Abe Ravelstein is a brilliant professor at a prominent midwestern university and a man who glories in training the movers and shakers of the political world. He has lived grandly and ferociously-and much beyond his means. His close friend Chick has suggested that he put forth a book of his convictions about the ideas which sustain humankind, or kill it, and much to Ravelstein's own surprise, he does and becomes a millionaire. Ravelstein suggests in turn that Chick write a memoir or a life of him, and during the course of a celebratory trip to Paris the two share thoughts on mortality, philosophy and history, loves and friends, old and new, and vaudeville routines from the remote past. The mood turns more somber once they have returned to the Midwest and Ravelstein succumbs to AIDS and Chick himself nearly dies.
Deeply insightful and always moving, Saul Bellow's new novel is a journey through love and memory. It is brave, dark, and bleakly funny: an elegy to friendship and to lives well (or badly) lived.
Age does not wither Saul Bellow. The 84-year-old writer's new novel is echt Bellow--the grab-bag paragraphs stuffed with truculent observations; the comedic mix of admiration and rivalry that subtends the friendships of intellectual men; the impossible and possible wives. Abe Ravelstein, a professor at a well-known Midwestern college, is obviously modeled on the late Allan Bloom. To clinch the identification, Bellow's narrator, Chick, a writer 20 years older than Ravelstein, uses phrases to describe Ravelstein that are almost identical to phrases Bellow used about Bloom in his published eulogy. Like Bloom, Ravelstein operates his phone like a "command post," getting information from his former students in high positions in various governments. Like Bloom, Ravelstein writes a bestseller using his special brand of political philosophy to comment on American failings. And like Bloom, Ravelstein throws money around as if "from the rear end of an express train." In fact, Chick is so obsessed with the price of Ravelstein's possessions that at times the work reads like a garage sale of his student's effects. Ravelstein also spends lavishly on his boyfriend, Nikki, a princely young Singaporean. Chick's wife, at the beginning of the memoir, is Vela, an East European physicist. Ravelstein dislikes her, and suspects that her Balkan friends are anti-Semites. Eventually, Vela kicks Chick out of his house and divorces him (fans will not be surprised that Bellow, as seems to be his habit, makes this a thinly veiled attack on his ex-wife). Chick ends up marrying one of Ravelstein's students, Rosamund. When Ravelstein succumbs to AIDS, Chick mulls over his obligation to write a memoir of his friend, but he is blocked until he himself suffers a threatening illness. Chick's alternate na vet and subconscious rivalry with Ravelstein is the subtext here. Amply rewarding, this late work from the Nobel laureate flourishes his inimitable linguistic virtuosity, combining intimations of mortality with gossipy tattle in a biting and enlightening narrative. First serial to the New Yorker.