Much of contemporary fiction has slimmed down, become more performative, single-minded, and direct. Portnoy’s Complaint, ahead of its time, can almost be sung aloud. But Saul Bellow’s novels are digressive, dripping with intellectual and physical life simultaneously, what one film producer described to me as “high/low.” When I assign Herzog to my students, I am essentially bringing a slab of foie gras to a vegan party. Bellow was apparently aware of how his own work would taste to literary gourmands down the line. Here’s a quote from his introduction to Abe Ravelstein’s—er, Allan Bloom’s—The Closing of the American Mind:
American readers sometimes object to a kind of foreignness in my books. I mention old-world writers, I have highbrow airs and appear to put on the dog. I readily concede that here and there I am probably hard to read, and I am likely to become harder as the illiteracy of the public increases. It is never an easy task to take the mental measure of your readers.
The first time I tackled Ravelstein, back in 2000, this American mind was as open to long-form fiction as any other and I wolfed the novel down in one Saturday between helpings of oxygen and water and little else. Today I find that Bellow’s comment, “It is never an easy task to take the mental measure of your readers,” is more apt than ever. As I try to read the first pages of Ravelstein, my iPhone pings and squawks with increasing distress. The delicate intellectual thread gets lost. Macaulay. Ping! Antony and Cleopatra. Zing! Keynes. Marimba! And I’m on just pages 5 and 6 of the novel. How is a contemporary person supposed to read 201 pages? It requires nothing less than performing brain surgery on oneself. Rewiring the organ so that the neurons revisit the haunts they once knew, hanging out with Macaulay and Keynes, much as they did in 2000, before encounters with both were reduced to brief digital run-ins on some highbrow content-provider’s blog, back when knowledge was actually something to be enjoyed instead of simply being ingested in small career-sustaining bursts.
Only fourteen years have passed, but it’s hard to place Abe and Chick in any current setting. What do we make of Bellow’s presentation of the typical intellectual as a virile many-wived, or at least many-lovered, creature, a well-traveled adventurer of the mind with butter on his patent leather shoes? And who the hell says things like “She had a sex-hex on you, so you had to be thinking of a violent death for her”? (That’s Ravelstein speaking to Chick, by the way.)
I’m not arguing, nostalgically, that one should revive the term “sex-hex,” only that it’s easier to write about people who are physically, corporeally, sensually, introspectively alive. In a profile by James Wood, Bellow defended his use of the memoir-novel form as regarding Allan Bloom: “Well, 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.” Or perhaps it’s just Bellow’s formative haunts—the stables filled with poets, thinkers, and novelists—that have lost some of their appeal, not to mention their hay. Where academia and literature intersect today, you will find a bunch of dudes in Converse and dudettes in skinny jeans grimly discussing their health care premiums in an overlit conference hall just outside Minneapolis or Denver. Few would turn to one another and say, like Ravelstein: “But can you explain what Nature does for you—a Jewish city type?” And yes, that’s Nature with a capital N.
At bottom, the digressive, meandering, largely plotless Ravelstein boils down to a series of Hebraic men kibitzing on the edge of eternity. “Chick, pull up a seat for Morris, won’t you,” is a kind of emblematic line. These are stories of men from difficult families, first- or second-generation immigrants, who give themselves in friendship in ways they can’t give themselves anywhere else. I’m thinking of the horde of visitors outside the dying Ravelstein’s door, “…something like relatives—the nearest thing to family available.” Their obsessions—Jews, death, the death of Jews—are similar. Introduced to a “Franco-Serbian gentleman” who runs a certain kind of Chicago dining club, their first question is “What kind of war record has he got?”
“As a Jew you are also an American, but somehow also not,” Chick muses. I could well hear these words emerge from my father’s mouth, and from others of his generation, and for a few bunkered-in Jewish stalwarts of my own. But how I disagree, generationally and experientially, with that line of thinking. In post-Seinfeldian, post–Larry-Davidian America, the very opposite could be inferred: “As an American you are also a Jew, but somehow also not.” The fantasies of being pogrommed out of New Hampshire by an anti-Semitic militia nonetheless serve as a useful reminder of what post-Holocaust life was like for a generation of Jews who believed the ashes of the crematoria could one day fall upon the Berkshires.
What remains relevant more than ever is Bellow’s take on our hyper-materialistic, luxury-goods-loving society. If this were an Updike novel, it might be titled Ravelstein Is Rich. “It was wonderful to be so public about the private, about the living creature and its needs.” Chick thinks of the French, and the novel positively luxuriates in Ravelstein’s newly minted millions. There’s an exquisite description of the purchase of a BMW (“With extras, the car would cost eighty thousand bucks”) that lasts for two entire pages. There are Lanvin jackets “advertised in Vanity Fair and the other fashion slicks, and they’re usually modeled by unshaven toughs with the look of rough trade or downright rapists.” There’s the appearance of the then-exotic Visa Gold card on which you could slap $4,500. And then there’s also the comedy of physicality and decline, as Ravelstein’s third espresso serré finally puts an end to the reign of the aforementioned Lanvin jacket. “I tried to interest him in bow ties,” the narrator tells us of his efforts to rescue Ravelstein’s multitudes of Zegna neckties from similar fates, a sentence I would also crown as One of the Best Examples of Jewish Thought in the Twentieth Century. By which I mean it’s funny, tender, menschy. It’s all about trembling fingers and hot beverages; it’s about anxiety, desire, and death.
But back to death for a minute. The last fifty or so pages of Ravelstein deal with Chick’s own brush with mortality during a Caribbean vacation with his wife, Rosamund. If Bellow’s books often have a meandering quality, philosophy and anthropology loosely mixed with unhappiness, ambition, and want, the final pages of this novel are as taut as anything Bellow has written. The first time I read them, it seemed I was flipping through the pages of an elegant whodunit, only with fish substituting for man. (The narrator apparently meets near-death at the hands, or fins, of a red snapper.)
Earlier on, we get this exchange on the subject of mortality:
I always said—in answering Ravelstein’s question ‘What do you imagine death will be like?’—The pictures will stop. Meaning again, that in the surface of things, you see the heart of things.
About ten pages short of the end of the book, Ravelstein comes up with a startling, near-mystical rebuttal:
No one can give up on the pictures—the pictures might, yes, they might continue. 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.
Earlier, as the poisoned Chick is himself floating between life and death, he has a vision that’s perhaps as close as we can get to the image of a Bellovian afterlife: “An infinity of tables. The place made me think of Filene’s Basement, where customers would soon be pushing and quarreling over bargains. But no one was here to fight. In the far distance were young women who seemed to be volunteers doing charitable work.” The vision then devolves into something more terrible, but the pictures of Bellow’s life are immortalized in the sentences above: the bustle of immigrant life in broad-shouldered American and Canadian cities; the young women in the far distance, seemingly there to dispense charity. Imagine if this energy, this commerce and desire, followed their creator into the next dimension.
Or this paragraph:
On Roy Street in Montreal a dray horse has fallen down on the icy pavement. The air is dark as a gray coat-lining. A smaller animal might have found its feet, but this beast with its huge haunches could only work his hoofs in the air. The long-haired Percheron with startled eyes and staring veins will need a giant to save him, but on the corner a crowd of small men can only call out suggestions. They tell the cop he’s lucky his horse fell on Roy Street, easier to write in his report than Lagauchettierre. Then there is a strange and endless procession of schoolgirls marching by twos in black uniform dresses. Their faces white enough to be tubercular. The nuns who oversee them keep their hands warm within their sleeves. The puddles in this dirt street are deep and carry a skim of ice.
I can’t think of another writer who is able to reinvent the earliest moments of his life with such a fine blend of childhood recall and adult commentary. Bellow’s work has always excited me because while it takes place within the two goalposts of childhood and death, neither is far away from mention. And how beautiful I find that paragraph, with its humor (the dimwitted cop), its poetry (the black-clad schoolgirls marching by twos), and its sense of danger (the fallen horse, tuberculosis, the skim of ice). It never hurts a writer to nearly die in the first decade of his life, as Bellow did. But how exceptionally kind was the universe in that it allowed him eighty more years of existence.
The pictures must and will continue.
Drawn from Gary Shteyngart’s new introduction to Saul Bellow’s Ravelstein, to be published by Penguin Books on May 12. Introduction copyright © 2015 by Gary Shteyngart.