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
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