Saul Bellow, 84 years old as the century ends, has lately been spending most of his time on a novel frankly based on Allan Bloom, the great teacher and philosopher who in 1987 wrote an astonishingly successful critique of education, The Closing of the American Mind. Bellow urged Bloom to write that book, contributed the enthusiastic introduction that helped sell it, and for years sang Bloom's praises wherever he could. They were close friends until Bloom's death in 1992.
Now Bellow is erecting a literary monument to his friend, titled Ravelstein. The opening section, also called Ravelstein, which ran in the Nov. 1 issue of the New Yorker, turns out to be prime Bellow: dense, funny, surprising, crammed with the powerful sense of life that marks all of his best writing. If the novel (due in April) is as good as the excerpt, it can only add to Bellow's already majestic reputation.
Bloom's admirers, however, will not be unanimously grateful. The people who studied with him at Cornell, Toronto, and Chicago speak of him with awe as a great shaping force in their lives. He seems to have humbled even Bellow, not an easy chore, but Bellow obviously believes that greatness deserves frankness, whatever Bloom's other friends think. So he has made Bloom's intimate life part of the story.
Remarkably, no reference to Bloom's homosexuality has previously appeared in print--not in the publicity that surrounded his best-seller, or his obituaries, or even his posthumously published book, Love and Friendship. Many of his admirers knew about it, many didn't, and he said nothing in public. When Love and Friendship appeared, an editorial in the National Catholic Reporter praised it for attacking, "in the name of the sacred, this society's clinical, mechanistic, amoral, all-too-easy sense of sex"--and even compared Bloom's work to Pope Paul VI's encyclical of 1968, Humanae Vitae, which celebrated marriage.
Bellow begins his novel at the Hotel de Crillon in Paris, where the Bellow-like narrator is having breakfast with the Bloom-like character, Abe Ravelstein, while "Nikki, Abe's companion, was still sleeping...In his early thirties, handsome Nikki was boyish still." Ravelstein can afford to stay at the Crillon because his book has made a fortune. Like Bloom, he loves Armani suits, Cuban cigars, Mont Blanc pens, and Baccarat crystal. Now, with royalties pouring in, he can finally indulge his tastes. He sees the comedy in it: man selflessly devotes himself to philosophy--and strikes it rich. Hugely enjoying success, he also enjoys laughing at his own exuberant enjoyment. That, too, echoes Bloom. In fact, there's nothing in the New Yorker piece that doesn't accord with Bloom. Bellow catches the stutter, the physical awkwardness, the intensely focused charm, the delight in buffoonery.
For half a century, Bellow has been using those around him as material. From the beginning, childhood friends and relatives glimpsed pieces of themselves in his books. Eventually, his literary contemporaries began appearing. In 1975 he made the life of Delmore Schwartz (1913-66), a poet destroyed by alcoholism and madness, into the core of a good novel, Humboldt's Gift--and today, if you look up Schwartz in the Columbia Encyclopedia, the Bellow novel gets more space than anything Schwartz himself wrote.
Him with His Foot in His Mouth, Bellow's 1984 collection of stories, contains a precise portrait of Harold Rosenberg, the art critic. That same collection includes "Zetland: By a Character Witness," about a young Chicago intellectual who goes off to New York to become a philosopher and begins to fall apart. Here the human original was Isaac Rosenfeld, a writer Bellow knew from childhood, who died in the 1950s at age 38. The history of that story suggests how hard Bellow labours and how ruthlessly he discards work that doesn't meet his standards. In the collection of his papers at the Regenstein Library in Chicago there are more than 800 manuscript pages about Zetland-Rosenfeld. He reduced all that to 20 printed pages.
In 1976, Bellow won the Nobel Prize for literature, an award that has been a curse and a graveyard for many American writers: it tends to signal (and perhaps help cause) the waning of a career. Sinclair Lewis, the great satirist who wrote Main Street and Babbitt, won it in 1930 and wrote little of interest between that moment and his death in 1951. Pearl Buck won it in 1938 and forever after had to endure being everyone's favourite example of the Nobel committee's stupidity. Ernest Hemingway won it in 1954, just as he began the long tailspin that ended with his suicide in 1961. John Steinbeck won it in 1962. He was deeply hurt when many critics declared that it was undeserved; in the remaining six years of his life, he never recovered his poise.
On the day Bellow received news of his Nobel, he shuddered at his friend Steinbeck's fate and publicly hoped that nothing similar would happen to him. And we can now say for certain, after 23 years, that nothing did. By my count he wrote nine works of fiction before the prize, and seven (counting Ravelstein) after receiving it; of the second group, at least two (The Dean's December and Him with His Foot in His Mouth) are among his indispensable books. It now appears that the Nobel Prize, awarded when he was 61, actually reached him in mid-career. And the section of Ravelstein in the New Yorker proclaims: I'm still here, and I have at least one more magnificent story to tell you.