si presentava mai come un filosofo: i professori di filosofia non sono dei filosofi. Aveva una preparazione filosofica e aveva imparato come la vita dovrebbe essere vissuta. Di questo si occupava la filosofia, e questo era il motivo per cui si leggeva Platone. Se avesse dovuto scegliere tra Atene e Gerusalemme, le due fonti principali di vita superiore, avrebbe scelto Atene, pur con tutto il rispetto per Gerusalemme. Ma negli ultimi giorni era degli ebrei che voleva parlare, non dei greci.
Ho sempre avuto un debole per le note a piè di pagina. Più di un testo , secondo me, è stato riscattato da un 'intelligente o perfida nota a piè di pagine.
Per avvicinarsi a un uomo come Ravelstein il metodo migliore forse è farlo a spizzichi.
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0141001763, Paperback)

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Saul Bellow confined himself to shorter fictions. Not that this old master ever dabbled in minimalism: novellas such as The Actual and The Bellarosa Connection are bursting at the seams with wit, plot, and the intellectual equivalent of high fiber. Still, Bellow's readers wondered if he would ever pull another full-sized novel from his hat. With Ravelstein, the author has done just that--and he proves that even in his ninth decade, he can pin a character to the page more vividly, and more permanently, than just about anybody on the planet.

Character is very much the issue in Ravelstein, whose eponymous subject is a thinly disguised version of Bellow's boon companion, the late Allan Bloom. Like Bloom, Abe Ravelstein has spent much of his career at the University of Chicago, fighting a rearguard action against the creeping boobism and vulgarity of American life. What's more, he's written a surprise bestseller (a ringer, of course, for The Closing of the American Mind), which has made him into a millionaire. And finally, he's dying--has died of AIDS, in fact, six years before the opening of the novel. What we're reading, then, is a faux memoir by his best friend and anointed Boswell, a Bellovian body-double named Chick:

Ravelstein was willing to lay it all out for me. Now why did he bother to tell me such things, this large Jewish man from Dayton, Ohio? Because it very urgently needed to be said. He was HIV-positive, he was dying of complications from it. Weakened, he became the host of an endless list of infections. Still, he insisted on telling me over and over again what love was--the neediness, the awareness of incompleteness, the longing for wholeness, and how the pains of Eros were joined to the most ecstatic pleasures.
Ravelstein is a little thin in the plot department--or more accurately, it has an anti-plot, which consists of Chick's inability to write his memoir. But seldom has a case of writer's block been so supremely productive. The narrator dredges up anecdote after anecdote about his subject, assembling a composite portrait: "In approaching a man like Ravelstein, a piecemeal method is perhaps best." We see this very worldly philosopher teaching, kvetching, eating, drinking, and dying, the last in melancholic increments. His death, and Chick's own brush with what Henry James called "the distinguished thing," give much of the novel a kind of black-crepe coloration. But fortunately, Bellow shares Ravelstein's "Nietzschean view, favorable to comedy and bandstands," and there can't be many eulogies as funny as this one.

As always, the author is lavish with physical detail, bringing not only his star but a large gallery of minor players to rude and resounding life ("Rahkmiel was a non-benevolent Santa Claus, a dangerous person, ruddy, with a red-eyed scowl and a face in which the anger muscles were highly developed"). His sympathies are also stretched in some interesting directions by his homosexual protagonist. Bellow hasn't, to be sure, transformed himself into an affirmative-action novelist. But his famously capacious view of human nature has been enriched by this additional wrinkle: "In art you become familiar with due process. You can't simply write people off or send them to hell." A world-class portrait, a piercing intimation of mortality, Ravelstein is truly that other distinguished thing: a great novel. --James Marcus

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:24:48 -0400)

(see all 4 descriptions)

Encouraged by his friend, Chick, to write down his ideas about humankind, university professor Abe Ravelstein receives unexpected acclaim and bounty and invites Chick to join in his success, a situation that sparks a philosophical journey for both.

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