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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Bellow Unravels Bloom

As various news articles have pointed out, Abe Ravelstein, the hero of Saul Bellow's discursive new novel, bears more than a passing resemblance to the author's late friend and colleague Allan Bloom. Like the author of "The Closing of the American Mind,'' Ravelstein is a professor of political philosophy who writes a "spirited, intelligent, warlike book'' about the decline of liberal education in the United States, a book that unexpectedly becomes a best-seller and makes him a millionaire. Like Bloom he is fond of quoting Plato and Rousseau and holding forth on the role of Eros in human life. Like Bloom he is a magnetic teacher, a demanding, dogmatic professor whose disciples are as passionate as his detractors.

While fingering the real-life antecedents of earlier Bellow characters is easy enough, such IDs are quite beside the point when the imaginative alchemy of fiction is complete. This is not the case, however, with Ravelstein, a chatty, intermittently engaging work that feels more like a fictionalized portrait than a fully fashioned novel.

The book is at its most compelling when Bellow's narrator - a writer named Chick - simply reminisces about his old friend Abe Ravelstein, memorializing his antics, his idiosyncrasies and tastes. When Bellow tries to give the book more of a plot, to flesh out Chick's relationship with Ravelstein and more minor members of the cast, his efforts feel peculiarly tentative and flaccid.

As readers of his earlier work well know, Bellow is a master portraitist - the best, in John Updike's opinion, writing American fiction today - and in these pages he uses his inimitable raffish-lofty prose to give us a palpable sense of Ravelstein's physical presence and mental energy. Like so many of Bellow's heroes, Ravelstein is an intellectual, but he's also an unabashed sybarite with a taste for expensive clothes and antiques. Since coming into money, he wears a $20,000 watch and sends his ties air express to a silk specialist in Paris to be cleaned. Dismissive of students who are lazy or slow-witted, he is extolled by his disciples as "the intellectual counterpart'' to Michael Jordan.

Although Chick is Ravelstein's senior by some 20 years, he, too, regards Ravelstein as a kind of teacher. When Ravelstein asks Chick to write his biography, he reluctantly agrees to play Boswell to his friend's Johnson. In light of recent developments, this exchange now reads like a preemptive answer to critics who have assailed Bellow for "outing'' the late Bloom and suggesting that he died of AIDS. The official cause, given in obituaries, was internal bleeding and liver failure.

Ravelstein is always chiding the brooding Chick "to get away from the private life, to take an interest in public life, in politics,'' and the relationship between the two men in many ways embodies the dynamic that has animated Bellow's work from the beginning - namely, the pull between the world and the self, between "the actual,'' with all its temptations of shallowness and distraction, and the private realm of the imagination with its dangers of solipsism and isolation.

Unfortunately for the reader, Bellow never really dramatizes the friendship of Ravelstein and Chick, never gives it the ballast of shared history the way he did, say, with Humboldt and Citrine in "Humboldt's Gift.'' Instead there are isolated anecdotes that fail to gain a cumulative power: Ravelstein spilling espresso on his brand-new $4,500 Lanvin sport coat; Ravelstein lighting up a cigarette hours after getting out of the intensive care unit; Ravelstein walking in on Chick's half-dressed wife, Vela.

There are ruminative digressions about everything from Rousseau's philosophy to "the Jewish question,'' from the pleasures of Paris to the terrors and consolations of death, as well as some acutely observed cameo portraits of assorted acquaintances and friends, among them Radu Grielescu, a Romanian fascist who would like to reinvent himself in the United States as an Old World gent. Compelling as many of these mini-portraits might be, they do not sustain the narrative of this novel, which devolves into a repetitious monologue by Chick, chronicling Ravelstein's declining health and enumerating his own medical complaints and Herzogian problems with women.

By the end of the novel the charismatic Ravelstein no longer holds center stage, and as he is marginalized, the book loses its energy and focus. Bellow would have ended up with a better book (and doubtless done better by his late friend) had he simply written a straightforward memoir instead of trying, unsuccessfully, to pump up his reminiscences into a work of fiction.

"Ravelstein," by Saul Bellow. 233 pages. Viking. $24.95.