The closing the curtains on a great American mind

Ravelstein by Saul Bellow (Viking, £16.99, 254pp)
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The Independent Culture

Saul Bellow's profound and luminous new novel, published in his 85th year, is a thinly fictionalised memoir of the philosopher and political theorist Allan Bloom, the Ravelstein of the title. Bloom, who died of internal bleeding and liver failure (perhaps, also, of Aids) in 1992, was Bellow's closest friend and, towards the end of his life, a figure of controversy. He was an inspired teacher, an authority on Plato, Rousseau and Hegel, and also unashamedly élitist, anti-relativist and ahistorical in the "Great Books" tradition of his mentor at the University of Chicago, Leo Strauss (Felix Davarr in the novel).

Fame transformed Bloom's life in 1987, when Bellow persuaded him to write The Closing of the American Mind, a bestselling critique of American higher education. Instead of merely living like a millionaire - amassing debts of over $100,000 - Bloom now was one.

The novel opens with "Ravelstein" in his glory, ensconced in a penthouse suite at the Hotel Crillon in Paris, crackling with "tremendous eager energy," scribbling his name "wildly" on cheques, spilling gravy (at a feast chez Lucas Carton) on a $5,400 jacket from Lanvin. To "Chick", the Bellow-narrator, his friend's improbable good fortune is wholly deserved. "It was no small matter to become rich and famous by saying exactly what you think-- to say it in your own words, without compromise."

Ravelstein's words, like his tastes, mix high culture and low in the manner of Bellow himself. Early in the novel the two friends discuss Keynes's account of the debate over German reparations in 1919 (Ravelstein wants Chick to write his biography, and recommends Keynes as a model). When Chick mentions Lloyd George, Ravelstein calls him "a contentious little fucker".

Ravelstein's handpicked students (those who don't attract him, or have no Greek, he simply refuses to teach: "Better for them if they hate me. It'll sharpen their minds") get invited to his apartment, with its Baccarat glassware, Jensen silver, Spode and Quimper, to eat pizza and watch basketball on television. The mixture of high culture and low connects to Ravelstein's great project (also to his motto, from Schiller. "Live with your century but do not be its creature"). "He took you from antiquity to the Enlightenment, and then - by way of Locke, Montesquieu and Rousseau onward to Hegel", and finally to "corporate, high-tech America". Ravelstein asks "With what in this modern democracy will you meet the demands of your soul?"

His answer to this question is sought for in the literature and thought of Athens and Jerusalem, "the twin sources of civilisation". "Athens and Jerusalem," claims Chick, with a novelist's sensibility, "are not my dish." But Chick, too, concerns himself with the soul and its needs. To capture his friend in writing gradually emerges - the novel's manner is casual, indirect - as an affirmation of soul; that is, of the soul's capacity to withstand oblivion through love or friendship, and art. For writers like Chick, "the heart of things is shown in the surface of those things" ; chief among his tasks is to resist "largely standardised categories", even those of Ravelstein. "A face, a haunch, a pair of eyes, a foot, a set of ears - depending on the emphasis of their creation, hold the key for the observer," declares Chick. "But this is no longer observation, it is more akin to religion". Chick must "continue to see as a child, straight into the Kingdom of Heaven".

So Chick's portrait of Ravelstein mostly steers clear of ideas, concentrating instead on "pictures": the "CEO glass ashtrays" in his apartment, jammed with broken or forgotten butts, "like stalks of chalk"; his extraordinary skill in serving drinks, "as though he had halted in the middle of a high wire with a tray of overfilled glasses"; the way his fingers shook when he picked up a cup in "an overflow of excitement".

To picture Ravelstein, Chick himself must be put in focus. Towards the end, after Ravelstein's death, Chick's own near-death experience (in the Caribbean, where Bellow himself nearly died in identical circumstances) is recounted. This experience only confirms Chick's sense that something lives on after the body's dissolution, that the pictures "might continue after death".

The novel ends with a final vivid picture: Ravelstein "laughing with pleasure and astonishment". In a gesture of faith and love - the novel is suffused with sharp-eyed, hard-edged love - Chick concludes: "You don't easily give up a creature like Ravelstein to death."


Zachary Leader's edition of the letters of Kingsley Amis is published by HarperCollins next month