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From Barnes & NobleThe Biographer's December
Ravelstein, the eagerly anticipated new novel from Nobel Prize-winning author Saul Bellow, presents an interesting series of dilemmas to the reader. Part fiction, part biography, part autobiography, Ravelstein repeatedly circles around questions of writerly priority, asking whether the author's primary responsibility is to his own life, the life of his subject, or his imagination. Each possibility hides its own pitfalls. The novelist may become more absorbed in his creations than in his own life. The autobiographer runs the risk of self-absorption, of solipsism. The biographer, chronicling another man's life, is doomed to playing second fiddle in his own, at least until the task is done. Discussing his gargantuan biography of Bellow, a project ten years in the making that will be published in the fall of 2000, James Atlas has written:
Unlike the novelist, who invents (supposedly) his characters, or the historian, who grapples with a populous cast, the biographer enters into a curious intimacy with the person being written about, a relationship charged with ambivalence, resentment, love, dependency, and all the myriad other emotions that crowd in whenever we allow ourselves to become intimate with another. That the biographer doesn't actually live with, or in many instances even know, his subject; that the relationship may be involuntary (an unauthorized biography); that it's by its very nature unequal, one person focusing attention on another with no hope of reciprocity, in no way diminishes the intensity of the experience.In the early pages of Ravelstein, Chick, the transparently Bellow-like narrator, meditates on this experience, this interconnection of author and subject. Having been asked by his good friend Abe Ravelstein to write his biography, Chick seems decidedly uneasy about the task ahead. "Ravelstein's legacy to me was a subject," he tells us. "He thought he was giving me a subject, perhaps the best one I ever had, perhaps the only really important one. But what such a legacy signified was that he would die before me. If I were to predecease him he would certainly not write a memoir of me." Chick's work throughout Ravelstein is thus two-fold: doing justice to the life of his friend, on the one hand, while doing justice to his own, as well.
The connections of this novel's characters to the dramatis personae of Bellow's own life are too open to avoid mentioning. Chick's portrait of his ex-wife Vela, a brilliant Romanian physicist, is an at times scathing attack on Bellow's estranged fourth wife, Alexandra, a Romanian mathematician. Chick's new wife, Rosamund, a former student of Ravelstein's, bears much in common with Bellow's fifth wife and former student, Janis Freedman. But the largest subject of the novel—and the largest of its real-world connections—is Ravelstein himself. Bellow's portrait of Abe Ravelstein is based on the life of his good friend Allan Bloom, the conservative political philosopher and author of The Closing of the American Mind, who died in 1992 of complications from AIDS. Bellow, through Chick, represents Bloom, through Ravelstein, as a brilliant, eccentric, larger-than-life thinker, a dominant and dominating force among his students and friends, a man whose loss—imminent or accomplished—reverberates throughout the novel. As the last line of the book points out, "You don't easily give up a creature like Ravelstein to death."
But nor do you easily create a sufficient portrait of such a creature. Chick's remembrances repeatedly twist in upon themselves, creating a pretzel-like structure that cannot be wholly unknotted. These remembrances are dotted with expressions of concern that the portrait isn't quite right, that the reader will misunderstand. But the narrator's care, and the involutions of intellectual conversations that begin and end throughout the novel, come together to create, more than anything, the portrait of a friendship and of a biographer mourning the loss of his subject. "In approaching a man like Ravelstein," Chick tells us, "a piecemeal method is perhaps best."
The novel begins in Paris in the springtime, as the two celebrate the success of Ravelstein's book, a book suggested to him by Chick, in which Ravelstein popularized the ideas he'd long been teaching at the University of Chicago. Chick watches in something like awe as Ravelstein sates his enormous appetites—for food, for luxury, for ideas. This moment of revelry, however, gives way to mourning as the two return to the United States, and Chick is at last forced to confront his friend's illness—an illness that is, interestingly, first mentioned in the novel by a third party. Ravelstein's health rapidly fails, and Chick reluctantly begins to see that the biography his friend had asked for may actually need to be written. The closer the two come to facing Ravelstein's mortality, the more Chick notes a shift in their conversations, from a preoccupation with the Greeks to one with the Jews, from Eros to death. Returning yet again to Ravelstein's interest in the Socratic notion of Eros, Chick catches himself:
How readily you fall into the present tense when you talk about Ravelstein. And you can't help feeling that it is ridiculous to have a head filled with such notions, given what the times are—what the places are as this stupefying century ends with its wars of attrition, wars of movement, Dachaus, gulags, moonshots, its Hitler, its Stalin—its high-tech planetary transformation streaking into the next millenium.This preoccupation with destruction, with endings, with the crushing devastation of the deaths of millions and the death of one close friend, paralyzes the biographer, who finds himself for several years afterward unable to obtain sufficient purchase on his subject to write the promised biography. The apparent impossibility of fully capturing his relationship to Ravelstein threatens to undo Chick's relationship to his own life. "For me," he tells us, "the challenge of portraying him (what an olden-days' word 'portraying' has become) by and by turned into a burden." Only after Chick's own all-too-close brush with death—based upon Bellow's own near-fatal infection from eating contaminated fish—can he begin to sort through the materials of his friend's life, to create a portrait that acknowledges its own insufficiency. "I would rather see Ravelstein again," he says, at last, "than to explain matters it doesn't help to explain."
In the end, the writer is able to separate himself from his subject only by gesturing toward the lack of necessity in completing that separation. Written in Bellow's matchless style, Ravelstein is finally about the loyalty of friends, the ties that bind the biographer and his subject, and the impossibility of truly detaching the teller from the tale.
Kathleen Fitzpatrick is assistant professor of English and Media Studies at Pomona College in Claremont, California.