Bizet, Carmen, Fashion, Fiction, Friedrich Nietzsche, Friend, friendship, Harold Bloom, Italian Maiden in Algiers., James Wood, literature, Music, novel, Opera, Ravelstein, Richard Wagner, Ron Rosenbaum, Saul Bellow, Slate
“I wonder if anyone believes that the grave is all there is. No one can give up on the pictures. The pictures must and will continue. If Ravelstein the atheist-materialist had implicitly told me that he would see me sooner or later, he meant that he did not accept the grave to be the end. Nobody can and nobody does accept this. We just talk tough.
This is the involuntary and normal, the secret, esoteric confidence of the man of flesh and blood. The flesh would shrink and go, the blood would dry, but no one believes in his mind of minds or heart of hearts that the pictures do stop…
But I would rather see Ravelstein again than to explain matters it doesn’t help to explain.
Ravelstein, dressing to go out, is talking to me, and I go back and forth with him while trying to hear what he is saying. The music is pouring from his hi-fi — the many planes of his bare, bald head go before me in the corridor between his living room and his monumental master bedroom. He stops before his pier-glass — no wall mirrors here — and puts in the heavy gold cufflinks, buttons up the Jermyn Street striped shirt — American Trustworthy laundry-and-cleaners deliver his shirts puffed out with tissue paper. He winds up his tie lifting the collar that crackles with starch. He makes a luxurious knot. The unsteady fingers, long, ill-coordinated, nervous to the point of decadence, make a double lap. Ravelstein likes a big tie-knot — after all, he is a large man. Then he sits down on the beautifully cured fleeces of his bed and puts on the Poulsen and Skone tan Wellington boots. He smokes, of course, he is always smoking, and tilts the head away from the smoke while he knots and pulls the knot into place. The cast and orchestra are pouring out the Italian Maiden in Algiers. This is dressing music, accessory or mood music, but Ravelstein takes a Nietzschean view, favorable to comedy and bandstands. Better Bizet and Carmen than Wagner and the Ring. He likes the volume of his powerful set turned up to the maximum. The ringing phone is left to the answering machine…
‘What do you think of this recording, Chick?’ he says. ‘They’re playing the original ancient seventeenth-century instruments.’
He loses himself in sublime music, a music in which ideas are dissolved, reflecting these ideas in the form of feeling. He carries them down into the street with him. There’s an early snow on the tall shrubs, the same shrubs filled with a huge flock of parrots — the ones that escaped from cages and now build their long nest sacks in the back alleys. They are feeding on the red berries. Ravelstein looks at me, laughing with pleasure and astonishment, gesturing because he can’t be heard in all this bird-noise.
You don’t easily give up a creature like Ravelstein to death.”
The ending to Saul Bellow’s final novel Ravelstein.
This conclusion is remarkable, in my opinion — a richly sonorous, musical piece of writing that packs a deceitfully earnest and dignified solemnity. It was the last bit of prose Bellow published, released when he was in his mid-eighties (at the time of his death, he apparently had a memoir in the works with the unimprovable working title of “All Marbles Still Accounted For”).
Ravelstein is a Roman à clef; Ravelstein, the novel’s eponymous center of gravity, is a thinly veiled version of Bellow’s real-life bud Allan Bloom, a true bon vivant and intellectual extraordinaire whom Bellow had befriended while at the University of Chicago. In an interview with James Wood shortly before his death, Bellow elaborated: “The truth is that Allan was a very superior person, great-souled. When people proclaim the death of the novel, I sometimes think they are really saying that there are no significant people to write about.”
But Bloom certainly was one. He was quite a creature. It’s that word perhaps more than any other which inflects the ending with its somber spark. Too idiosyncratic to be a “character,” too real to be a “personality”: a creature — utterly unique and thus hard to give up. After spending 200 pages in Ravelstein’s company, after enjoying decadent stories and drink after drink in his company, it’s not easy for us to let him go, either. It’s a microcosm of giving up similar creatures in life.
Ron Rosenbaum, writing in Slate, had the following praise to heap on the book:
Ravelstein is not only my favorite Bellow novel, it’s the only one I really love. It’s a rapturous celebration of the life of the mind, as well as a meditation on the glory of sensual life and on the tenebrous permeable boundary we all eventually pass over, the one between life and death.
Martin Amis, similarly enraptured, gave it space in his own memoir Experience:
Ravelstein is a full-length novel. It is also, in my view, a masterpiece with no analogues. The world has never heard this prose before: prose of such tremulous and crystallized beauty. … [Ravelstein is] numinous. It constitutes an act of resuscitation, and in its pages Bloom lives.
Below, watch Bloom on Firing Line in 1987.
- My favorite Bellow paragraph, which reflects on the promise of mankind
- Bellow on what it means to be a man in modern society
- I’ve mentioned Ravelstein here before, as postscript to a letter from Jefferson to John Adams