Book Simple: The Ravelstein in All of Us
a blogumn by Amy Brown
I’m deep in the world of academia this week, reading Saul Bellow’s Ravelstein. Bellow’s roman à clef outlines the final years of Abe Ravelstein, a professor of philosophy with a “need for Armani suits or Vuitton luggage, for Cuban cigars, … for the Dunhill accessories, for solid-gold Mont Blanc pens or Baccarat or Lalique crystal to serve wine in – or to have it served.” In the days before his book was published, Ravelstein’s expensive tastes resulted in hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt, wheedled from former students and faculty friends. Our narrator, Chick, one of said friends, notes that after the publication, Ravelstein had “become rich and famous by saying exactly what [he thought] … his intellect had made a millionaire of him.”
Ravelstein reminds me of nothing so much as Professor Slughorn from Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, with his taste for sweets and love of gossip, his clique of students shaped by the force of his personality. I must admit that these qualities did not initially endear the professor to me. Perhaps it was the five bags of old clothes I’d just lugged to Goodwill that made me so unsympathetic to a clotheshorse or, more likely, my own irritation at the credit card debt I’ve accumulated in graduate school making me impatient with an unrepentant debtor – and an intellectual success.
Also, Professor Ravelstein’s lectures, described by Chick, “took you from antiquity to the Enlightenment, and then – by way of Locke, Montesquieu, and Rousseau onward to Nietzsche, Heidegger – to the present moment, to corporate, high-tech America….” I’ve sat through that lecture, that terrible, disorganized lecture, where the blowhard up front pontificates on topic after topic, dropping famous names, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. The worst thing about Ravelstein is the fact that every college professor thinks he is Ravelstein, soon to be discovered.
But Ravelstein is dying of AIDS. “He was perfectly aware that all this luxury was funny,” reports our narrator. “Under charges of absurdity he was perfectly steady. He was not going to have a long life.” What made me finally like him is a scene between the professor and a pair of hangers-on. The couple have made a suicide pact and brought it to discuss with their philosopher friend. Chick mocks their complaint, old age, and their insensitivity, but Ravelstein is patient with them. “Jews feel that the world was created for each and every one of us,” he explains, “and when you destroy a human life you destroy an entire world – the world as it existed for that person.”
Bellow creates that world, the world of Ravelstein – exasperating, messy, spendthrift and brilliant – within the novel. It’s a great tribute to a departed friend. “I am never done with Ravelstein,” Chick states, and I am glad of that.