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'Ravelstein' by Saul Bellow

Reality check: Novelist Bellow creates characters who closely resemble real people

Sunday, May 28, 2000

By Bob Hoover, Post-Gazette Book Editor

 
 

Ravelstein

By Saul Bellow

Viking
$23.95

   
 

The master and the acolyte, both esteemed novelists, published novels this year, books very much alike on the surface but so very different underneath.

Saul Bellow, 84, writes “Ravelstein, ”a novel about a famous writer working on a memoir about his longtime friend, a controversial college professor of the classics with a secret.

Philip Roth, 67, writes “The Human Stain, ”a novel about a famous writer retelling the tragedy of a controversial college professor of the classics with a secret.

Bellow’s alter ego is “Chick”; Roth’s is Nathan Zuckerman, a frequent protagonist and narrator of Roth’s two earlier books, “American Pastoral” and “I Married a Communist.”

Roth’s subject is Coleman Silk, a dynamic teacher and administrator at a small Berkshires college, who seems to be modeled on the late journalist Anatole Broyard. A critic and memoir writer, Broyard for years avoided mentioning his black heritage.

Bellow’s subject is Abe Ravelstein, best-selling author, revered philosopher and tireless hedonist whose death from AIDS reveals his homosexuality.

Ravelstein is a fictional version of Allan Bloom, the University of Chicago philosopher whose 1989 best seller, “The Closing of the American Mind,” championed a return to “classical” education to replace university curriculums watered down by those faceless bogeymen, “liberals.”

Bloom was Bellow’s intellectual soul mate at the university and a darling of conservatives. He died in 1992 from vague causes, and Bellow has since been criticized for disclosing, although in a work of fiction, that his death was related to his lifestyle.

Both writers have created fascinating, energetic characters -- tough, intelligent and larger-than-life men, products of midcentury America raised in the Depression and World War II.

Ravelstein and Silk are creations familiar to readers of Bellow and Roth. Both Jews (Silk pretends he is), they’re very aware of their precarious place in the world, especially after the Holocaust, and of their religious and cultural heritage in WASP America.

(Incidentally, both books refer to Stendhal’s “The Red and Black,” perhaps a book that influenced the two novelists.)

Roth, who also attended the University of Chicago, has called Bellow his inspiration for his string of novels about contemporary America and his passionate views on the course of the nation.

Like “American Pastoral” and “I Married a Communist,” this new novel is about the destruction of a decent man by an intolerant society. Zuckerman is the narrator, a novelist who, in his 60s and impotent from prostate cancer, lives a reclusive life in western Massachusetts near Silk’s college. One night, his solitude is disturbed by a visit from Silk, who demands that Zuckerman write about his fall from power at Athena College. Now in his 70s, Silk resigned his professorship over charges that he was a racist. During the uproar, his wife died of a stroke, which he blames on the controversy.

The charge was flimsy and made even more ridiculous to the reader because Silk is a black man, although

his light skin has allowed him to pose as white. He abandons his widowed mother and siblings and takes up an academic life. His marriage to a Jewish woman helps complete the deception.

A tough, pragmatic intellectual, Silk as dean elevated the Athena faculty and reputation, yet it’s his own hires who fail to support him when he is accused.

His particular enemy is Delphine Roux, who chairs the department where Silk returned to teach after retiring as dean. To Roth, she is THE ENEMY, a rigid puritan persecutor, an example of the politically correct attitude seen at American colleges today.

She sets in motion Silk’s downfall, which results in his abandonment by his longtime academic family, much the way Silk deserted his natural family years before.

He then further complicates his life by taking as his mistress Faunia, a troubled woman who’s a college janitor and 30 years younger. This behavior not only draws further attacks on his character from Roux but also alienates him from his children.

Adding to the already complicated story is Les Farley, Faunia’s ex-husband, a mentally ill Vietnam veteran who’s stalking his former wife.

Finally, Roth sets his story in 1998 as the effort to impeach President Clinton gathers steam. He is drawing parallels to Silk’s plight, casting both men as victims of this 1990s kind of witch hunt.

Despite his novelist’s skills, these disparate elements work against each other and distract us from the central story of Coleman Silk’s betrayal of his true self, a betrayal Roth suggests is understandable in America’s social climate.

Certainly Silk pays a price for renouncing his heritage, but who’s exacting the cost? Would he have escaped in a more tolerant time?

Roth doesn’t have the answers.

At least he raises some questions, while Bellow is content to only give us a charming, superficial portrait of his old friend. Ravelstein’s eccentricities, physical quirks and generosity are the subjects of Bellow’s account, not his philosophy or the weight and pain of his Jewishness.

Unexplained are Ravelstein’s political prominence, his influential teachings and his childlike appetite for gaudy things.

Bellow also recounts his own brush with death when he was stricken with serious food poisoning while vacationing with his fifth wife, a woman nearly 40 years younger than he. Ah, the power of the pen.

“Ravelstein” is really a memoir with fictional names and probably should have appeared in a more honest form. As a novel, it lacks a story, for starters, as well as conflict and resolution.

It’s more of a “publishing event” than a book and will add little to Bellow’s body of work.

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