Saul Bellow and the bad fish.

Scrutinizing culture.
April 3 2007 6:35 PM

Saul Bellow and the Bad Fish

A new way of explaining the genius of Ravelstein.

Ravelstein, Saul Bellow

Warning: This column is likely to offend two groups of potentially dangerous devotees—cat lovers and Saul Bellow fans.

I've developed a conjecture that is likely to infuriate both. One that involves the deadly ciguatera toxin and the insidious toxoplasmosis parasite.

I'm writing this in Chicago, where I've begun a writer-in-residence fellowship at the University of Chicago. They've put me up in a Lake Shore Drive property colorfully called the Flamingo Apartments. It's across the street from the place where Saul Bellow lived with his third wife (out of five), and local legend has it that back in the '20s Al Capone rusticated up here by the lake. Could be real-estate lore, but I like it.

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Anyway, preparing for the fellowship, I was rereading Ravelstein, the Bellow novel based on the late Allan Bloom and the kind of intellectual and cultural life he embodied at the University of Chicago, where Bellow and Bloom taught a celebrated seminar together. It was Bellow who helped make Bloom's pessimistic polemic, The Closing of the American Mind, a best-selling sensation.

Ravelstein is not only my favorite Bellow novel, it's the only one I really love. It's a rapturous celebration of the life of the mind, as well as a meditation on the glory of sensual life and on the tenebrous permeable boundary we all eventually pass over, the one between life and death. And as I was reading it, with Passover approaching, I found myself asking myself one of the traditional Passover questions about Ravelstein: Why is this novel different from all other Bellow novels?

My problem with the pre-Ravelstein Bellow is that he all too often strains too hard to yoke together two somewhat contradictory aspects of his being and style. There's the street-wise Windy City wiseguy and then—as if to show off that the wiseguy has Wisdom—there are the undigested chunks of arcane, not entirely impressive, philosophic thought and speculation. Just to make sure you know his novels have intellectual heft. That the world and the flesh in his prose are both figured and transfigured.

"Bellow has two hobbies," the novelist and Chicagoan Richard Stern is quoted as saying in James Atlas' biography: "Philosophy and fucking."

Not that there's anything wrong with these as hobbies, but the philosophical and the sensual in Bellow never fused in a convincing or satisfying way for me. They were rather like alternating voices from schizoid embodied personae.

I know he wants you to see the connection between his marital-problem-plagued Herzog and the world historical views of Hegel, but to me it's always been a heavy-handed juxtaposition rather than a novelistic fusion. But then there's Ravelstein, a novel Bellow wrote in his 80s, which I found—from the moment I read the first long New Yorker excerpt—absolutely, irresistibly seductive, both sensually and intellectually, one in which the sublimity and pathos of life and art are not joined to each other with heavy welds but transformed into a beautiful, seamless, unravelable fabric. I think a lot of people have bypassed or underrated Ravelstein because there's been too much bio-criticism about it. Believe me, I don't care that much about Allan Bloom OR whether the novel is a faithful account of his sex life. Just read it. Read it as if you didn't know who Allan Bloom was.

Recently Sam Tanenhaus made an argument in the Times Book Review that Bellow's work as a whole is "beyond criticism" because like Whitman it contains multitudes, it's "a vision of the human universe as apprehended by a being of higher intelligence" and the "many defects—the longueurs and digressions, the lectures on anthroposophy and religion" don't really matter when Bellow is considered as collective whole.

There's truth to that, but it doesn't preclude arguing that some Bellow is better than other Bellow and that in Ravelstein he achieved something that his previous novels had been striving a bit too grimly and sedulously for: that feeling of warp and woof, body and soul woven together into a single shimmering cloth.

Perhaps it's no accident that the opening scenes of Ravelstein focus in finely wrought detail on the sensual beauty of fabrics: the sheets at the Hotel Crillon in Paris, the ties at Sulka, and the tour de force episode that might be called "Ravelstein buys a sport coat"—at Lanvin.

You know the story of Ravelstein, right? It opens in the penthouse of the Crillon, where Ravelstein (the Bloom character) has flown Chick (the Bellow character) over to celebrate his best-sellerdom and to make a request: that Chick write a memoir of Ravelstein's life. The novel consists of Chick's memories of Ravelstein (who, we learn, is dying) and concludes with a dramatic episode that convinces Chick to carry out the biographical request.

This summation, of course, does not do justice to the novel's uncharacteristically ravishing sensual prose. Bellow is mesmerizing when describing the supreme material products—the gorgeous efflorescences—of civilization to be found in civilization's supreme peak in Paris. The Paris scenes recall to me a remark by Harvard's Elaine Scarry in The Body in Pain, a grimly titled tome I found surprisingly full of acute contrarian observations. At one point she says that materialism—in the sense of the creation of beautifully fabricated material objects, not lust for lucre—is not the antithesis but the glory of consciousness, its inner beauty and complexity made manifest in the outer world.

Here's a description of the $4,500 sport coat Ravelstein buys:

The gorgeous jacket at Lanvin was beautiful flannel, silky as well as substantial. The color ... golden with rich lights among the folds.

"You see such jackets advertised in Vanity Fair, and the other fashion slicks," Chick observes, "and they're usually modeled by unshaven toughs with the look of rough trade ... who have nothing—but nothing—to do, other than being seen in all the glory of their dirty narcissism. You don't even think of such a garment on an unwieldy intelligent man ... It's actually a pleasant thing to see."

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