There is another world, but it is in this one.

Paul Eluard. Œuvres complètes, vol. 1, Gallimard, 1968.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Sickness unto self-congratulation: Ravelstein by Saul Bellow

Chick, older than Ravelstein, has borne witness to his great friend's death. Ravelstein had charged him to write an intimate biography of him.  Chick finds he cannot proceed. He talks with his latest wife, Rosamund, about the situation, and about what Ravelstein tried to show him about incidents in Chick's life with previous spouse  Vela and a character named Radu Grielescu. (This leads Chick and Rosamund to some typically bourgeois wool-gathering about the "inexplicable" horrors of the 20th century.)

…. for me the challenge of portraying him (what an olden-days' word "portraying" has become) by and by turned into a burden. Rosamund, however, believed that I was exactly right for the job. And in fact I went through a rehearsal of my own with death. But at that time we were only considering Ravelstein's death.

"It's just a matter of getting started," she said. "As he said, it's the premier pas qui coûte."

"Yes. Some French Ravelstein equivalent of bottled-in-bond or sur papier timbre, in perfect legal order, solemnized by the state."

"There it is—exactly the joke-tone he hoped you'd take. You can leave it to others to comment on his ideas."

"Oh, I intend to. I'm going to leave intellectual matters to the experts."

"All you need is to get yourself in the right position."

But as the months—years—went by, I couldn't for the life of me find this starting point. "It should be easy. 'Easily or not at all,' or as what's-his-name said, 'If it isn't like birdsong, it ain't right.'"

Rosamund occasionally answered, "Do Ravelstein and birdsong mix? Somehow they don't."

With exchanges of this sort, years went by, and it became apparent that I was unable to begin, that I faced a humongous obstacle. Rosamund no longer offered encouragement or advice. It was wise of her to let me be.

We continued, however, to talk almost daily about Ravelstein. It was I who recalled his basketball evening parties, the student dinners in Greektown, his shopping expeditions, and the racy but serious seminars he used to do. Another woman might have pressed me unpleasantly. "After all, he was a dear friend and you swore you'd do this," or, "In the life-to-come he's disappointed." But Rosamund understood all too well that I thought of this myself, and oppressively too often. I sometimes imagined him in his shroud, lying next to the father he had hated. Ravelstein used to say, "That hysterical man who beat my bare bottom and shrieked gibberish—and later, no matter how well I did he'd hold it against me that I never made Phi Beta Kappa. 'So you published a book and it was well received—but no Phi Beta Kappa?'"

Rosamund would only say, "If you did no more than this Phi Beta Kappa sketch it would cheer Ravelstein in the afterlife."

And my answer to this was, "Ravelstein didn't believe in an afterlife. And if he does exist somewhere, what possible pleasure could it give him to remember his dumbhead father or any part of what we call our mortal span? I'm the one who imagines seeing the dead parents on the other side. And brothers, friends, cousins, aunts and uncles …"

Rosamund often nodded. She admitted that she had a similar tendency. She sometimes added, "I ask myself what they're doing in the life-to-come."

"If you could take a poll on the subject you'd find that a majority of us expect to see their dead, whom they loved and continue to love—the very people they had, now and then, cheated and sometimes despised or hated or habitually lied to. Not you, Rosamund, you're exceptionally honest. But even Ravelstein, a man who was too hard to have such illusions, said … He gave himself away when he told me that of all the people close to him I was the likeliest to follow him soon—to follow him where? Would I catch up with him, and would we see each other?"

"You can't build too much on remarks like that," said Rosamund.

"It's easy enough to argue that childish love is the source of these illusions. This is my way of admitting that half a century later I feel I haven't seen the last of my mother. Freud would have trashed this as sentimental and inane. But Freud was a doctor, and nineteenth-century doctors were rough on the sentiments. They'd say the human being represented chemical components worth about sixty-two-cents—they were severe rationalists and tough guys."

"But Ravelstein was far from simpleminded," said Rosamund.

"Of course he was. But let's go a step or two further—I'll let you in on a kinky thought. I wonder what might happen. If I were to write my memoir of Ravelstein there would be no barrier between death and me."

Rosamund laughed outright at this. "Do you mean that your duties would end, and there would be no reason to live on?"

"No, no. Luckily I'd still have you to live for, Rosamund. What I'm probably trying to say is that in Ravelstein's view I may have nothing more to do in this life than to commemorate him."

"That is an odd thought for anyone to have."

"He felt he was giving me a great subject—the subject of subjects. And that is an odd thought. But I've never assumed that I was a rational, modern person. A rational person wouldn't be meeting his dead in the gloaming—wherever the gloaming is."

"All the same," said Rosamund, "the fact that it's so persistent makes it something to reckon with."

"And why me? In less than a minute I can name five people better qualified."

"About his ideas, yes," said Rosamund. "But they mightn't have the color to put into it. Also—you two became friends late in life and, as a rule, older people don't form such attachments…."

Perhaps she meant, also, that the old didn't fall in love. They weren't apt to blunder into the magnetic field where they had no business to be.

"For a year or two Ravelstein kept after me because Vela and I saw Radu Grielescu and his wife so often," I said to Rosamund.

"They entertained you?"

"They took us to good restaurants—the most expensive ones, anyway. Vela loved all the hand-kissing, bowing, fussing over the ladies, the corsages, and the toasting. She was terribly pleased. Grielescu put on such a show. Ravelstein was extremely curious about those evenings. He said that Radu had belonged to the Iron Guard. I paid no particular attention to this. I didn't get the drift, and that bothered Ravelstein."

"You didn't spot him for a Nazi?" Rosamund said.

"Ravelstein went a step further and told me that Grielescu about ten years ago had been scheduled to lecture in Jerusalem but that the invitation was canceled. Somehow even this didn't register with me. I must have been too busy to put it together. I do shut off my receptors sometimes and decide, somehow, not to see what there is to be seen. Ravelstein noticed that, naturally. I was the one who failed to notice.

"Ravelstein wanted to know just what Grielescu's line was like and I told him that at dinner he ."

I date this particular conversation about two years after Ravelstein's death. After the Guillain-Barré he had worked very hard at walking and recovering the use of his hands. He knew that he had to surrender, to decline but he did it selectively. It didn't matter that he was unable to operate the coffee grinder, but he did need his hand skills for shaving, writing notes, dressing, smoking, signing checks. Few fail to recognize that if you don't apply yourself to recovery you're a basket case, a goner.

Ravelstein is a moderate and mild, but not soporific, novel. It is filled with self-contented writerly effects, the rhetorical nonsense upon which Bellow glides like a greased ball bearing.

(Ravelstein also features a gruelling, brilliant and prolonged depiction of Caribbean vacation food poisoning, just to demonstrate Bellow is not a hard-hearted stylistic genius.)    


11 November 2018

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