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Ravel Stein Penguin Great Books of the 20th Century by Saul Bellow - The Art of Dying

Ravel Stein Penguin Great Books of the 20th Century by Saul Bellow - The Art of Dying

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Published by: harryh778 on Oct 27, 2011
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Ravelstein (Penguin Great Books of the 20th Century) by Saul Bellow

The Art Of Dying

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Saul Bellow confined himself to shorter fictions. Not that this old master ever dabbled in minimalism: novellas such as The Actual and The Bellarosa Connection are bursting at the seams with wit, plot, and the intellectual equivalent of high fiber. Still, Bellows readers wondered if he would ever pull another full-sized novel from his hat. With Ravelstein, the author has done just that--and he proves that even in his ninth decade, he can pin a character to the page more vividly, and more permanently, than just about anybody on the planet. Character is very much the issue in Ravelstein, whose eponymous subject is a thinly disguised version of Bellows boon companion, the late Allan Bloom. Like Bloom, Abe Ravelstein has spent much of his career at the University of Chicago, fighting a rearguard action against the creeping boobism and vulgarity of American life. Whats more, hes written a surprise bestseller (a ringer, of course, for The Closing of the American Mind), which has made him into a millionaire. And finally, hes dying--has died of AIDS, in fact, six years before the opening of the novel. What were reading, then, is a faux memoir by his best friend and anointed Boswell, a Bellovian body-double named Chick: Ravelstein was willing to lay it all out for me. Now why did he bother to tell me such things, this large Jewish man from Dayton, Ohio? Because it very urgently needed to be said. He was HIV-positive, he was dying of complications from it. Weakened, he became the host of an endless list of infections. Still, he insisted on telling me over and over again what love was--the neediness, the awareness of incompleteness, the longing for wholeness, and how the pains of Eros were joined to the most ecstatic pleasures. Ravelstein is a little thin in the plot department--or more accurately, it has an anti-plot, which consists of Chicks inability to write his memoir. But seldom has a case of writers block been so supremely productive. The narrator dredges up anecdote after anecdote about his subject, assembling a composite portrait: In approaching a man like Ravelstein, a piecemeal method is perhaps best. We see this very worldly philosopher teaching, kvetching, eating, drinking, and dying, the last in melancholic increments. His death, and Chicks own brush with what Henry James called the distinguished thing, give much of the novel a kind of black-crepe coloration. But fortunately, Bellow shares Ravelsteins Nietzschean view, favora ble to comedy and bandstands, and there cant be many eulogies as funny as this one. As always, the author is lavish with physical detail, bringing not only his star but a large gallery of minor players to rude and resounding

life (Rahkmiel was a non-benevolent Santa Claus, a dangerous person, ruddy, with a red-eyed scowl and a face in which the anger muscles were highly developed). His sympathies are also stretched in some interesting directions by his homosexual protagonist. Bellow hasnt, to be sure, transformed himself into an affirmative-action novelist. But his famously capacious view of human nature has been enriched by this additional wrinkle: In art you become familiar with due process. You cant simply write people off or send them to hell. A world-class portrait, a piercing intimation of mortality, Ravelstein is truly that other distinguished thing: a great novel. --James Marcus Features: * Click here to view our Condition Guide and Shipping Prices Ravelstein is the mentor, Chick is the acolyte/friend, although himself older than his mentor. Ravelstein is dying of AIDS as a result of a Dionysian life. Chick, later, almost dies from eating a toxic piece of fish that he doesn't care for in the first place, that is undercooked, th at doesn't really taste good enough to eat. Yet he eats it out of expediency -- it's not worth complaining about; he doesn't want to make a fuss; it wouldn't matter anyway; there is nowhere better on this Caribbean island to eat. The way Chick approaches the fish is the way he lives his life and the way he ponders the afterlife (the fish is historically a biblical symbol of Jesus and the promise of salvation). A parallel is implied: is it better to milk life of all its worldly pleasures with little regard for personal consequences as Ravelstein does or to wander into one's fate as does Chick? To be a Ravelstein in death is better than to be a Chick in life is the conclusion that seems to be just below the consciousness and just beyond the reach of Chick. It is the conclusion he seems to fear making and which probably is the cause of his procrastination in fulfilling Ravelstein's wish for Chick to write his biography after his death. But this is about more than Chick. He is really the symbol for us all, the symbol of our age. Chick says of Ravelstein that "He was here to give aid, to clarify and move, and to make certain if he could that the greatness of humankind would not entirely evaporate in bourgeois well-being, et cetera." Yet Chick, as thoughtful and insightful and observant as he is, more closely embodies this bourgeois well-being than does Ravelstein despite his materialistic proclivities. Chick, despite being seriously ill, craves the comforts of home, ignoring the danger of dying if he doesn't get to a hospital quickly. This is as we crave life's comforts despite the havoc they wreak on ourselves and others, and nature. Comparing the interaction with nature of Chick and Ravelstein is revealing also. Ravelstein is a nature-phobe while Chick tries to embrace it, keeping a home in the country. But Ravelstein's mistrust of nature is more honest than Chick's courtship of it. As conscious and deep as Chick is, he can't fully connect with this or with the cheating of his ice-goddess wife or the Nazi past of one of the couple's regular dinner partners, or even his own near-death experience. His life evaporates in bourgeois well being. And ours?

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