Bellow and Ravelstein both are elderly, cultured, bookish east-coast Jews who pulled themselves out of the mild poverty of their parents by the pulsing sweat of their brows, but the protagonist is not the author in disguise — except to the extent that this is always and almost inevitably the case. Ravelstein is, or represents, Allan Bloom, Bellow’s long-time friend and colleague at the University of Chicago. This is the key to the roman à clef.
Bloom was first accepted into Chicago at the early age of 15 as part of a recently instituted programme to provide “gifted youth” with a wide-ranging education in the liberal arts, requiring close reading of the canonical texts of what was still unironically called Western culture, and he remained an academic and critic for the rest of his life. He is best remembered now, if at all, for his partly prescient, partly overblown attack on the seemingly vapid moralism and anti-intellectualism of modern academe, The Closing of the American Mind, to which Bellow wrote the — of course, wholly approving — foreword. Indeed, one wit, the left-wing political philosopher Robert Paul Wolff, wrote a review of the book as though it had been, in toto, a Bellovian artifice, a particularly elegant way of reducing the author’s thesis to the ranting crackpottery of an unreliable narrator in the mould of Augie March or Moses Herzog, the sort of neurotic oddballs with whom Bellow made his name — although, in assuming that Bloom’s ardour for the Great Books was indicative of little more than the 1940s-style, eccentrically Chicagoan curriculum to which he was exposed, Wolff displays precisely the instinctive cultural relativism that the Closing, from its opening pages, argues against.
The Core Curriculum at Chicago, once rooted in Eurocentric universalism, has since splintered: present-day students can choose to specialise in such subjects as human rights, global colonialism, Semitic languages, South Asian politics, Islamic thought, pre-Columbian cultures and gender & sexuality. This widening of the syllabus must be seen as a good thing, or at least an inescapable one, in an ever more connected and contested world, but does every widening not also imply a shallowing? No, not in Chicago’s case, where experts in every field and discipline are aplenty, but it may be harder for lesser-ranked schools to offer such a smorgasbord of study without the focus becoming superficially synoptic. The other loss is that students no longer share a common intellectual grounding, even if only to struggle with and to kick against; they each speak, quite literally, their own languages, for no sooner have they matriculated than they have been sifted and sorted into their own ideological and civilisational silos. This was the oncoming trend that Bloom wanted to see put to a swift end, as Canute’s courtiers had wanted to stop the coming of the waves.
The book has a tripartite structure, not unlike a three-act play. Act one introduces the great man himself, through the eyes of Chick, the book’s barely fleshed narrator, who is also a Jewish academic. The midsection explores the onslaught of Ravelstein’s various illnesses and infections, which ultimately lead to his death. The final act takes place six years later: Chick had promised his dying friend that he would write a memoir, to memorialise his departing life for future generations, but he procrastinates, takes ill himself (from ciguatoxin ingested on a Caribbean vacation) and struggles in the task — we are, of course, to take this novel as the completed work.
In fact, there’s relatively little narrative, as conventionally conceived, for the book is taken up mostly in dialogue between the two men and in description of the magus, but this paucity is not unusual in a modern literary novel, where the prose itself is the plot. However, and sacrilegious though it may be to say, I wasn’t much enamoured with the writing style. It’s not badly written by any means, but the prose is quite spare and when it sets off its pyrotechnics, they fizzle like cigarettes in a rainstorm. I like a good pun, to my aetiolated taste it’s far from the lowest form of humour, but Bellow doesn’t get much better than Chick’s referring to the up-market London shirtmaker Turnbull & Asser by the sarcastic sobriquet “Kisser & Asser”. Many critics seemed impressed enough that the author still had a hand steady enough to write anything at the age of 85, and dutifully so, since it was clear that this would be Bellow’s final work; no one likes to beat an old dog, especially one with such impeccable years of service.
In my edition of the text, I noticed at least two errors, whether of proofreading, printing or the pen. On page 161, the second word of “papier timbre” [sic] was missing its acute accent and should be read instead as papier timbré, a not insignificant mistake given the pride that Ravelstein took in his fluency and ease in that language (we are told, for example, that he would often frequent a particular restaurant, Les Atouts, owned by Monsieur Kurbanski, a Franco-Serbian immigrant and friend, simply so that he could slip into French when ordering his meal). The second mistake, seen on pages 207 ff., is less important: the sedative drug Midazolam, so far as I have been able to make out, is sold only under the trade name Versed, not “Verset”, as written in multiple places.
Abe Ravelstein himself is a charming, powerful and erudite man; he is also an aesthete, a crank and a snob. Having accrued generous windfalls from his polemical bestseller, he could afford to climb ever higher in the ivory tower. He would, for instance, listen only to composers of the Italian Baroque played “on the original instruments” (and on $10,000 speakers). In depicting the man’s lavish lifestyle, more brand names are dropped than, I imagine, appear even in E.L. James’ penny dreadful 50 Shades of Grey — though fewer sportscars, sextoys and wristwatches, more mention of Lanvin jackets and Pratesi bedsheets, high-end items from the fashion houses of the Old World. His one point of contact with popular culture was basketball (still, there’s a hint of elitism even in his admiration for Michael Jordan, whom he describes as an American genius, on a par with the bullfighters of Spain and the ballerinas of Russia): he would host pizza parties for his favoured students (some of whom would go on to become prominent names in politics) whenever the Chicago Bulls had a big game, a way of initiating them gently into his scholastic cult. There was a pernicious rumour that the old “bugger-familias” would use these sorts of events to seduce and corrupt his students (much the same charge that, in 5th-century Athens, was raised against Socrates, an ancient dialectician who openly conflated pedagogy and pederasty, the sensual and the cerebral).
Ravelstein is a contradiction — by which I mean he is human. He is at once a monk who decries the long, harrowing death of God and an atheist who sees life as nought but “a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness” (not unlike Nabokov, from whose autobiography these words are taken). He decries, too, the decadence that grows in the wake of organised religion and yet he lives as a sybarite — fine food, good clothes, hot sex etc. — in the confidence of his cloister. Hypocrisy is the charge, and it sticks like sweat to silk.
Does this excuse Bellow’s outing of Ravelstein-Bloom? Allan Bloom spoke against sexual liberation and the stridency of queer politics, but, behind closed doors, he had ensconced himself away from the world with a same-sex partner half his age, named in the novel as Nikki, Ravelstein’s Singaporean boyfriend (not quite a lover, more companion), a man whom he adored despite his intellectual interests stretching no further than an encyclopaedic knowledge of martial-arts movies. Ravelstein, by contrast, once describes his own such interests, by means of grandiloquent metonymy, as “Athens and Jerusalem”, symbolising the two poles, in short, of philosophy and religion. Well, in sexuality he was wholly Athenian. Or, at least, Victorian: he called himself an “invert”, making use of the antiquated, 19th-century term that conceived of same-sex attraction as emanating from the combined lusts of — to use a more 21st-century idiom, of which he would undoubtedly have disapproved — a cisgender body and a transgender mind: in short, homosexuality as aberrance, as mental abnormality even, not as a lifestyle to be entirely equated with the immovable bedrock of heterosexual, monogamous marriage.
Odd though it may seem, this attitude is perhaps not an altogether atypical one for a certain sort of older, socially conservative gay intellectual to take. I am reminded of the late British art historian Brian Sewell, instantly identifiable by his supremely clipped accent, an almost absurd parody of received pronunciation: he called himself “queer” not in the reclaimed political sense but with the force of unreconstructed invective, and, just before his recent death, he spoke out against the legalisation of gay marriage as the needless project of a “noisy nucleus” of activists, heedless of the harm they were liable to cause to, as he saw it, the Christian underpinnings of society. David Starkey, Cambridge historian of the Tudor monarchs, public commentator and provocateur, has expressed similar qualms about the redefinition of marriage, but has shown few qualms in openly discussing his promiscuous nights on Hampstead Heath, prowling for partners to partake in the illicit thrust and parry of recreational sex.
If everything that once was frowned and looked down upon is not just allowed but encouraged, where is one to find that delicious thrill of forbidden pleasure but, at best, in the beatings and bitch-slappings that pass for online porn? So, at least, goes the argument: some rules are made to be broken, even if only by the few.
There are hints, moreover, that Ravelstein-Bloom died of AIDS, though such a potentially stigmatic diagnosis isn’t baldly stated anywhere in the book: instead, we hear of his enduring, amongst other ailments, Guillain-Barré syndrome, a condition sometimes, but not exclusively, associated with the bodily destruction of HIV. In fact, the only firm acknowledgement of such a virus’ existence is when Ravelstein tries to empathise with his black maid (“as nearly as any honky could”, for in her presence he is always uncomplicatedly white), whose son has contracted HIV and whose homelife is a stereotype of African-American struggle and dysfunction (criminality, poverty, prostitution etc.). Yet we sense a subtext: in the pages immediately after Ravelstein’s death, Chick tells us, invoking the late man’s own tendentious judgement, that “he was doomed to die because of his irregular sexual ways”. Ravelstein saw himself as a tragic figure, one who could see that he was destined to bring harm upon himself but who could only go and do it anyway, like Oedipus and his incestuous love. Nevertheless, the argument remains whether Allan Bloom was ever completely closeted at all: he never wrote or spoke publicly about his sexuality, but close friends and colleagues were aware of his extramural activity. Bellow claims that he had received explicit permission to write about this most private part of Bloom’s life, so long as the text were to be published after he had ceased to exist, and there is no reason to mistrust the author’s testimony on this point. Indeed, this very issue is raised in the novel itself. Ravelstein’s memoir was not the first that Chick had written: he had earlier sketched a life of Professor Kogon, a recently deceased colleague, and, upon reading it, Ravelstein retorted that he really ought to have commented on his subject’s “attraction to men”, regardless of the fact that there was no more than hearsay and supposition to work from. Art must be true to life, even if its living characters are not always so true to themselves.
Despite his dislike of identity politics, Ravelstein is all too aware of his own precarious identity: he knows that he is “American through and through”, but as a waspish Jew in a WASPish faculty, he knows, too, that he has to keep his wits about him in the face of prejudice, and perhaps this, in some small part, explains his deep attachment to the European cultural inheritance — the fervour of the convert, the outsider aching to break in, to root himself in established tradition. However, literature is, always and absolutely, of an importance beyond such quotidian questions of selfhood. Take the 20th-century French doctor-cum-literateur Louis-Ferdinand Céline, who was a vicious antisemite (his visceral screeds against Jewish influence, which he saw secreted almost everywhere, were too much even for the Nazi-German ambassador to France, Otto Abetz — “King Otto I” as Céline obsequiously crowned him — to take seriously) but also a most excellent novelist (his chef-d’œuvre being his angry and inebriating Journey to the End of the Night): Ravelstein and Chick repeatedly discuss his refracted responsibility for the Final Solution, yet Abe cannot help but recommend that everyone should read him. The work is more important than the author’s biography, however monstrous a man he may have been. In the same vein, albeit more flippantly, Ravelstein jokes to his bedside visitors, when he’s dying in hospital, lighting up beside the “No Smoking” sign, “If you leave because you hate tobacco more than you hate ideas, you won’t be missed.”
An image that works well is Ravelstein’s comparing, offhand of course, the plight of the American Jew to those “green tropical parrots, surviving a Midwest winter”, that he sees clawed atop the timber that holds the power lines up: they are identifiably foreign (released from the petstore perhaps), but have also found a comfortable niche for themselves in their new environment, their newfound freedom. “They even have a Jew look to them”, he says, which one must, I guess, take to mean beakish, the self-deprecating humour of the in-group.
Ultimately, the novel centres on the companionship of two men (or two pairs of men, Ravelstein and Chick, Bloom and Bellow), in the midst of life’s everyday entanglements, looming death and uncertainty. Ravelstein suffers stoically: he has a sharp tongue, but never complains or blames anything but himself as his infections are slowly teasing and stripping him of his being. “I would never have expected death to be such a weird aphrodisiac”, he proclaims, as Chick awkwardly — loyally — tends to his final needs. Fever can feel like arousal, when the heart is pumping harder than it ordinarily would and the body is sweat-drenched, convulsing and flushed; the petite morte may serve, in part, as preparation for that great cessation of life that waits calmly in the unseen for us all. In Ravelstein-Bloom’s case it was also the cause. And he accepted this wretched circumstance with indefatigable dignity. So it cannot simply be his fine furniture, powerful friends and comfortable status as a respected doyen of the humane arts that this memoir, if we can call it that, really commemorates, but his strength and resolve in confronting without fear such bitter and unreasoning cruelty.