Ravelstein: A Writer's Soul

Bellow's final novel was inspired by his friendship with Allan Bloom.

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The novel's narrative crackles with sharp observations and memorably turned sentences. Bellow's narrator, Chick, is superb here--this, surprisingly, wonderfully, as death and the Death Question press ever more urgently. Ravelstein gives him the opportunity to reflect not only about Allan Bloom's death and about the true nature of male friendship but also about the life-threatening cigua toxin he got from eating poisoned fish during a Caribbean vacation. Like Papa Hemingway after his two plane crashes in Africa, Bellow was written off, prematurely, as a goner.

The extraordinary thing about Saul Bellow is that cultures high and low have always managed to co-exist in his fictional worlds (Ravelstein, the deep thinker, loves vaudeville patter, Michael Jordan, and Mel Brooks movies), and that he remained possibly the only contemporary American novelist not ashamed to use the word "soul." All this and much, much more is compressed into the biographical portrait of Ravelstein that Chick had reluctantly agreed to write. Ravelstein is that biographical sketch. In outlining how the chain-smoking Ravelstein looked in his sleek Japanese kimono or what he thought about Athens and Jerusalem--for him, the twin towers of our civilization--Chick (and Bellow) tells us what life means, or can mean, in our new century.

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Sanford Pinsker is an emeritus professor of English at Franklin and Marshall College. He writes widely about Jewish literature and culture, and in recent years has been a judge for the Edward Lewis Wallant Prize, the Reform Judaism Prize, and the National Jewish Book Award.