Saul Bellow's 'Ravelstein': the heart of a life of wisdom

On Books

April 09, 2000|By Michael Pakenham

Saul Bellow, a towering figure of American literature, has, at 84, produced a new novel. It is vibrant with life, joy, love -- and abrim with wisdom. If proof were needed that great craft need not ebb with age, and that a brilliant mind and courageous heart need never cease growing, here it is: "Ravelstein" (Penguin Putnam Inc., 233 pages, $24.95).

The book is concise and the story quite simple. It centers on Abe Ravelstein, a distinguished, controversial scholar of political philosophy. The narrator, identified only as "Chick," is an established, non-academic writer about 10 years older than Ravelstein but always his intellectual follower. ("Chick" connotes ... well, chick.)

Ravelstein, on Chick's urging, had put his life views,vastly popular among students, into a book intended for the general reader. Unexpectedly, it became a wild bestseller, and Ravelstein -- hitherto a man of lavish tastes without the money to pay for them -- is suddenly a multimillionaire.

He richly indulges his young Asian companion, Nikki -- though because Ravelstein has contracted HIV in some unspecified homosexual adventure, they are no longer lovers. He dresses in suits costing thousands and shirts from the lushest makers: "Things that give you pleasure also keep you alive. Let's not forget that pleasure also is a necessity."

Ravelstein demands that Chick write a book about him, not an academic biography, but a memoir for general readers. Chick's procrastination and pondering of that book provides the framework for Bellow's novel -- an informal sort of biography of Ravelstein and memoir of Chick himself. At that level, it is a paean to the importance of true friendship and to the indomitability of lives that are intelligently, passionately lived.

Ravelstein, Chick relates, "was HIV-positive, he was dying of it. Weakened, he became the host of an endless list of infections. Still he insisted on telling me over and over again what love was -- the neediness, the awareness of incompleteness, the longing for wholeness, and how the pains of Eros were joined in the most ecstatic pleasures."

Ravelstein is a truly great teacher, a celebrant of the classics -- a relentless pursuer of truth and leader of young minds. He's a scholar whose best students are lifelong acolytes, even as they rise to great prominence and power.

Ravelstein -- both the character and the novel -- is a celebration of civilization, of the wisdom of the accumulation of genuine human knowledge and insight, the conquering artillery of the canon.

Chick relates the tale in a wonderfully conversational, chatty voice. The counterpoint is grand ideas: Plato, Xenophon, Thucydides must be read in the original Greek. There is a lyric subtheme: The vitality of daily life and how attention to things that give us pleasure -- fashion, table manners, food, entertainments, art -- enrich experience and friendship.

Chick's admiration for Ravelstein goes far beyond conventional fondness, far beyond the delight of celebrating a majestic intellect wrapped in a cloak of endearing eccentricities. There is a great deal of discipline and distance in that adoration. Chick's description is fluent, unflaggingly celebratory, but cleanly reportorial.

Ultimately, the book is as much about Chick as it is about Ravelstein. Ravelstein, ever the professor, draws his older friend deeply into his life. Though Chick is much in love with his young wife and firmly heterosexual, Ravelstein teaches him the complexity of life and the meaning of love. "The simplest of human beings is ... esoteric and radically mysterious," Ravelstein insists, convincingly.

In the later portion of the book, Ravelstein's dying weeks are traced, and his increasing concern with the spiritual, with Jewishness, with the implications of the Holocaust, with the mystery of the possibility of afterlife.

There is a great consciousness of international and especially European anti-Semitism. It runs through much of the narrative. It is neither angry nor defensive, but presented rather as a curiosity. Ravelstein is perhaps the consummate international secular Jew, not religiously observant.

To teach, Bellows writes, was Ravelstein's destiny, and deeply rooted in their culture. "We are a people of teachers. For millennia, Jews have taught and been taught. Without teaching, Jewry was an impossibility."

In one sense, this is a book about death -- the death of Ravelstein himself to AIDS and self-indulgence. But truly, it is about life. "The world was created for each and every one of us," Ravelstein says, "and when you destroy a human life you destroy an entire world -- the world as it existed for that person."

Saul Bellow is one of the most distinguished novelists in the English language in the last half-century. He received a well-deserved Nobel Prize in 1976, and has collected virtually every other significant literary award worth mentioning.

He has written many collections of stories and novellas as well as 12 novels -- including "Humboldt's Gift," "The Adventures of Augie March," "Herzog," "Mr. Sammler's Planet." My particular personal favorite is "Henderson the Rain King" -- a book of rollicking, raw joyfulness that celebrates the truth of the immediacy of life while never slighting the universal fact of mortality.

Reading "Ravelstein," I found myself believing that Bellow has come, with great and honorable age, to a depth of wisdom, a blissfulness of spirit, a recognition of the dignity and necessity of energy -- that liberate him fully to be both wise and celebratory.

"Love is the highest function of our species -- its vocation," Chick insists. "This simply can't be set aside in considering Ravelstein. He never forgot this conviction. It figures in all his judgments."

Not only for Ravelstein. But, most importantly, for Saul Bellow.

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