Thursday, March 19, 2015

the last book I read

Ravelstein by Saul Bellow.

Abe Ravelstein is an old-ish Jewish professor of philosophy, with a formidable academic reputation, and, late in life, a public and commercial profile as well after publishing a book of his potted philosophical insights to great acclaim and unexpected sales success - a sort of Brief History Of Time, but with fewer black holes and more philosophy.

Ravelstein isn't actually the narrator of this book, though; that job falls to his old friend and colleague Chick (we infer that this is either his surname or some sort of affectionate nickname). As the novel opens Chick and Ravelstein are in Paris discussing the possibility of Chick writing Ravelstein's biography, a job Ravelstein wants Chick to take on partly because he wants his old friend to cash in on the money-making opportunity created by Ravelstein's own unexpected fame and fortune.

We learn a bit (though not much) about the two protagonists' back-story - not much about how they met or became friends, but some detail about their personal lives. Ravelstein is gay and lives with his much younger lover Nikki, while Chick seems to be a serial marrier of younger women, dwelling a bit on his former wife Vela, an exotic physicist, and his current wife Rosamund, one of Ravelstein's former pupils.

Among all the kvetching some serious events happen: Ravelstein contracts AIDS (whether from Nikki or someone else is never really explained) and succumbs to a whole host of secondary ailments including Guillain–BarrĂ© syndrome, which result in his eventual death. Chick has a bit of a wrestle with his conscience about writing the biography, but then has events taken out of his hands somewhat when during a supposedly therapeutic Caribbean holiday with Rosamund he contracts ciguatoxin poisoning from a dodgy tropical fish platter, is taken ill, whisked back to the USA and comes perilously close to dying himself.

That's about it for narrative, as it happens. To be fair, narrative isn't really the point, the point being more the musings of two old Jewish-American codgers on the subject of death, human relationships, philosophy, and, well, just being Jewish-American. It's a fairly short book (230 pages, large-ish print), so we never get to know either of the protagonists especially well, so when the book ends with Chick, now just about recovered from his brush with death, basically saying: "What about that Ravelstein, eh? Crazy guy. But what a mensch." - we have to reply: well, I'll have to take your word for it.

Like Frankie & Stankie this is a book that makes more sense, in terms of understanding the author's motivation for writing it in the first place, once you know the closeness with which it parallels real-life events in the author's life. So clearly the Chick character is a thinly-disguised Saul Bellow, while Ravelstein is his friend Allan Bloom, whose book The Closing Of The American Mind is the model for Ravelstein's own bestseller. Chick's penchant for serial marriage to younger women mirrors Bellow's own (he was married five times) and Chick's most recent ex-wife Vela is presumably based on Bellow's fourth wife Alexandra, a mathematician.

This was Bellow's last novel, published in 2000 when he was 85 (he died in 2005), so it's not surprising that ageing, frailty and death play major roles. But while it's easy, given the real-life parallels, to see why Bellow cares about the characters, it's not that easy to see why the reader should. There's no faulting the quality of the writing, but if you want a Bellow from the three I've read I'd say Herzog is deeper and more satisfying, while Henderson The Rain King is more fun.

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