Ron Rosenbaum’s laudatory article on Saul Bellow’s Ravelstein inspired me to pick up a book I skipped when it came out (Slate also hosts a discussion on it here). As Rosenbaum writes, “It’s a rapturous celebration of the life of the mind, as well as a meditation on the glory of sensual life and on the tenebrous permeable boundary we all eventually pass over, the one between life and death.” Is it that, or is it a meandering half-biography, half auto-biography, half-novel? (With Bellow, it’s safe to assume three halves, or some other unusual, impossible feat). “[M]editation on the glory of sensual life” is perilously close to “has no plot,” and Ravelstein doesn’t have much of one, but I didn’t miss in it because of its fundamentally strong conflict, with the narrator, Chick, confronting the death of his great friend and a greater human being, Ravelstein. Such a description does no justice to the novel’s beauty or its emotional anguish and power, which are there in full force and the reason the novel works.
Perhaps having an emotional conflict replace a plot is a good thing: Rosenbaum seems to think so, judging from his comments about earlier Bellow: “[…] the philosophical and the sensual in Bellow never fused in a convincing or satisfying way for me.” For me they sometimes did—Augie March, Herzog— and sometimes not—Henderson the Rain King. I’ve not yet read all of Bellow and may skip some of his novellas and stories, so I cannot completely judge him. Regardless, to me the sensual leads to the philosophical in Bellow, and without one the other doesn’t, and can’t, work. No wonder Rosenbaum had a problem with the one if he didn’t think it bridged the other. Like much of earlier Bellow, real life inspired Ravelstein.
The real life aspect didn’t impinge much on me, and I read the novel purely, as Rosenbaum recommends: “Read [Ravelstein] as if you didn’t know who Allan Bloom was.” I don’t (didn’t?) know much about Bloom save that he wrote The Closing of the American Mind. That book sounds too polemical for my taste, and having already read From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life 1500 to the Present, I’ve already experienced one jeremiad about how we are living in the End Times. I’m always wary of those who make such warnings; Jonathan Franzen made a similar point in an essay from How to Be Alone: Essays, where he admits that he has mellowed since his apocalyptic treatise on why the decline in reading is also a sign of End Times and compares his love for words to the beliefs of religious fanatics. Knowing more might actually have helped because my only problem with reading Ravelstein was not a problem with Bellow, but one with myself whenever I read Bellow: I feel like so much escapes me. I am apparently not the only one to feels this way:
Recently Sam Tanenhaus made an argument in the Times Book Review that Bellow’s work as a whole is “beyond criticism” because like Whitman it contains multitudes, it’s “a vision of the human universe as apprehended by a being of higher intelligence” and the “many defects—the longueurs and digressions, the lectures on anthroposophy and religion” don’t really matter when Bellow is considered as collective whole.
“A being of higher intelligence”—it might be gauche to compare Bellow to Shakespeare, and we know who has had and will have a greater effect on English and cultural history, but with both I cannot encompass them, their minds, their worlds. One key difference: Shakespeare wrote many convincing female roles, something that Bellow’s critics convincingly argue he seldom does. Certainly his best novels have women who are, at best, on the sideline or acting as support. The same is true of Ravelstein: Vela, the cold physicist, is a type and a slam against placing science on the alter of God without humanity to guide it—can she too be autobiographically read?—and Rosamund her opposite, a convenient young, angelic woman who saves the dying Chick from himself. Despite that, I still love Bellow for his ideas and expression, and his critics and supporters are right. Ravelstein’s weaknesses are also its strengths: the abstract ideas and flowering prose, the meandering digressions that are Proustian and precise, yet not in the service of a strong narrative, and I don’t even care much that the narrative is absent. Ravelstein is more a remembrance, but whether of Chick or Ravelstein is hard to say. But I’m glad I read it, and you don’t easily give up a creature like Bellow to death.