Ravelstein

The Medieval, Proustian Bellow
New books dissected over email.
April 6 2000 2:09 PM

Ravelstein

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Dear Jonathan,

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Yes, there is something very Proustian about Bellow. Marcel could have said, as Chick does, "At a certain depth there were places in your psyche that still belonged to the Middle Ages." Some of Bellow's own virtues belong to the Middle Ages. He has a Chaucer or Boccaccio side. Little stories nest inside bigger stories, and there are two-sentence throwaway accounts that would be thought of as stories in their own right, if we were as used to epigrams and short forms as, say, the Japanese are. I think of Henderson's description of how his brother drowned trying to swim across a river in his army boots, or how he and his mates were deloused after an outbreak of crabs. They don't strike one immediately as indispensable, but no reader would wish them removed. The littlest parts recapitulate the bigger project, a very medieval way of building a work of art. That's what Proust, pickled in Ruskin on Gothic architecture, thought he was getting at. Your notion of Bellow's oeuvre as "The Big Book of Bellow" is a satisfying one.

At one point, Chick says of Ravelstein, "He had no patience with 'this insight bullshit' and preferred wit or even downright cruelty to friendly, well-meant interpretations of the conventional, liberal kind." That should remove any mystery about what drew Bellow to Bloom. Insight, of course, is Bellow's stock-in-trade, but it's always manifested through a description of real things. "Ordinary daily particulars were my specialty," says Chick. That stubble on Ravelstein's scalp that you mention is the most haunting of these daily particulars--not for what it looks like, but for what it says. Ravelstein had wanted people to think that his natural scalp was bald in a manly way; not wispy in a wimpy one--so he shaved it. Piercing the wall of vanity that Ravelstein has painstakingly built does not leave Chick happy; it leaves him feeling guilty. And that's the tone of the whole book. Parts recapitulating wholes. Noticing the stubble is a novel in itself.

Like Kingsley Amis, Bellow flaunts a Don't-Give-Me-That-Crap commonsensicality. The reader feels a cathartic pleasure in seeing things squared with the way he knows them to be. This is the voice you hear when Chick confronts his own death. The doctor who visits him after his recovery doesn't say, "Glad you're feeling better"; he says, "I wouldn't have given two cents for your life." And it's the voice you hear when he talks about Ravelstein's disease. There is an understandable temptation to pose over AIDS, to "understand" it away. Bellow will have none of that. Chick is not the kind of person who thought he would have AIDS to deal with in his life, and it scares the living bejaysus out of him: "... on the white inner arms you could see the veins. You couldn't help but think of the contaminated blood in them." The saddest undercurrent in the book--still something of a mystery to me--is that Ravelstein/Bloom is so terrified of letting anybody know he has it. (The black humor of the moment when Ravelstein's nurse breaks into a gathering of friends, none of them clued in, and says, "It's time for your AZT"!) But Ravelstein's friends desperately want to know, and the hint-hint curiosity of Professor Battle is well-handled:

"He's not in the best of health, is he?"

"He's one of those tall, strong, always ailing men."

"But isn't he more ailing than usual?"

What fun this has been, Jonathan. You alerted me to a lot of things in Ravelstein I wouldn't have seen otherwise. Here's hoping Slate lets us discuss the next Bellow book. Maybe the author of the last great novel of the 19th century (Augie March) will write the first great novel of the 21st. But to think that Bellow has written so vividly of both Al Capone's Chicago and Michael Jordan's is dizzying enough.

Best,
Chris

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This week, a discussion of Ravelstein by Saul Bellow (click here to buy it). Christopher Caldwell is a senior writer at theWeekly Standardand a columnist forNew York Press. Jonathan Rosen is the culture editor of theForwardand the author of Eve's Apple (click here to buy it) and the forthcoming The Talmud & the Internet: A Journey Between Worlds.

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