on 16 September 2000
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.