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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Ravelstein and Chick, 16 Aug 2014
By 
Robin Friedman (Washington, D.C. United States) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Ravelstein (Penguin Great Books of the 20th Century) (Paperback)
"Ravelstein" (2000) is a novel-memoir of the friendship between Allan Bloom and the author, Saul Bellow. In addition to exploring the friendship of the two men, the book's primary themes, to me, are the nature of love and the necessity of facing death, one's own and those dear to one.

In the novel, Abe Ravelstein is based upon Allan Bloom, a professor of political philosophy at the University of Chicago and a student of Leo Strauss (called Davorr in the book). Professor Bloom became wealthy when his 1987 book, "The Closing of the American Mind" became an unexpected best-seller. Bloom's book stresses the importance of philosophy and the humanities, particularly the philosophy of Plato, if education is to meet its function of forming thoughtful, passionate, and autonomous persons. He sharply criticized higher education in the United States, together with most of pop culture, for its failure to acknowledge or to pursue these goals. Bloom grew up in a Jewish family in the midwest.

Like Bloom, Saul Bellow grew up in a Jewish family in the midwest. Unlike Bloom, recognition came to Bellow relatively early in his career as a novelist. Bellow received the Nobel Prize in 1976. He has won three National Book Awards and the Pulitzer Prize.

The two men became fast friends relatively late in life and "Ravelstein" (2000) is a record of their friendship written by Bellow (born 1915) in his mid-80s. A painter with words, Bellow in a short space gives the reader an unforgettable picture of Ravelstein. The book disclaims an attempt to deal with Ravelstein's thought. But I think Bellow captures a great deal of it when he emphasizes how students must learn to leave home and the familiar and try to think for themselves. The picture of Ravelstein is larger than life, as Bellow gives us a passionate, expressive individual with most expensive tastes, a strong ego, a ribald sense of humor, and a passion for promiscuous homosexual sex. The book poignantly shows the reader Ravelstein's lingering death from AIDS.

We meet Bellow (Chick) in the book in the midst of an unhappy marriage to a woman named Vela. Vela is a world-renowned physicist but, to hear Chick tell it, she has little time for or interest in him. Chick and Vela are in the midst of a divorce when one of Ravelstein's young students, Rosamund,falls in love with him. Chick suffers a near-miss with death in an illness and Rosamund helps pull him through. The book presents a picture of the nature of love, I think, in the contrasts between the Chick -Vela and the Chick-Rosamund relationships. Ravelstein too has much to say about the nature of love, in his own voice and in the voice of his philosophical master, Plato, in the Symposium and the Phaedrus.

Friendship for Plato and Aristotle and for Bloom is the meeting of congenial minds with a common purpose. We see such friendship in "Ravelstein" in an interest in the life of the mind but we see something much more earthy too. Ravelstein and Chick are full of the life of the American midwest, of Vaudeville, of spicy humor, and of smutty language and stories. They enjoy each other's company and are able to be honest with each other -- even when each man has something painfully unpleasant to say about the other. They also share a common American Jewish heritage, both as it deals with secular American life and as a response to the Holocaust, which gets explored in substantial detail in this book. The two men reflect on death and on immortality, given Ravelstein's awareness of his own impending death and the aging Chick's close call with death.

This is a book of Bellow's old age. I think it will be remembered. The book will also, I think, keep alive the memory and teachings of Allan Bloom, as a person and as a teacher. The accomplishments and the names of Bloom and Bellow will be inextricably linked for many readers as a result of Bellow's story of their friendship.

Robin Friedman
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars An Interesting Read, 26 Jun 2012
I took this book up because I had heard Martin Amis and Christopher Hitchens declare their admiration for Saul Bellow. Indeed, for Amis, Bellow seems to have become a sort of mentor or father figure. I read Seize the Day a decade ago, but it did not resonate. I had really wanted to read Humboldt's Gift, but then I stumbled on Ravelstein and thought, `Why not?'

I quickly realized Ravelstein must have been Allan Bloom, made famous for his Closing of the American Mind, to which Bellow penned the preface. Ravelstein recounts the friendship between Bellow and Bloom (Chick and Ravelstein) as professors during what might be called their sundowner years -Ravelstein is dying and asks Chick to write his memoir, which Chick does after his own near-death experience.

The novel is a good one. I appreciated the descriptions of Raveltsein's brilliance and excesses and the magnetism he had over his students and colleagues. I also liked the references to classical learning (Bloom translated The Republic during the `60s, I think) and ruminations about Jewishness and what that means. There are a few jokes and surprising cultural references, and anecdotes and descriptions are quite entertaining. The book is well-written; there is hardly a sentence that is not thoughtfully crafted, and the story carries you along, for the most part. I thought it lagged a bit near the end (when it shifts from Ravelstein to Chick, or Bloom to Bellow) and that it was a little dry in places, but then it was meant as a fairly serious book and it was published when Bellow was 85. I liked the novel enough to want to come back to Bellow in the future, which means, for me, Ravelstein did what it was supposed to.

Troy Parfitt is the author of Why China Will Never Rule the World
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1 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A rare literary experience of a Nobel Laureate, 2 Jun 2000
By A Customer
This review is from: Ravelstein (Hardcover)
'Ravelstein' is a rare literary experience shared with us by a Nobel Laureate. The main protagonist in this novel, Abe Ravelstein is a university teacher. "He was not one of those conservatives who idolize the free market. He had views of his own on political and moral matters." He has also written a best seller which has made him very rich, at least materially. "He attracted gifted students. His classes were always full up." Despite all these achievements, finally, the death reaches him. He died of AIDS.
Evidently, 'Ravelstein' is based on Allan Bloom who wrote in the late 80s the controversial 'The Closing of the American Mind'. "We live in a thought-world, and the thinking has gone very bad indeed.'' Wrote Saul Bellow, in his foreword to Allan Bloom's controversial book some 13 years ago.
It appears that 'Ravelstein' is rather fragmented frames of Bellow's memory of Alan Bloom. Some readers may find it difficult to understand the meaning of this book. I'm sure the Gay community will label it as an anti-gay novel. I am not sure whether that was Bellow's intention. Does he want us to get deeper insights into the darkness of human nature?
One of the most important question about Bellow's 'Ravelstein' is the role of a writer and his ability to pass or not to pass judgements on moral issues or the question of mortality. In this novel Bellow passes a judgement about Ravelstein's "sex habits" in fact, as he calls "reckless sex habits" which I'm sure will not be acceptable to the gay community around the world.
In the novel, Ravelstein questions, "With what, in this modern day democracy, will you meet the demands of your soul?" This is indeed a difficult question to answer. I believe the same may applies to the message Bellow wants his readers to get out of this important novel about an important theme.
In the novel Bellow writes: "It means that writers are supposed to make you laugh and cry. That's what mankind is looking for." This is what exactly Bellow has achieved in 'Ravelstein'.
It is worth reading a great American writer's new novel which is sad and also a witty portrait of an American academic who has been fighting against the vulgarity that has engulfed American life.
"There are things that people should know if they are to read books at all..." wrote Bellow in concluding his introduction to Allan Bloom's 'The Closing of the American Mind'. In my view, 'Ravelstein' is nothing but what Bellow wants his readers to know about some, perhaps dark aspect of American life.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars, 11 Sep 2014
This review is from: Ravelstein (Penguin Great Books of the 20th Century) (Paperback)
excellent
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0 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Voidful?, 16 Sep 2000
By A Customer
This review is from: Ravelstein (Hardcover)
is a kind of literary joke that Ravelstein might have appreciated. The fact that I have placed a question mark beside it reflects the transition of views that I have had with this novel. At first reading, 'Ravelstein' is quite irritating. There are all those repetitions with jar on the nerves. They look as though Bellow's editor was too nervous of his literary reputation to indulge on a necessary cull. They jar, unlike the repetitions in Alistair MacLeod's 'No Great Mischief', which are as comfortable as a chorus and are reflective of that latter novel's grounding in oral history.
But there is an oral element to 'Ravelstein' too. Here, however, the storyteller is all too human, the lapses in memory forming part of his story. At times, it seems as though the anecdotes which the narrator relates or refers to are more fascinating than the stated purpose of the novel: to provide a portrait of the political philosopher Ravelstein. The novel begins with a reference to the Scopes Monkey Trial. Unless you're well up on your American legal history, the significance of this humorous episode may well pass you by. Yet this novel cannot help but be about ideas, given the nature of its subject. The State of Tennessee objected to the teaching of Darwinism on religious grounds, a decision that now seems risible. As Ravelstein lies dying however, his thoughts turn more to Jerusalem and the Holocaust. Darwinism had no more twisted a disciple than Adolph Hitler. No wonder Ravelstein laments the priority given to technical education in the States over and above the Arts. Not that the Arts were free of Nazi propagandists, as the narrator conveys by discussing Celine.
The narrator is Chick, one of Ravelstein's few confidants (although Ravelstein does have a whole troupe of ex-students with whom he can gossip). Ravelstein asks Chick to write a memoir of his life after he has gone. In this regard, 'Ravelstein' could be seen as a failure. If Ravelstein really is meant to be a portrait of Bellow's late friend, Allan Bloom, then surely the whole purpose of the exercise is defeated if Bellow can only compose it as fiction? It seems that all the effort has gone to waste. But then critical commentators have had no difficulty identifying the hero as Bloom, so maybe the decision to fictionalise his life was correct. Perhaps it is most fitting that Bloom's life should be reflected in a work of art. Unfortunately, I have never studied Bloom's ideas, so I might well have missed out on Bellow's memoir if it had not been presented as a work of fiction.
Sometimes, it does seem as though this novel is more about Chick than Ravelstein. There are long sections where Ravelstein is not physically present, most obviously when he has died. You do wonder why Chick continues his account, covering his own life threatening illness, where the links to Ravelstein seem tenuous to say the least. Okay, so both Chick and his young wife knew Ravelstein, but do we really need to see the aftermath of their tropical holiday? At times, it seems as though Chick's voice is held in check by theory: you know, the impossibility of objectively giving an account of another human being's life, the sort of approach which so stilts A. S. Byatt's 'The Biographer's Tale'. However, there is a telling moment where Chick relates that he could only approach the life of someone like Ravelstein piecemeal, with hints of pictures and tippets of conversation. And that's how I came to like this novel, by reading it piecemeal; by dividing the book up into the bits I liked best (of which there were surprisingly many, considering my initial reservations about this novel). Ravelstein liked the vaudeville tradition, the revelation of bawdy truths, the snappiness of critical insight rather than the Freudian liberal soul-searching that I'm admittedly more comfortable with.
Ravelstein seems most comfortable with the Greek theorists. Chick discusses Ravelstein's ideas with reference to Plato's Symposium, the notion that to "be human was to be severed, mutilated... The work of humankind in its severed state is to seek to missing half", with the coital embrace as just a temporary relief from this severed state. However, the way in which the body is mutilated affects its state of mind, Chick seems to be saying. It could be that the repetitions that seem to mar this novel are simply reflections of a mind ravaged by disease. Certainly one symptom of the cigua toxin which Chick ingests is for the patient to become circumlocutory in speech. This may also be why Chick is forced to recount his own illness, since his state of mind is very much reflected in his narrative. His own close call with death also provides the catalyst, the creative spark he needs to infuse his memoir of Ravelstein.
There are moments when Bellow seems obsessed with the vulgarities of fame. Ravelstein seems drawn to cod celebrities like a magnet. At one point, he pursues Elisabeth Taylor through the streets, and both he and Chick can't help but stare at Michael Jackson (the popster is staying in the same Parisian hotel as they). Ravelstein seems both fascinated and appalled by popular culture. 'Ravelstein' the novel does not make easy reading at first, but it does become more rewarding when you return to it. Bellow's 'pictures' certainly tend to stay in the mind a long while, and certain phrases resound. If his portrait of Ravelstein does seem a little fuzzy at the edges, then it's because Bellow's left room for the reader's own imagination to fill in the gaps. Maybe Ravelstein the fiction will outlive both Bloom and Bellow after all.
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3 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars the best writer for dialogue with the human condition, 13 May 2011
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Ms. Linda Weir "espaceblue" (st.ives cornwall) - See all my reviews
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i love Saul Bellow, not only for the atmospheric sense of place, his lifelong dedication to learning and understanding, but the sheer beauty of his sensitivity to language and communication and its rootedness in place and culture and society. i think the best writer in the world.
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Ravelstein (Penguin Great Books of the 20th Century)
Ravelstein (Penguin Great Books of the 20th Century) by Saul Bellow (Paperback - May 2001)
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