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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Saul Bellow

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To purchase Ravelstein

Title: Ravelstein
Author: Saul Bellow
Genre: Novel
Written: 2000
Length: 233 pages
Availability: Ravelstein - US
Ravelstein - UK
Ravelstein - Canada
Ravelstein - France
Ravelstein - Deutschland

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Our Assessment:

B : quite well-written but puzzling and unfocussed memoir and homage -- and meditation on friendship, love, and death

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Christian Science Monitor A 20/4/2000 Ron Charles
Esquire A+ 4/2000 Sven Birkerts
FAZ . 17/10/2000 Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht
The Guardian B+ 22/4/2000 John Mullan
The Independent A 22/4/2000 Zachary Leader
The LA Times A 23/4/2000 Jonathan Levi
London Rev. of Books . 27/4/2000 Christopher Hitchens
The Nation A 29/5/2000 John Leonard
Neue Zürcher Zeitung C 24/4/2001 Jörg Häntzschel
The New Leader A- 5-6/2000 Brooke Allen
The New Republic A 22/5/2000 Cynthia Ozick
Newsweek . 7/2/2000 Malcolm Jones
The NY Rev. of Books A- 25/5/2000 Louis Menand
The NY Times B- 20/4/2000 Michiko Kakutani
The NY Times Book Rev. A+ 23/4/2000 Jonathan Wilson
The Observer . 23/4/2000 Adam Mars-Jones
The Observer A 22/4/2001 Angela Woolfe
Salon B 14/4/2000 Lorin Stein
The Spectator . 15/4/2000 Penelope Fitzgerald
The Sunday Times A- 16/4/2000 John Sutherland
Time . 24/4/2000 Paul Gray
The Times A 20/4/2000 Malcolm Bradbury
TLS . 21/4/2000 Bharat Tandon
The Village Voice A 19/4/2000 Gary Giddins
Wall St. Journal . 14/4/2000 Bret Stephens
The Washington Post A 9/4/2000 Jonathan Yardley
Die Zeit A- (51/2000) Gabrielle Killert

  Review Consensus:

    An amazing gamut of opinion, though almost all of it quite positive.
    A surprising number are fairly reserved in their judgement, giving the old master his due, but not quite willing to say that it is a worthwhile book. Quite a number, however, praise it to the skies. Bellow's talents for description are commended by all, and most also note that there is not much plot to the book.
    Most address the fact that Ravelstein is a portrait of Allan Bloom (Penelope Fitzgerald's review, in The Spectator, is the only one that does not mention Bloom). A number (notably Cynthia Ozick and Jonathan Yardley) protest that the fact that Ravelstein is loosely (?) based on a real character is completely irrelevant to a work of fiction and art. Others see the novel as a straightforward memoir and homage.

    See also the assessment of the critical reaction to Ravelstein, at BooksUnlimited

    See also Bellowing and Braying, a piece on the titles of the Ravelstein reviews from the complete review Quarterly

  From the Reviews:
  • "(A) memorial to his late friend Allan Bloom and an essay on the challenges of biography. It's a masterly piece of writing and his first full-length work in more than a decade, but it will have trouble finding an audience -- or forgiveness." - Ron Charles, Christian Science Monitor

  • "Ravelstein (...) is full of heart and wisdom, and I want to praise it without a pinch of qualification. If this is overpraising it, so be it. The writer, well into his eighties, has hit his number again. He is Bellow, doing the Bellow thing: He is paying homage to greatness of spirit, to the Blakean energy principle." - Sven Birkerts, Esquire

  • "Saul Bellows Roman wächst in diesem Sinne über sich hinaus zu einer Hymne auf die zwei Lieben seines Lebens, zu einer Hymne auf Alan Bloom und auf seine junge Frau Janis Freedman, der das Buch gewidmet ist und mit der er im vergangenen Jahr eine Tochter hatte." - Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "Even more than Bellow's other novels, its narrative is structureless, digressive, almost whimsical. It circles around the character - the sayings and the idiosyncrasies - of its protagonist. When it loses him it loses its way, and its other main characters are pale." - John Mullan, The Guardian

  • "(P)rofound and luminous." - Zachary Leader, The Independent

  • "Thin though this novel may be, and perfunctory in keeping its commitment as the unwritten memoir that Bellow promised to Bloom in a moment of weakness, it does exemplify some of the stoicism of the neo-conservative mentality." - Christopher Hitchens, London Review of Books

  • "Bellow's Ravelstein is a Frankenstein monster created, as is all great literature, from pieces of the dead. And its power originates in its creator and his complex affection, born of not quite un-jealous admiration -- memories digested and re-digested, never bilious and often energized by a love that dares speak its name -- friendship." - Jonathan Levi, The Los Angeles Times

  • "Vor allem am Anfang bemüht sich Bellow um einen distanzierten ironischen Stil, bald jedoch leiht er Ravelstein bereitwillig seine Stimme. Zitat und Erzählertext verfliessen, der Autor verleugnet sich selbst. (...) Auch die narrative Struktur hinkt und humpelt. (...) Klappernde Sätze wie dieser durchziehen das Buch." - Jörg Häntzschel, Neue Zürcher Zeitung

  • "To me the book appears to be exactly what it is presented as: a charming farewell to a much-missed friend." - Brooke Allen, The New Leader

  • "It is important to repudiate the tag of roman a clef not only because it is careless and rampant, but because it reduces and despoils the afflatus -- and the freedom -- of the literary imagination. The clef gets stuck in the lock, and the lock attaches to fetters." - Cynthia Ozick, The New Republic

  • "Controversy aside, Ravelstein is certainly Bellow's most vigorous novel in years." - Malcolm Jones, Newsweek

  • "Ravelstein is a novel so à clef that not a single incident or character feels truly fictional (.....) Bellow did not wish to say something revealing about Allan Bloom in his book. He plainly had no idea -- who would ? -- what made Bloom tick. He had some idea about himself, though, and he worked it up with subtle but unsparing honesty." - Louis Menand, The New York Review of Books

  • "By the end of the novel the charismatic Ravelstein no longer holds center stage, and as he is marginalized, the book loses its energy and focus, collapsing into a mere shell of a story -- a portrait in which the subject has disappeared from view." - The New York Times, Michiko Kakutani

  • "In Ravelstein (Bellow) has produced a novel that is rich, deep and unnervingly entertaining. The foreground may be one man's dying and another's long sickness, but if Chekhov was right to theorize that great art can never be depressing, than Bellow's Ravelstein is his proof." - Jonathan Wilson, The New York Times Book Review

  • "A meditative structure allows for the legitimate presence of repetition, refinement of insight. But if there is sometimes an impression of energy being conserved at the heart of the book, then it is lavishly expended at the edges." - Adam Mars-Jones, The Observer

  • "But Ravelstein is more than a series of brilliant character sketches. A century's worth of observation and knowledge is expertly distilled into Bellow's luxurious prose." - Angela Woolfe, The Observer

  • "(A) tendentious, intermittently brilliant portrait of an actual friendship in certain ways as strange, if not always as interesting, as fiction." - Lorin Stein, Salon

  • "Nothing very much happens except hospitals and talk. A lot of Ravelstein is like overhearing two old codgers rabbit on about what it is like to be two old codgers. They reminisce, bicker (particularly about Chick's last but one wife, the Romanian bitch Vela), and tell, yet again, their favourite Jewish jokes." - John Sutherland, The Sunday Times

  • "Plot has never been the sharpest arrow in Bellow's quiver, and Ravelstein holds true to form. It might, like the author's earlier works, be called a novel of ideas, but that is too bloodless a description of Bellow's signature accomplishment. Again, as always before, he portrays people with ideas--sometimes good, sometimes wacky--bumping into one another and sparking unpredictable reactions." - Paul Gray, Time

  • "This book proceeds not with the epic splendour of the big novels of the past, but to a sober dignity. The story is told loosely, associatively, with playful meditation. It is vivid, funny, very chattery, even cranky, charged with sudden and shifting ideas." - Malcolm Bradbury, The Times

  • "Bellow begins so offhandedly, so autobiographically, that you have every reason to fear a roman locked tight by its clef; but he keeps pulling aces out of his sleeves, and by the time you've made the trip -- a characteristically time-warped journey that juts one way and then another, with more talk than anecdote -- you know you have been had as only Bellow can have you." - Gary Giddins, The Village Voice

  • "It is a measure of how faithfully Bellow has portrayed this friendship that this book rings with its laughter and joy, indeed at times is as funny as anything Bellow has ever written, no small accomplishment in and of itself. The book has no plot to speak of and should not be read by anyone in search of one." - Jonathan Yardley, The Washington Post

  • "Was aber doch rührt und für den Text einnimmt bei allem Schmonzes, ist der große Einsatz, mit dem der hochbetagte Autor noch einmal sein Lebensthema, das jüdische Thema schlechthin, zu bezwingen versucht: das rastlose Umherirren, die herzzerreißende Verlorenheit des Geistes hinieden." - Gabrielle Killert, Die Zeit

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Ravelstein is a puzzling creation. As most everyone with any interest in Bellow or American literary matters knows by now, the character Abe Ravelstein is a thinly disguised version of Bellow's late friend, Allan Bloom, author of the unlikely bestseller, The Closing of the American Mind. The disguise is paper-thin -- only the names have been changed. This is the first part of the puzzle: why the fictional form ? Why not a straightforward memoir or homage or extended eulogy ? (Bellow's eulogy for Bloom has, in fact, been incorporated into the novel practically in its entirety and practically unchanged -- except for the names and labels). It is certainly not to protect the innocent -- though perhaps it is to savage the guilty. Still, it is an odd way of doing things
       For those not in the know:

  • "Abe Ravelstein" is Allan Bloom
  • "Chick" is Saul Bellow
  • "Vela" is a former Mrs. Bellow (and "Rosamund" surely the current one)
  • "Radu Grielescu" is Mircea Eliade
  • "Rakhmiel Kogon" is Edward Shills
  • "Felix Davarr" is Leo Strauss
       Most of the fuss has been about the Bloom-Ravelstein character, as Bellow "outs" his dead friend, presenting him as the homosexual he apparently was -- and having him die of AIDS (as Bloom apparently did). The reviews also tend to focus in on this portrayal/betrayal.
       Curiously, the other portraits are of less concern to reviewers. Of the reviews we surveyed (see summaries) only two identified Eliade as a character portrayed in the book. One -- John Sutherland, in The Sunday Times -- fails to identify the character corresponding to Eliade, while the other -- John Leonard, in The Nation -- circumspectly writes: "we are told in the April Lingua Franca that (...) Radu Grielescu is Mircea Eliade." The fact that Eliade and Shills really get the treatment in Ravelstein is almost completely sidestepped.
       (For what its worth: if we had not been privy to the whole to do the only characters we would have been able to identify unaided are "Vela" and "Radu Grielescu" (and, of course, "Chick"). The former Mrs. Bellow is familiar from previous Bellow works, and Eliade's distinctive biography leaves no doubt that he must be Grielescu. Bloom wasn't large enough a figure outside his select circle for us to recognize him as Ravelstein.)
       Real people are often used in fiction; Philip Roth is another author who likes to rely on this tired device (or lacks the imagination to do otherwise). When fictionalized portrayals move beyond what was reality this might be a valid approach (as Bellow himself showed, with his Delmore Schwartz portrayal in the excellent Humboldt's Gift), but when -- as here, in Ravelstein -- everything mirrors what actually occurred then it is quite baffling. It is also a burden on a book that claims to be a novel.
       Ravelstein is a novel almost devoid of fictional elements. How then to consider it ? The portrait of Bloom -- and Eliade and the others --, the self-portrait of Bellow: they can not be seen as fiction, try as one might.

       The novel is told in the first person, by Chick. His colleague and dear friend, the brilliant Abe Ravelstein, has asked Chick to write his memoir, after his death. Ravelstein does not believe Chick is the best equipped to capture his intellectual legacy, but he thinks that Chick is best-suited to capture and portray his human side.
       Chick begins by recounting a trip to Paris, years before, when Ravelstein first makes the suggestion. In fact, it is only many years after Ravelstein's death that Chick writes the memoir. Much of the book is about the difficulties of writing such a memoir, and Chick acknowledges the difficulties he has, and the variety of approaches he considers.
       Ravelstein is a flamboyant homosexual (though not necessarily flamboyantly homosexual). Finally free of financial worries after the success of his book (which Bellow ... pardon us, Chick convinced him to write) he can indulge in all his designer-label fantasies. Bellow portrays Ravelstein's prissy vanity very well. Bellow seems to mean it affectionately -- or possibly there is even some envy of Ravelstein's rarefied and supposedly impeccable tastes. (As fedoras appear in the text Ravelstein's tastes can certainly not be considered impeccable.) Ravelstein likes the high life, and his buddy Chick admires him for it.
       Ravelstein is also an impressive academic figure. So we are repeatedly told. He molds young minds -- first getting them to forget "the opinions of their parents", then guiding, teaching, leading them. The chosen ones -- the ones for whom he is a mentor, those he believes can achieve great things -- do go on to achieve, becoming the future leaders of the world. And they never forget their great teacher: he constantly stays in touch with them, exchanging gossip and ideas, continuing to lead and push them as is necessary. Chick is in awe of this coterie.
       Chick's descriptions of father-figure Ravelstein and his acolytes are hard to take seriously. In fact, the descriptions of his followers' devotion are so absurd and unfounded that they could pass for a right-wing extremist's description of a subversive Jewish-led cabal intent on taking over the country.
       The problem with all the lavish praise of the brilliant mind Ravelstein is that that mind is nowhere in evidence. Yes, he lectures on Plato and many of the high and mighty turn to him for sage advice, and yes, there is some half-way decent dialogue between him and Chick (though most of it is sheer and fairly empty repartee), but there is no convincing evidence of his being a heavyweight (or even a welterweight) intellectual. The only evidence of Ravelstein's intellectual prowess that Chick can show the reader is that he prefers French terms to the English:
Abe always preferred French expressions to American ones; he didn't say "a chaser" or "a womanizer" or "ladies' man" -- he said "un homme à femmes."
       There is even a certain good-old American type anti-intellectualism, recognizing the importance of superficialities:
Ravelstein had come to agree that it was important to note how people looked. Their ideas are not enough -- their theoretical convictions and political views. If you don't take into account their haircuts, the hang of their pants, their taste in skirts and blouses, their style of driving a car or eating a dinner, your knowledge is incomplete.
       (While this may help complete knowledge about people note also how much is missing -- Bellow only speaks of this and "their ideas (...) -- their theoretical convictions and political views". Yeah, there's a well-rounded look at any given individual .....)
       Ravelstein comes across as quite the poseur. The kind of guy who has his neckties "sent via air express to a silk specialist in Paris" to get them cleaned. (Enough information right there to make it hard to take him seriously.) Though, on the other hand, he is also willing to watch the Chicago Bulls with his students over pizza. And he is also a notoriously messy eater, undermining his supposed refinement (in judging a person decent table manners are surely on par with snazzy outfits).
       The HIV bombshell is only dropped on page 94, the descent into debilitating AIDS-related diseases even later. Ravelstein bravely and earnestly forges on, never letting up, rarely letting on about his true suffering. Noble.
       Chick loves his friend. In that manly, Platonic-friendship way, at least. For his other needs Ravelstein has an exotic boy-toy (Nikki) who is devoted to him, an exotic little thing that stays up until all hours of the morning and sleeps in. Though Nikki does prove his mettle by lovingly tending to Ravelstein in his dying days.
       Love is hugely important to Ravelstein -- as is Eros, though given how deadly Eros proved to be to him one wonders whether there isn't a subtle subtext here that both should be approached with the greatest care.
Love is the highest function of our species -- its vocation. This simply can't be set aside in considering Ravelstein. He never forgot this conviction. It figures in all his judgments.
       So Chick would have us believe. But Ravelstein's love rarely convinces either. Nikki seems devoted, but he is also bought off with a fancy car, and the relationship becomes one of dependence (as it perhaps always was, only with the roles now switched). Ravelstein's friendship with Chick seems deep but never strikes one as completely true.
       The last chunk of the novel covers the time after Ravelstein's death. It is here the story finally culminates, focussing on its true subject, Chick-Bellow himself. Chick and his wife decide to move away from the university and the Midwest, at least for a while, and Chick accepts a position in Boston. They vacation in the Caribbean and Chick manages to get himself poisoned by the dreaded ciguatera toxin (a really nasty piece of work). Chick very nearly dies. More may die of heartbreak but this toxin has a pretty good fatality record as well. In Chick-Bellow's case it's not entirely clear which is more likely to kill him -- though the love of his good woman seems to be an important factor in getting him back among the living. (All this actually happened to Mr. Bellow, and he manages to convey these experiences very well.)
       Eros leads to AIDS, platonic love lost leads to ... well, near-death experiences of one sort or another ? It's one way of looking at the novel.

       Allan Bloom haunts this book, but not in any good way. Perhaps for those that knew him this is a complementary account that helps round their picture of the man. For the general reader there is too little of the man. We must take Chick-Bellow's word, and he does not manage to convince with what he decks out for us.
       As to the question of betrayal: perhaps a confidence was betrayed here, though Bloom presumably knew what he was in for (and also apparently did not live the most closeted of lives -- though he had discrete friends). Mircea Eliade and Edward Shills might have more to complain about (as does the former Mrs. Bellow -- though she has been through the wringer before).
       As to Bellow's "outing" of Bloom -- who could possibly care whether or not the guy was a sodomite ? A conservative academic who likes to bugger the lads ? Don't they all ? And of what possible relevance is it whether or not they do (unless of course their official pronouncements are at odds with their preferred lifestyles) ? In fact, Bellow admirably manages to keep Ravelstein's sexual orientation from being much of an issue. Unlike the critics and reviewers, who seem fascinated by this.
       There is more to the novel, including some philosophizing -- though Chick always reminds the reader that philosophy is not his subject. There are the aforementioned jabs at former University of Chicago colleagues such as Mircea Eliade, and some musings about Judaism, life, death, love, friendship, and whatnot. Bellow is less than effective in conveying many of these thoughts and ideas.
       Bellow is a good writer, and much of the book reads fairly effortlessly. The sum, however, does not seem quite the equal of even these disparate and not always successful parts. There a number of decent scenes and fine passages here, but the book seems to aspire to be much more -- and falls short.
       Bellow writes:
Ravelstein would frequently say to me, "There's something in the way you tell anecdotes that gets to me, Chick. But you need a real subject. I'd like you to write me up, after I'm gone ...."
       To his credit, Chick-Bellow seems to recognize that in fact a "real subject" is the last thing he needs. His inability to write for such a long time is, surely, a reflection of this. Chick says: "He felt he was giving me a great subject -- the subject of subjects", but Chick knows that Ravelstein was mistaken, not because Ravelstein wasn't a proper subject but because Chick-Bellow wasn't the man for the job.
       Memoir writing continues to be all the fashion, in whatever guise -- whether ultra-realist or semi-pseudo-fictional or anything in between. Bellow seems not to trust his art in paying homage to his friend, Allan Bloom. Bellow is -- or was -- a master, and should have trusted his talents. Changing a few names, a few labels does not suffice.
       Near Perigord Ezra Pound wrote: "End fact. Try fiction." May Bellow -- and others -- heed the call !

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Ravelstein: Reviews: Characters from Ravelstein: Saul Bellow: Other books of interest under review: https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/reviews/the-closing-the-curtains-on-a-great-american-mind-155033.html

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About the Author:

       Canadian-born American author Saul Bellow was born in 1917 and died 5 April 2005. He is the author of numerous novels, and was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1976.

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