Sunday, January 31, 2010

Ravelstein | Saul Bellow

The last book I read by Saul Bellow, entitled "Henderson, the Rain King", I remember being a truly inspiring work.  The song by "Counting Crows" entitled "Rain King" was based on the novel, which is what led me to the grace of Saul Bellow's literature.  As such, the two men (the other being Adam Duritz of the Counting Crows) are invariably linked in my mind... and the other day, I rediscovered my favourite band from my youth and as such, I had a yearning to read some Bellow.  I picked up "Henderson, the Rain King to give it another go (in my age, I find myself forgetting most of the plot), but then decided to try something new and consequently opened my only other Bellow work entitled "Ravelstein" which he wrote in 2000 after his professor, Allan Bloom.  The work is listed as fiction, but I would wager that most of the work is non-fiction (biography style); the novel is purposely set-up in a fashion for the reader to question the split, if any.

This novel did not live up to my feelings on "Henderson, the Rain King", though such a feat would be difficult to achieve.  I find that the last work of an author before his death (Bellow died in 2005) usually isn't his/her best work, with the latest exception I have coming in the form of Hardy's "Jude the Obscure."  I digress.

Ravelstein was a book about "Abe Ravelstein" written after his death from HIV by the author "Chick", Ravelstein's teacher and close friend.  After Ravelstein dies, Chick puts off writing the book about Ravelstein and nearly doesn't complete the work... for he has his own bout of health problems.  Are the powers that be keeping Chick alive to fulfill his promise to Ravelstein to write his biography or is Chick avoiding writing the work to give himself something to live for?  Ultimately, the death of Ravelstein forces Chick to come to grips with his own mortality... and this is the underlying theme of the novel.

Ravelstein lives an excessive life - he drinks, smokes, purchases the best things money can buy and is a bit of a snob.  However, he is tremendously loved by his students... and others either love him or hate him... there is very little moderation, paralelling the man's life.  Ravelstein doesn't sugar coat things - he gives his opinions to and of his friends straight-up.  Some of them appreciate the honesty, and some would rather he kept his thoughts to himself.  The point is, Ravelstein is a brash, excessive man, and as the reader learns about his life... he/she has to determine if he/she loves or hates the man... with the typical ups and downs you would experience from an honest telling of a man's life.

By intertwining his own life with that of Ravelstein's, Bellow (assuming the narrator Chick is the author) is able to write an aytpical biography which deals with Chick's morality struggle as opposed to Ravelstein's life in isolation.  This makes the work much more enjoyable, and a unique telling of the man's life which I think Bloom (Ravelstein) would have appreciated.  Ravelstein is described through the nuances of his speech and actions, and not the 'events' of his life... adding a nice literary flair.

The book was an enjoyable one, though a bit high brow at times.  While I believe the biography was a good one, I didn't feel blown away by this Bellow work.  It's honesty was refreshing, but it missed a deep connection with me... something that I was hoping Bellow could replicate from "Henderson, The Rain King."

"A tragic hero has to be above the average in height." 30

"In the old days there was still a considerable literary community in our country, and medicine and law were still 'the learned professions,' but in an American city today you can no longer count on doctors, lawyers, businessmen, journalists, politicians, television personalities, architects, or commodities traders to discuss Stendhal's novels or Thomas Hardy's poems." 46

"A summary of his argument was that while you could get an excellent technical training in the U.S., liberal education had shrunk to the vanishing point.  We were in thrall to the high tech, which had transformed the modern world.  The older generation saved towards the education of it's children.  The cost of a B.A. had risen to $150,000.  Parents might as well flush these dollars down the toilet, Ravelstein believed.  No real education was possible in American universities except for aeronautical engineers, computerists, and the like.  The universities were excellent in biology and the physical sciences, but the liberal arts were a failure." 47

"Associate with the noblest people you can find; read the best books; live with the mighty; but learn to be happy alone." 161

"German militarism produced the extremest and most horrible nihilism.  For the rank-and-file this led to the bloodiest and craziest kind of revanchist murderous zeal.  Because it was implicit in carrying out orders that all responsibility  went back to the top, the source of all orders.  And everybody was thus absolved." 168

"If only we could bring back the full days we knew as kids.  But we became too familiar with the data of experience, I suggest.  Our way of organizing the data which rush by in gestalt sytle - this is, in increasingly abstract forms - speeds up experiences into a dangerous topsy-turvy fast-forward comedy.  Our need for rapid disposal eliminates the details that bewitch, hold, or delay the children.  Are is one rescue from this chaotic acceleration.  Meter in poetry, tempo in music, form and color in painting.  But we do feel that we are speeding earthward, crashing into our gaves.  'If these were just words,' I said to Rosamund.  'But I feel it every day.  Powerless thinking itself eats up what is left of life...'" 192

"Men were freshly killed and be-headed.  The heads were set aside.  The researcher who recorded all this said they were a currency used in wife-purchase.  That's why headhunters hunt heads." 193

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