I am not the only critic to have been reminded in recent months that once during the 1950’s, when novelists of Jewish origin had suddenly moved to center stage in this country, Saul Bellow—referring to a well-known men’s-clothing manufacturer of the time—characteristically cracked that he, Bernard Malamud, and Philip Roth had become the Hart, Schaffner & Marx of American literature. With the death of Malamud in 1986, only Bellow, who has just turned eighty-five, and Roth, sixty-seven, are left among us, and both have just produced new novels.
Roth’s, entitled The Human Stain,1 is his third in as many years, which is a remarkable feat for a serious writer at any stage of his career; and the continued vitality Bellow demonstrates in Ravelstein2 at so advanced an age is equally remarkable. What is perhaps an even more impressive sign of vitality is that, in addition to a new novel, Bellow recently fathered a new baby. When asked by an old friend how he did it, the much-married Bellow’s answer was just as characteristic as his Hart-Schaffner-&-Marx crack: “I’ve had a lot of practice.” Well, he has also had a lot of practice writing—and it shows. As for Roth, though nearly eighteen years younger, he too has had a lot of practice writing (having, in fact, turned out more books than Bellow), and it shows as well.
But it is not merely the coincidence of publication dates that justifies discussing these two writers and their latest works together. For a start, there are certain curious similarities between the two novels. I hasten to add that these similarities do not extend to the all-important issue of style. No sentient or experienced reader could possibly mistake Ravelstein for a book by Roth, or by anyone else, for that matter: the word “inimitable,” so promiscuously thrown about by reviewers, applies perfectly to Bellow’s unique fusion of the high-literary and the demotic, with a spicy dash of the locutions and rhythms of Yiddish mixed in. Nor would The Human Stain sound to anyone with ears to hear like the writing of Bellow. If Roth’s prose does not bear quite so identifiable a signature as Bellow’s, it is still his and his alone.
Style aside, there remain interesting resemblances between Ravelstein and The Human Stain. The most obvious and striking is that both novels use almost exactly the same narrative device. Thus, it is at the behest of a late friend that Chick, the narrator of Ravelstein, has produced this book about the title character. Bellow makes so little effort to distance himself from Chick that it becomes impossible to regard the narrator as comparable to, say, Nick Carraway in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby or the figure of Marlow in a number of Joseph Conrad’s stories and novels. Besides being, like Bellow, a Jewish writer in Chicago, Chick speaks in Bellow’s voice and gives vent to Bellow’s views and opinions; he also undergoes experiences that Bellow himself has undergone and that are hardly altered in the rendering. Practically the only such alteration he makes is to present himself not as the Nobel-prize-winning novelist he is but as a humble “midlist biographer.”
In The Human Stain, the narrator—for the eighth time in Roth’s novels—is Nathan Zuckerman, whom Roth has dubbed not so much his alter ego as his “alter brain.” How much distance exists here, or in previous novels, between Roth and Zuckerman is difficult to determine. In the postmodernist spirit of mystification to which Roth has an unfortunate tendency to succumb now and then, he wants to keep us in the dark as to how fully he is to be identified with Zuckerman. But as the years pass and the novels pile up, it becomes harder and harder for someone like myself, who has been following Roth’s work from the very beginning and has read just about every word he has ever published, to distinguish between the author and even most of his other protagonists or narrators (going all the way back to Neil Klugman of Goodbye, Columbus and Alexander Portnoy of Portnoy’s Complaint), let alone to Nathan Zuckerman. Indeed, it is even hard to tell how much distance there is between the author and a character actually named Philip Roth in Operation Shylock.
This close identification between Roth and Zuckerman (to stick with him) does not necessarily include the details of Roth’s life to the degree that it does with Bellow in Ravelstein. I happen to know that Bellow, like Chick in Ravelstein, nearly died from eating a poisoned fish in the Caribbean, whereas I do not know (and have never tried to find out) whether Philip Roth has, like Zuckerman, suffered from prostate cancer and then been left impotent and incontinent by surgery.
I also happen to know that every character in Ravelstein, including Ravelstein himself, is based on a real person: though “based” is too weak a word to describe what are actually portraits of persons who are fictionalized only to the point of appearing under made-up names. I do not, however, know any such thing about The Human Stain. Though I suspect that it helps itself freely to the experience of Roth and people he has met or heard about, I would bet that much more of this book is the product of invention than Ravelstein is. It has repeatedly been proposed, for instance, that the model for the hero of The Human Stain was the critic Anatole Broyard, but even if that is true, Broyard had so different a biography from the one Roth gives to his hero that the character can be accepted as a genuinely fictional creation.
In due course I will go into the question of why all this is worth bringing up, but for the moment I want to dwell a bit more on the parallels between these two books by writers as different as Bellow and Roth. If Chick has produced Ravelstein because the late Abe Ravelstein himself—a college professor—asked him to write his biography, so too, the genesis of The Human Stain lies in a request by Nathan Zuckerman’s late friend Coleman Silk—also a college professor—to do a book about certain horrific things that had happened to him but which he himself had been unable to get down properly on paper.
As Hamlet lies dying, he tells his friend Horatio not to follow him immediately into the grave:
O good Horatio, what a wounded name
(Things standing thus unknown) shall
live behind me!
If thou didst ever hold me in thy heart,
Absent thee from felicity awhile,
And in this harsh world draw thy breath
To tell my story.
Bellow and Roth, each in his own way, play Horatio in their latest works to departed friends. In doing so, they both inevitably find themselves dwelling much on mortality. This is a theme that has preoccupied Roth almost obsessively since the two novels—An American Pastoral and I Married a Communist—that immediately preceded The Human Stain and that he somewhat mysteriously regards as the first two volumes of a trilogy of which his new book is the completion. (I say “mysteriously” because I cannot detect much that brings the three novels together.)
For his part, Bellow, whose nature contains very little, if any, morbidity, has (if memory serves) never before focused quite so sharply on death as he does in Ravelstein. Obviously, he has written about it often, but—so it seems to me—the idea of mortality hovers more heavily over this book than it does over any of his others.
Another theme that is central both to Ravelstein and The Human Stain is sex. It was, of course, largely (though by no means entirely) because of the explicit scenes of sexual activity in Portnoy’s Complaint that Roth first achieved great fame and notoriety; and it has become increasingly evident that age has not withered his interest in the subject nor custom staled the infinite variety of erotic delights he feels compelled to explore in his writings.
After (to speak very relatively indeed) giving sex a bit of a rest in An American Pastoral and I Married a Communist, Roth has returned to it with a vengeance in The Human Stain. At the center of this novel is a torrid affair between a seventy-one-year-old man, helped along by Viagra, and a woman in her thirties symbolically named Faunia. This creature (one of the most implausible characters Roth has ever given us) has sexual appetites that are almost, if not quite, on a par with those of Drenka, the heroine of Sabbath’s Theater. Drenka excited so much lust in the men on whom she bestowed her favors that, after her death, they took to masturbating over her grave (thereby showing that Roth, having in Portnoy’s Complaint been perhaps the first serious American novelist to write openly about masturbation, could go even himself one better).
Just as an affair between an old man and a young woman is at the heart of The Human Stain, so Ravelstein has as one of its main threads the story of a marriage between an old man (Bellow posing as Chick) and a young woman. True, this thread does not wind itself in Ravelstein through descriptions of sexual activity (and in general, where sex is concerned, Bellow has been a reticent prude as compared with Roth). But to both writers, the preoccupation with death is tempered by their continuing interest in sex.
Sex is not conceived either by Roth or Bellow as an escape from death. On the contrary: in The Human Stain, if his affair with Faunia revives Coleman Silk from a long bout of despair, it also eventually leads to his death; and if Chick is snatched from the grave by his young wife’s (nonsexual but loving) diligence, the homosexual Ravelstein is sent to his grave by AIDS. J. Bottom of the Weekly Standard has discerned in these contrasting fates of Chick and Ravelstein a statement about the essential difference between heterosexuality and homosexuality. It is an intriguing interpretation, but not one that entirely convinces. For the upshot—admittedly encrusted with many complications—is that to Bellow, as to Roth, sex signifies life, not death.
Finally, Ravelstein and The Human Stain provide new variations on a theme that runs through almost all the works of Bellow and Roth alike: the drive of so many Americans to cut loose from the genetic and social moorings of birth and to create themselves anew in images of their own devising. With Roth’s characters, this drive has usually assumed the form of an effort to escape from Jewishness and the constrictions that he—and they—have associated with it.
In Bellow, who has always had more positive and affectionate feelings toward Jewishness than Roth, what needs to be fled is the imposition of the conventional wisdoms that happen to be around at any given time. This is what connects one of his earliest heroes, Augie March, who was determined to “go at things” his own way, to his latest, Ravelstein, who (admittedly in this respect more Roth- than Bellow-like) loathes his midwestern Jewish family and forges a new self through the Great Books stemming from Athens and Jerusalem (if more the former than the latter) with which he falls in love at the University of Chicago.
There is also a line between, say, Alexander Portnoy and Coleman Silk, but it is given a highly ironic twist by Roth. In this instance, the character fleeing his origins, who we are at first told is a Jew (but, as a professor of classics, more a product of Athens than Jerusalem—in this respect being more Ravelstein than Portnoy-like) turns out to be a light-skinned black who has successfully been passing as a Jew.3
Obviously, Silk’s decision to renounce his racial and ethnic heritage is taken, and rightly so, as a gross betrayal by his family, and especially by his brother. The attitude of Roth (or am I supposed to say Nathan Zuckerman?) is more ambivalent: to him, there is something heroic about Silk, but he does not dismiss the charge of betrayal out of hand. The two are inexorably intertwined. As Roth told Charles McGrath, the editor of the New York Times Book Review, in a rare interview: “Self-transformation. Self-invention. The alternative destiny. Repudiating the past. Powerful stuff.”
It struck me as strange, however, that Roth makes so little of the fact that Silk should have decided to pass as a Jew rather than as a white Gentile. Given the evolution of Roth’s own attitudes toward Jewishness—from the outright disaffection expressed in the youthful Goodbye, Columbus and Portnoy’s Complaint to a growing sympathy and identification in some of his later works—I would have expected him to do more than he does with the changes in American society which have persuaded Silk that pretending to be Jewish has in some quarters become a greater advantage than passing as a WASP. But when McGrath suggests that this is “a book . . . about issues of race and of Judaism and where the two intersect,” Roth quickly disagrees, declaring that there was “nothing about Judaism in this book,” and going on to explain why Silk chooses to take on a Jewish identity:
As a means of deception, as a social disguise, as a pretext for his appearance. He doesn’t want to be a Jew for anything like the reasons that Frank Alpine, say, in Malamud’s novel The Assistant wants to be a Jew. Coleman’s choice has nothing to do with the ethical, spiritual, theological, or historical aspects of Judaism. . . . It’s a cunning choice that successfully furnishes him with a disguise in the flight from his own “we.” The choice is strictly utilitarian.
All this is true, but one reason I would have expected Roth to explore the implications of it in the novel itself is that, in the same interview, he stresses the importance of historical and political events in his “trilogy.” If I could find nothing that binds these three novels together, to their author they are of a piece because the lives of their characters are interpenetrated by the “historical moments in postwar America that have had the greatest impact on my generation.” The three moments he mentions are McCarthyism, Vietnam, and the impeachment of Bill Clinton. Yet surely the change for the better in the fortunes and status of Jews and blacks in America has a better claim to a place on that list than the impeachment of Clinton; and while Roth does go on to include race as another of the great developments of the era, he ignores the Jewish issue almost entirely.
It is at this juncture that I wish to delve into the question of why such factors are worth considering. In order to answer that question, I have to begin by affirming my belief in the principle of the autonomy of art, according to which works of art should be judged primarily on their aesthetic merits and extraliterary considerations should either be kept out of such judgments or brought in only under two conditions. One is when they impinge on the quality of the work in question—as when the imperatives of propaganda have clearly overridden the dictates of aesthetics (any piece of “socialist realism” will do for an example). The other is when it becomes useful in understanding a work to evoke the broader context out of which it has emerged. Yet even then, I would insist that aesthetic considerations come first.
This does not mean that moral or political factors are entirely ruled out in the framing of critical judgments. It does mean, however, that anyone who cares about literature is obligated to acknowledge the expressive and evocative powers of—to reach into the political sewers for an especially egregious instance—a novel like Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s Journey to the End of the Night before going on to condemn it on moral and political grounds. And the converse also applies. That is, the aesthetic weaknesses of a work of art ought not to be overlooked or denied just because it happens to embody moral or political sentiments of which the reader approves.4
Philip Roth, while perhaps an even more devout believer in the autonomy of art than I am, has always run into problems with these principles. He is a novelist whose talent is immense and many-sided. His ear and his mimetic skills are of the highest order. He can with equal success be hilarious and vulgar at one moment, almost theologically solemn and even priggish at another, and as lyrical as a first-rate poet at yet another. Topping it all off, he is capable of producing, to borrow a word he himself has used in praising another writer, “gorgeous” prose when the mood is upon him (as it has more and more been in his later years). Reading him, I invariably end up feeling that there is no weapon in the literary arsenal he cannot fire with perfect accuracy—or, to use a somewhat more appropriate metaphor, no instrument in the literary orchestra he cannot play like a virtuoso.
This has been true of him from the word go. When his first book, the collection of stories entitled Goodbye, Columbus appeared in 1959, it was Saul Bellow himself, reviewing it in these pages, who said, “Goodbye, Columbus is a first book, but it is not the book of a beginner. Unlike those of us who came howling into the world, blind and bare, Mr. Roth appears with nails, hair, and teeth, speaking coherently. At twenty-six he is skillful, witty, and energetic, and performs like a virtuoso.”5
More than 40 years and 22 books later, Roth has not only retained those powers with which he came into the world but developed and refined and added to them. Despite a few lapses and stumbles as he went along (When She Was Good, The Breast, and The Great American Novel, to name a few), and unlike so many other of his contemporaries who fell by the wayside—either drying up altogether or failing to fulfill their early promise—he has stayed the course, proving himself to be not only a serious writer but an homme sérieux: a serious man who demands and deserves to be taken with the utmost seriousness.
To do so, however, requires more than a recognition of his gifts and the admirable tenacity with which he has nourished and exercised and deepened them. It also demands following him into what Lionel Trilling famously called the “dark and bloody crossroads” where literature and politics (and, I would add, morality) meet. For despite Roth’s strong commitment to the autonomy of art, he has never been able to keep himself from straying into those crossroads, jumping around in them with abandon when feeling antic or genuflecting on his knees when infected by a bout of (almost always liberal) piety.
In the political sphere, I am not referring here mainly to a book like Our Gang, the crude and cliché-ridden satire he wrote about Nixon during Watergate. Nor, in the moral realm, do I have in mind the fun he made of American Jews early in his career in Goodbye, Columbus and Portnoy’s Complaint and that got him into so much trouble with the Jewish community. More to the point is the “thematic trilogy” consisting of his last three novels.
The first, American Pastoral, is in my opinion the best thing Roth has ever written, and only its structural flaws prevent me from unequivocally pronouncing it a great novel. I was very disappointed by I Married a Communist, and my hope that he would soon recover his form has been dashed by The Human Stain.6
Yet I cannot help asking myself how much the politics of these novels has influenced my critical judgment of them. Did I admire An American Pastoral so much because I was delighted by the surprising attack Roth launches there on the radicalism of the 60’s and its liberal apologists, and his even more unexpected defense of the middle-class values that were under such ferocious assault by that radicalism (and by his own younger self)? Was I disheartened by I Married a Communist because, instead of following up on what I, and not I alone, admired so much about An American Pastoral—the intellectually and spiritually heroic feat it performed in reconsidering the negative attitude toward this country Roth had always shared with most of the literary community—he returned to the same old stale attitudes in dealing with McCarthyism? And was the dashing of my prediction that this might turn out to be just a temporary regression—possibly even caused by an irresistible urge on Roth’s part to reassure his perplexed and worried faithful admirers that he had not sold out to the neoconservative enemy—responsible for my disappointment in The Human Stain?
In all honesty, I cannot dismiss the possibility that such considerations played some part in my differing judgments of these three novels. But only, I must immediately protest, a small one. I claim entitlement to this qualification on the ground that I felt let down by The Human Stain even though it centers on what is, to me, a highly congenial and satisfying account of the plague of political correctness in the universities.
Coleman Silk is victimized twice over by political correctness. First his academic career is ruined when he uses the word “spooks” (meaning ghosts) to describe two students who never show up in class. Though he does not even know they are black, he is accused of racism, and when he refuses to dignify this preposterous accusation with an apology, none of his friends or colleagues springs to his defense.7 Then, as if being ruined by a false charge of racism were not enough, Silk (by now a widower) is excoriated for sexual harassment when he enters into an affair with a female janitor at the college. This additional blow lands on him even though he has by then resigned, thereby becoming immune from the charge that he is using his power to coerce sexual favors from a subordinate in the workplace.
By ridiculing the prevailing tyrannies of political correctness on the issues of both race and sex, Roth shows that McCarthyism—which he surveyed with an unqualifiedly orthodox liberal eye in I Married a Communist—has now migrated to the Left; and in this, so far as I am concerned, he is on the side of the angels. Unfortunately, he winds up in less exalted company through his stated ambition to deal with “the historical moments that have had the greatest impact on [his] generation.” The way he pursues this ambition in The Human Stain is to connect both Vietnam and the impeachment of Bill Clinton with the trouble Coleman Silk gets into as a result of the tyranny of political correctness in matters of sex.
Despite being kept mostly implicit, this link still requires quite a stretch. But it does help explain why Roth should have made the peculiar choice of the impeachment as a moment of historical impact comparable to that of McCarthyism and Vietnam. Here again, as in I Married a Communist, he gives full play to the side of himself that has remained stuck in and intransigently uncritical of the liberal attitudes with which he grew up.
As The Human Stain tells it, Clinton (like Silk) was guilty in his alliance with Monica Lewinsky of nothing more than being a normal guy marked, as all of us are, by “the human stain” (something like original sin?). Not a word, not a syllable, in the passages devoted by Roth to the Clinton scandals so much as hints that the President (unlike Silk) committed and suborned perjury, and that this was the legal basis on which the attempt was made to remove him from office. Just the opposite: “What was being enacted on the public stage,” Roth informs McGrath in their New York Times Book Review interview, “seemed to have the concentrated power of a great work of literature. The work I’m thinking of is The Scarlet Letter.” I rub my eyes in disbelief. Can Philip Roth actually imagine that at its “moral core,” today’s America, “this huge and unknowable country,” is no different from the America of 17th-century Salem?
Such a statement would be breathtaking coming from anyone living at a time and in a place where sex in every shape and form is easily available, advocated, and even celebrated in every public forum and medium of entertainment, and where the only scarlet letters are pasted on those who offer so much as a smidgeon of resistance to this tidal wave of erotomania. But issuing from the mouth of a man who has achieved fame, honor, and riches with books that would have served as the kindling for burning him alive in the world described by Hawthorne, the comparison between the America of today and the America of The Scarlet Letter is very nearly demented.
As for Vietnam, it comes in through Lester Farley, the ex-husband of Silk’s girlfriend. Farley is a crazed veteran of that war who eventually contrives to kill both his former wife and her present lover, and who, as even Lorrie Moore, one of Roth’s liberal admirers, has said in the New York Times Book Review, is constructed “from every available cliché of the Vietnam vet.” Has Roth forgotten what he revealed about these very clichés in An American Pastoral? Or is he once more offering reassurance to those who worried after reading that book that he might be converting to neoconservatism?
If so, he has only partly succeeded. The same Lorrie Moore who, to her credit as a critic, spotted the character of Lester Farley as a literary weakness, immediately made up for this deviation from her own party line by complaining that The Human Stain “indulges in the sort of tirade against political correctness that is far drearier and more intellectually constricted than political correctness itself.” But in my opinion what Roth “indulges” in here is not a “tirade”: it is, rather, the determination to tell a truth that goes against the grain of his own liberal impulses, and this is to his credit.
I suppose the conclusion to be drawn is that in responding to a novel that raises contentious political (and/or moral) issues, it is virtually impossible to ignore—and, worse yet, to blind oneself to—those issues in reaching a critical judgment. To repeat: the aesthetic qualities of the work at hand ought to be the critic’s primary concern. But when the novelist insists on leaping into “the bloody crossroads,” it is the right and even the duty of the alert reader to follow after and to join in.
If Roth’s last few novels bring into sharp focus the troublesome problems surrounding the concept of the autonomy of art, Bellow’s Ravelstein does much the same thing with the possibly even more irksome problem of the relation between novels and the realities on which they often draw. As all the interested world knows, the character of Abe Ravelstein is based on the late Allan Bloom, who was Bellow’s dear friend. What is less well-known is that it was at Bellow’s urging that Bloom wrote The Closing of the American Mind. To everyone’s amazement, that book became a huge bestseller in 1987, making a previously penurious and relatively obscure professor at the University of Chicago both rich and famous.
But the hero is not the only portrait in Ravelstein of a real-life model. As with himself playing narrator, Bellow takes so little trouble to disguise the characters who appear here that they are all easily recognizable as this or that person. Calling Ravelstein a roman à clef therefore verges on understatement. Except for the names of the characters, nothing in it seems to be fictional; nothing seems to be invented. The “plot” consists entirely of incidents surrounding Bellow’s friendship with Bloom or that occurred until it ended with Bloom’s death. There is the breakup of Bellow’s fourth unhappy marriage and the contracting of his presently happy one to a student of Bloom’s; there are the spending sprees on which Bloom goes, frequently accompanied by Bellow, after his book becomes a great best-seller; there is Bloom’s illness and death; and there is the near-death of Bellow himself after eating a poisoned fish in the Caribbean.
What we have here, in short, is all clef and no roman: not a novel but a memoir.
Taking the opposite tack, Cynthia Ozick, in a long review in the New Republic, advises us to “throw away the clef.” Her argument is that “When it comes to novels, the author’s life is nobody’s business. A novel, even when it is autobiographical, is not an autobiography.” Nor is a novel a biography: “Ravelstein is not Bloom.” And she concludes, “What is a novel? A persuasion toward dramatic inferiority. A word-hoard that permits its inventor to stand undefined, unprescribed, liberated from direction or coercion. Freedom makes sovereignty; it is only when the writer is unfettered by external expectations that clarity of character . . . can be imagined into being.”
Ozick’s brief in support of her position about the novel in general, and of Ravelstein‘s right to be considered one, is dazzling and written with her usual brilliant flair. But it flows from two assumptions that are less than self-evident or axiomatic. One is that “the literary novel (call it the artist’s novel)” is superior in kind to such other literary forms as biography and memoir. Bellow would undoubtedly agree with Ozick, which is almost certainly one of the reasons he decided to offer this book about Allan Bloom as a novel rather than as a straightforward memoir. (Other reasons may involve a different and lower order of “freedom” from the one celebrated by Ozick: that is, the freedom to give the business to certain people—an ex-wife and an ex-friend or two—without the complications involved in using their real names.)
In her review of Ravelstein, however, Ozick comes close to ignoring the bold and brave warning she once sounded against violating the second of the Ten Commandments by turning art into an idol to be worshiped. Here she reminds me of the great British critic F.R. Leavis. It was Leavis who taught that the quasireligious attitude toward poetry in the Victorian age was a significant factor in the decline of that form, whereas the lesser regard in which the novel was held had the opposite effect. Yet Leavis himself later went on to speak of the novelists he admired in tones that were reminiscent of the very transports of exaltation for which he had faulted the Victorians.
In any event, with all due respect to Ozick’s veneration of the novel, it is no insult or denigration of Ravelstein to read it as a memoir. I would go even further by contending that a proper appreciation of Saul Bellow is impossible without recognizing that he is not now or ever has been a natural novelist. A wonderful writer, yes: probably the best American writer in any genre of the past half-century. But not a born novelist.
The born novelist is defined, for better or worse, by the power to express whatever it is he understands of the world and of life through the telling of stories about people who are made to seem real. Bellow, by contrast, is always telling us what he knows—which is much more than practically any of the born novelists who have marched across the literary stage beside him—through his own voice as informed by his own deep and vast intellect. Hence his stories are not gripping narratives, and his characters rarely, if ever, achieve the separation from their creators of authentic fictional creations. “Every major character in a Bellow novel is, in some way, Bellow,” as D.T. Max succinctly puts it in his New York Times Magazine article.
What I am trying to get at might be clarified by looking at “How Many Children Had Lady Macbeth?,” a once-notorious essay by L.C. Knights. This British scholar-critic raised the question after noticing that, while Lady Macbeth speaks of having “given suck,” there is no indication in Macbeth of the size of her family. But it was a silly question. Lady Macbeth is not a real person; she is a creature of Shakespeare’s imagination,8 and since he neglects to provide this information in his play, there is no way to unearth it. Nevertheless, silly and unanswerable as the question might have been, it testified vividly to Shakespeare’s success in, as it were, liberating Lady Macbeth from his own head and spinning her off into the illusion of an independent existence of her own.
Rarely, if ever, does anything comparable happen to Bellow’s characters. Even those who least resemble him (Tommy Wilhelm of Seize the Day, Henderson of Henderson the Rain King, Mr. Sammler of Mr. Sammler’s Planet, among others) soon turn into mouthpieces or counters for his own ideas. To exaggerate only slightly, Bellow’s books are monologues—almost always of surpassing brilliance and great fascination—forced into novelistic form.
I am not suggesting any deliberate deception on Bellow’s part. I am saying, rather, that his native talent (like that of certain other contemporary writers, James Baldwin for one and Bellow’s childhood pal Isaac Rosenfeld for another) got deflected into the wrong channel by the special prestige of the novel as the supreme form of literary art in our time, comparable to what poetry was to the Victorians. This is why, on the few occasions when Bellow has managed to liberate himself from the compulsion to dress up as novels the fruits of his own. endlessly fascinating mind and magnificent literary gift, he has been able to bring characters more vividly to life than any who appear in those novels. What is more, these characters are neither mouthpieces for Bellow nor reflections of him.
To Jerusalem and Back—his memoir of a stay in Israel—was one such occasion, and Ravelstein (though not presented as a memoir the way To Jerusalem and Back was) is, I believe, another. Cynthia Ozick has a point when she asks: “Why should we care for . . . those ephemeral figures that fictional characters are ‘based on’? The originals vanish; their simulacra, powerful marvels, endure.” But the Allan Bloom depicted as Ravelstein might better be compared with the portrait of, say, Richard Savage by Samuel Johnson. Savage, an otherwise forgotten 18th-century poet, has endured because he was evoked so vividly and poignantly by Dr. Johnson’s memoir; and so, I speculate, will be the happy fate of Bloom-Ravelstein. My only regret is that Bellow did not see fit to drop the pretense that he was writing a novel and simply given us much the same book in the form of a memoir called Bloom.
Having had a number of encounters with Allan Bloom, I can testify that Bellow captures him with such marvelous accuracy that Ravelstein might actually be, so to speak, the fully realized fictional creation Cynthia Ozick wishes to see in him. Admittedly, my testimony may be impeached by the fact that I was only acquainted with Bloom casually. Many who were much closer to him have heatedly denied that he is adequately depicted in Ravelstein, and some have even accused Bellow of betraying Bloom in this book, and in two different senses.
The first is to have “outed” him as a homosexual. The friends of Bloom who denounce this as a betrayal rightly assert that Bloom himself was careful never to make a public point of his homosexuality, and certainly never wanted anything to do with the politicization of his own sexual proclivities as represented by the gay-rights movement. The alleged betrayal here, then, is to have revealed something Bloom wished to keep hidden.
In this perspective, all the worse does the betrayal become when one considers that with his assault on contemporary culture and the degradation of the universities in The Closing of the American Mind, Bloom emerged as one of the most influential conservative intellectuals in the world. Never mind that he eschewed the term “conservative” not only for himself but for the entire school of thought deriving from his master and teacher, the philosopher Leo Strauss. Despite his protestations, virtually everyone else (with good reason, I would say) thought of him as a conservative. Consequently, in the context of the “culture war” in which Bloom’s book has played so large a part—a war that has featured the contention over homosexuality as one of its central fronts—Bellow stands accused of providing aid and comfort to his supposedly beloved friend’s liberal enemies. Again, never mind that Bloom himself never made an issue of homosexuality one way or the other in his many reflections on eros. By outing him, Bellow has—so the charge goes—made the entire conservative side in the culture war look hypocritical.
To this my response is that Allan Bloom’s homosexuality was no great secret, and that Bellow neither intends nor does harm to him or to his reputation in talking so easily about it. Writing in the New Republic as a gay-rights activist who is at the same time a self-declared conservative, Andrew Sullivan hopes that “One day, there will be a conservatism civilized enough to deserve [Bloom].” But the only way Sullivan the gay-rights activist can stake a claim to Bloom is to interpret the latter’s silence on homosexuality as a loud affirmation: “Bloom was gay, and he died of AIDS. The salience of these facts is strengthened, not weakened, by Bloom’s public silence about them.”9 Yet silence, whether public or private, was not the always exuberantly garrulous Allan Bloom’s notion of how to express an idea or make a point.
The second sense in which Bellow has been accused of betraying Bloom is—according to some of his other friends—to have shown him not as the great soul he is repeatedly called in the book (and that, they maintain, he indeed was in life) but as a vulgar materialist. Having become rich through his best-selling book, he seems to care about nothing but spending his money on expensive clothes, meals, and suites in luxurious hotels. The most passionate expression of this complaint I have come upon has been voiced by one of Bloom’s students, Kenneth R. Weinstein, in the Weekly Standard:
Rather than serving up Bloom’s thought, Bellow expounds upon the man’s colorful habits, including his taste for luxury goods. . . . But without a clear understanding that Bloom’s acquisition of Lalique crystal or Lanvin jackets was a lighthearted reflection of his love for beauty itself—the form of beauty, in Plato’s sense—he comes off in Ravelstein as merely a high-end consumer, an American fop on the Faubourg St. Honoré.
Weinstein’s rather solemn explanation of Bloom’s taste for luxury could have used a little lightheartedness itself (in truth, Bloom loved luxury for its own sake—and why not?), but otherwise it is fair enough: Bellow does give only a small taste of Bloom’s intellectual passions. If Ravelstein were really a self-contained novel, this omission would be a serious fault. But not so when we read the book as the memoir of a friendship that takes Bloom’s philosophical concerns for granted and (sometimes even explicitly) refers us to his written work for light on him as a thinker instead of attempting to summarize his ideas. (In his “Life of Richard Savage,” if I remember rightly, Dr. Johnson does not quote much of Savage’s poetry.)
Besides, this criticism of Ravelstein for leaving out “Bloom’s thought” fails to grasp Bellow’s conception of what it means to be, or to have, a great soul. Cynthia Ozick quotes a remark from The Adventures of Augie March that captures the essence of Bellow’s take on the matter: “He had rich blood. His father peddled apples.” This remark is one of my own favorites, too, though my gloss on it differs from hers. Extrapolating from it, I would say that for Saul Bellow, the richness of Allan Bloom’s blood (and mind) was thickened by his entanglement with what some dismiss as the grosser things of this world. There is also in Bellow’s eyes a kind of greatness—as spiritual as it is material—in the extremity of Bloom’s extravagance, no less than in his insatiable appetite for gossip, especially about the doings in high places, in his presumptuous meddling with the lives of his students, in his delight in dirty jokes (which he exchanges on his death bed with one of his close friends), and so on and so on into the lower depths and the higher reaches of life as it is lived from day to day.
Betrayal? if we are to speak of it at all in discussing the two latest works by Saul Bellow and Philip Roth, the word would better be applied to how Roth’s The Human Stain has reneged on the tantalizing hopes held out by An American Pastoral than to how Bellow treats Allan Bloom in Ravelstein. That this infinitely loving portrait should be considered a betrayal is to me nothing short of amazing.
Bellow has always been especially good with closing lines. I will cite only two. Augie March ends with: “Columbus too thought he was a flop, probably, when they sent him back in chains. Which didn’t prove there was no America.” And Mr. Sammler’s Planet, like Ravelstein, concludes in a meditation on the death of a friend: “[This man] was aware that he must meet, . . . and he did meet, the terms of his contract. The terms which, in his inmost heart, each man knows. As I know mine. As all know. For that is the truth of it—that we all know, God, that we know, that we know, we know, we know.”
Tough acts to follow, but Bellow pulls it off in the last line of Ravelstein: “You don’t easily give up a creature like Ravelstein to death.”
Not easily, and thanks to this memoir decked out in the false finery of a novel, maybe not at all. By which I mean that, good as his books are, if Allan Bloom lives on, it will not be through his own writings—though I would not be surprised if Ravelstein were to drive readers to seek them out in the future—but in the delightful and wondrous person of Ravelstein and through the love that enabled Saul Bellow to bring his friend back to life more truly than so many of his more pious disciples and comrades-in-arms want to think.
1 Houghton Mifflin, 361 pp., $26.00.
2 Viking, 233 pp., $24.95.
3 The main character in Ralph Ellison’s posthumous novel Juneteenth is also a black passing as white. Conceivably Roth, a great admirer of Ellison, was more inspired by this literary precedent than he was by the life of Anatole Broyard.
4 I am restricting myself here to literature, and more specifically the novel, but the same rule applies to the other arts as well. It has long been recognized that the novel, implicated as it almost always is in the world around it, is an aesthetically “messier” form than lyric poetry or music or painting, which are more capable of remaining fixed within the boundaries of their own formal qualities. For better or worse, then, it is harder for the novel (and this goes for theatrical works as well) than for the other arts to remain sealed off from political and moral issues. Or at least it used to be in the days before painters and sculptors became even more political than writers.
5 On the other hand, as D.T. Max recounts in a recent article in the New York Times Magazine, Bellow later grew less enthusiastic: “If you crossed him, he didn’t forget. After Philip Roth caricatured him in his novel The Ghost Writer as Felix Abravanel, a nattily dressed superstar writer who lived ‘in the egosphere,’ Bellow got back at him on the Dick Cavett show in 1981: ‘What hath Roth got?’ he said.”
6 I voiced this hope in an article entitled “The Adventures of Philip Roth,” written shortly after the appearance of I Married a Communist and published in the October 1998 issue of COMMENTARY.
7 Roth, while fully aware of the irony involved in the fact that Silk, unbeknownst to everyone else, is himself black, seems oddly blind to the additional irony that, from another angle, passing for white does convict Silk of racism. I would have thought that Roth—one of whose favorite authors is Franz Kafka—would pursue this fascinating twist. But he never does. Then again, why should he be expected to do so here when he has never been able to understand that the repudiation of Jewishness by Jews can be taken as a form of anti-Semitism?
8 To forestall the obvious objection, I should note that the characters in Macbeth were historical personages. In writing a play about them, however, Shakespeare not only relied on his imagination but (lest he be accused of calling into question the legitimacy of Britain’s ruling dynasty) misrepresented Macbeth as a usurper when it was actually the other way around.
9 The question of AIDS brings up a subsidiary aspect of this particular allegation of betrayal on Bellow’s part, which is not that he reveals a hidden truth about Bloom but that he spreads a lie. Bloom did not, say his other friends, die of AIDS as Ravelstein does; and Bellow has now admitted that he was not sure about this but merely assumed it.