Culture and vultures

Saul Bellow’s novel is a tour through battlefields of the mind.

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The American genius for historical amnesia.
How could you not love a man who, moments after effortlessly coughing up four grand for a sport coat, ruins the thing with a cavalier splash of espresso. And then surveying his handiwork, mutters “Ah, well. I’ve fucked up again.”

The man is noted scholar and author Alan Bloom, and he is the main event in this roman-à-clef memoir by Saul Bellow. Writing a biographical piece as fiction makes perfect sense for Bellow, as he is a veteran of autobiography. Indeed, Bellow has always rebuffed biographers by contending that his works tell all for those willing to connect the dots across the slim border between fact and fiction. So Bloom appears as Ravelstein; Bellow writes himself as Chick and off we go to Paris, where the professor is celebrating a recent blockbuster success in style.

Of all the books that dropped into the stinky effluvia of the cultural wars, Bloom’s The Closing of The American Mind made the biggest splash and left behind the biggest ripples. He had gone public with his ideas, gushes Chick. He had written a book — difficult but popular — a spirited, intelligent, warlike book, and it had sold and was still selling in both hemispheres and on both sides of the equator. The thing had been done quickly but in real earnest; no cheap concessions, no popularizing, no mental monkey business, no apologetics, no patrician airs. It’s no small matter to become rich and famous by saying exactly what you think — to say it in your own words, without compromise.

Bloom argued that the humanities in the university were now the domain of the self-righteous and libidinous; if you had an ax to grind or panties to raid, you were welcomed. Otherwise, you might as well flush your wallet down a toilet. He was savaged by the academic left as a snooty dinosaur looking down his nose at women, blacks and sundry other “radicals” who tried to impose a shining new curriculum on campuses while relegating the classics to a timely dustbin.

In the guise of Ravelstein, Bloom is anything but a killjoy neo-con. For one thing, he’s gay — not one of the campy flouncers he despises, but a big, awkward dynamo who explores Eros in the company of a Sinosexy charmer named Nikki. He’s generous and with-it. At his luxury apartment loaded with state-of-the-art entertainment gear, Ravelstein invites his prize students over to gorge on pizza and the exploits of Michael Jordan, whom he worships as an exemplar of high black culture on par with jazz.

Michael Jackson, on the hand, is an abomination and Bellow can’t help but get in a dig on his pal’s behalf. Ravelstein and Chick find themselves one floor above the King of Pop at the Hotel Crillon and are forced to fight through the star-struck rabble clogging the lobby. Clearly, the sun is setting on civilization, leaving its remaining duo of champions to mope and chafe.

Ravelstein is also unabashedly Jewish, heroically so. He is free of the stereotypical neuroses about conspicuous consumption, status, money and self-loathing. Ravelstein knows how to live well with little effort or affect. On the other hand, the professor possesses a fine-tuned, sardonic radar for anti-Semitism. The French are xenophobic and ill-tempered and practically rolled out the red carpet for the Nazis, but so what? If they can produce a city like Paris, let bygones be bygones.

Back in Chicago, Ravelstein turns his gimlet eye to the Serbian-French owner of his favorite restaurant. What did the man do or not do during World War II? And how about the new boyfriend of Chick’s ex-wife (a thinly disguised Mircea Eliade, the legendary anthropologist of myths); wasn’t he in the Romanian Iron Guard? Ravelstein clearly relishes these inquisitions and Chick is a marvelous straight man.

One of the central themes of Bellow’s work continues to be the American genius for historical amnesia, borne of ignorance and ambition. Jews and blacks are left to be memory priests of the country — the violence they came from, the violence they endure and, in the case of blacks, the violence they perpetrate upon themselves.

There are two kinds of Bellow fans — those who prefer big, rambling excursions like Humboldt’s Gift or Herzog, and those addicted to the more focused and crisp novellas, such as Seize the Day. For three quarters of the book, Ravelstein reads like the latter — Paris is Athens, and Ravelstein and Chick are thinkers out for a charming stroll through the city and their shared memories. But when the great man finally checks out, Chick keeps talking and the book sputters on the exhaust. Any writer will tell you it’s harder to write less than more. And nobody gives you more when he’s giving you less than Bellow.

The flabby final quarter is understandable, however. For Chick, life without Ravelstein is life with much less color. Even a trip to the Caribbean with his beautiful young wife can’t lift his spirits. Chick has already made the move from Chicago to Boston to escape all the empty apartments of his now-dead friends. To be the last man standing of your crew is no fun.

The Caribbean adds insult to injury — its vulgar hedonism and snaggle-toothed hospitality are everything Ravelstein was not. Pathos such as it is, a sullen Chick eats a toxic red snapper and nearly dies himself.

But Bellow lives; 84 and kicking with this new book, a new wife and a new daughter. One hopes that the elegiac tone of Ravelstein is not that of a man measuring himself for a pine box, but a man merely shedding yet another skin to lighten his load for the road ahead.

Timothy Dugdale writes about books and visual culture for the Metro Times. E-mail him at [email protected].

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