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Saul Bellow

Saul Bellow
London 2000

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If anyone set strict ages of man, the novelist would probably peak between 45 and 60. To consider his output during those years, Bellow has peaked admirably. His last works, such as The Actual, were highly readable but reminders that his great talent has dimmed.

However, Ravelstein is a bold novel, presumably his last trump. The plot resembles Humboldt’s Gift; there are sharp differences but also clear parallels – the admiring narrator, the personal tribulations and the sense of privilege in observing a significant mind. Both title figures were based on key people in Bellow’s life. Allan Bloom (author of The Closing of the American Mind) is the blueprint for Ravelstein, modestly referred to as a tutor.

The character Abe Ravelstein is more of a performance than Humboldt, who is a distant and haunting figure. Ravelstein is near to being a comic Jew, with mannerisms one step extended from the traditional Western images of Jewry. Bellow has taken care to make Ravelstein passionate and unworldly, with a fascination with material possessions but utter disdain for money itself. Since, as the narrator observes, it takes the genius of Capitalism to make his ideas a commodity, this is oddly in keeping with his effusive, huge, educated persona. He is a far cry from the dour figures that often populate Bellow’s work, but then as his story is a doomed one there is possibly greater tragedy for this.

Bellow’s great novels mix regular elements – a fascination with materialism in its most elaborate form, characters that exist in academic removal, and certain women are always paraded as grotesques. These are usually ex-wives, such as Herzog’s second wife Madeleine. Bellow the author has always been careful to weight arguments so that his men can only appear as helpless, or at best entirely unsuited, to these devouring, unreasonable women. This is repeated here, which is a flaw as the book does not need this conflict to progress.

There have been bizarre viewings of Ravelstein. Some reviewers missed its thematic weight. This is not merely a piece of floral writing or an old man’s indulgence, as has been claimed. Within the novel’s two hundred pages there lies an inordinate amount of matter. The only difference between this and a more typically major novel is that the discussion is less heartfelt and more resigned, as would seem appropriate for a great mind forced to repeat himself fifty years on, with the issues yet to change.

Bellow’s pessimism is rooted in his being in the prime of life at the time of the holocaust (he was born in 1915), and as a young man – but not a soldier – he developed a fascination with valetudinarians, who must reason with what has happened instead of acting in the present. This informs Bellow’s work, and so we have a series of main figures that have removed themselves to discuss the world from a distance.

Here, appropriately for a novel closing the 20th century, there is a dissemination of prejudice and destruction. Bellow’s great knowledge of history presents us with many telling obscurities, such as Lloyd-George performing an obscene Jewish stereotype at a post Armistice meeting. Similarly academics and politicians are borrowed from and bastardised, often in entertaining ways. To conjure personal elements in such weighty figures is a huge gift, one which Bellow uses seemingly casually.

To conclude, if one accepts Herzog as the benchmark (the reviewer’s personal judgement), then Ravelstein acquits itself in perhaps three of the requisite parts for a dominant piece. It succeeds beautifully in creating giant characters, each with an overlapping history. There is an individual sense of academia. Contemporary time is accurately depicted, down to e-mail, AIDS and the Gulf War. However, Ravelstein does not operate on a sufficient scale to support its grand notions, nor is there the running labyrinth of subplots and subsidiary figures.

This may seem harsh. Ravelstein is an excellent book, but Bellow’s own standards may be applied to his own work. For anyone else this would be a masterpiece. Of course, nobody likes difficult novels anymore. Somebody tell Saul Bellow.

Reviewed by Chris Wood


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