Writing about literary friendships earlier today got me thinking of one of my favorite books, Ravelstein by Saul Bellow. Ravelstein is loosely based on Saul Bellow’s real-life friendship with famed 20th century philosopher Allan Bloom (writer of The Closing of the American Mind, not to be confused with literary scholar Harold Bloom). Saul Bellow had remained friends with Harold Bloom for many years, from teaching at the same college to visiting him in the final stages of his battle with AIDs. Ravelstein is very much the product of that experience. It is also the last book Bellow completed in his lifetime. He published it when he was eighty-five years old, and it holds up remarkably well.
For centuries, writing a fictional portrayal of a real person could be considered a serious offense, one that could get a a person incarcerated or worse. In the new millenia, you’d think we’d be more relaxed about this sort of thing, but when Bellow’s lovely little book came out, it sparked a controversy. Typically, when a writer does decide to write of a real person, they use to their advantage the roman a clef, that is, perhaps utilizes a few pseudonyms and altered facts to hide the identity of the person they’re writing of. In Ravelstein’s case, people saw through the roman a clef quickly, and were just as quick to criticize this book for its depiction of Bloom.
I was surprised to see so many bad reviews online. They put me off from reading Ravelstein for more than a year after I bought it. When I finally read it (I decided my goal this year was to read every novel by Bellow) I found nothing in it that was particularly damaging to Bloom’s posterity. If Bloom is Ravelstein, then Bloom was a genius and a gentleman. I think what people didn’t like about Bloom’s depiction was that he was described in his full humanity, sometimes delivering brillaint polemics, and other times bickering about little things. He’s able to contemplate the finer things one minute and give in to his baser impulses the next. I think fans of Bloom’s wanted a stone icon, and what Bellow gave them was a man.
Ravelstein isn’t a complete account of Harold Bloom’s last days by any means. For instance, one of the last things Bloom did when he was alive was dictate the final touches of his book Love and Friendship (a very good book about love stories as they appear in literature, including famous ones like Romeo & Juliet, Antony and Cleopatra, and Vronsky and Karenina) to whoever was willing to help him. This doesn’t find its way into Ravelstein, but there are a lot of scenes involving Ravelstein saying goodbye to many of his close friends and offering words of advice.
Bottom Line: Ravelstein is a sad and enlightening novel about approaching the end of life with grace and composure.
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—-I have recently self published a novel titled A Rapturous Occasion. It’s a comedy of errors revolving around a middle aged couple who believe the world will soon be ending. Please check it out on Amazon!