by Saul Bellow
Reviewed by Frank Thomas Smith
I don't think that "Ravelstein" is really about Ravelstein – whoever he's supposed to be in real life, some say Alan Bloom, but this doesn't interest me much. The real antagonist of "Ravelstein" is Chick, Ravelstein's reluctant biographer. And Chick can't be anyone but Bellow himself, or who Bellow would like to think he is or would like us to think he is, for the disguise is transparent.
Chick is old, a well-known writer of fiction, recently survived a serious illness by the skin of his teeth, married to a much younger woman, and Ravelstein's best friend, perhaps his only friend, Jewish. And his writing style is suspiciously identical to Bellow's. Sound familiar?
Now that we have established that the book is more about Chick than Ravelstein, we have no choice but to continue in that direction. What about Chick. What's his issue? No question there. The issue is death – and what, if anything, happens afterwards. And why not? Bellow is 85 and that's pretty near the end, even if he, as Chick, miraculously escaped death from fish poisoning. (One could look for symbolism in that, but I'll abstain.) Trust Bellow to go for the jugular, try to get to the bottom things, even though he knows he can't. At least he asks the questions that concern us all.
One of the things that I like most about Bellow's writing is that he attacks these questions with ironical humor. In "Ravelstein", Chick's ex-wife (Bellow is not kind to ex-wives) tries to get him to be frozen for a hundred years and thawed out when a cure for his illness is known, but he suspects her of selfish ends and refuses. I can't find the place or I'd quote it for you, but the book is worth reading for this hilarious episode alone.
As Plato used Socrates, Bellow uses Ravelstein to mouth his own thoughts, even hints at what he's doing:"I was familiar now with Ravelstein's ideas on marriage: People are beaten at last with their solitary longings and intolerable isolation. They need the right, the missing portion to complete themselves, and since they can't realistically hope to find that they must accept a companionable substitute. Recognizing that they can't win, they settle. The marriage of true minds seldom occurs. Love that bears it out to the edge of doom is not a modern project. But there was, for Ravelstein, nothing to compare with the achievement of the soul. Scholars deny that Sonnet 116 is about the love of men and women but insist that Shakespeare is writing about friendship. The best we can hope for in modernity is not love but a sexual attachment — a bourgeois solution, in bohemian dress. I mention bohemianism because we need to feel that we are liberated. Ravelstein taught that in the modern condition we are in a weak state. The strong state—and this he learned from Socrates—comes to us through nature. At the core of the soul is Eros. Eros is overwhelmingly attracted to the sun. I've probably spoken of this before. If I speak of it again it's because I am never done with Ravelstein and he was never done with Socrates, for whom Eros was at the center of the soul, where the sun nourishes and expands it."
Having tried marriage five times, we could say that Bellow is an expert on whether the marriage of true minds ever occurs. He seems to be saying that it can only happen in a friendship such as his with Ravelstein.
Ravelstein wants Chick to write his biography, knowing that if he does it will be a work of fiction – and this book, "Ravelstein", is that biography. Chick wonders if, having completed his task, there would be no barrier between death and him. His wife, laughing, asks if he means that his duties would end, and there would be no reason to live on. Chick denies it, gentlemanly asserting that he would still have her to live for. At the end, however, after he does complete his task, he finds that he continues to commune with Ravelstein, who had died of AIDS. He discusses with him, they listen to music together, they hear the parrots on the street feeding on red berries together.
"You can't really give up a creature like Ravelstein to death."
But the dedication, before the beginning, offers the most beautiful lines in the book, a mysterious poem closer to haiku than the sonnet:
A la bella donna mia mente.
The star without whom I could not navigate.
And to the real Rosie.