Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Saul Bellow

Well, we've all gotta die sometime. How are we going to do it? What happens afterwards? Who will remember us? This is the basis of Bellow's book Ravelstein. It's a purported biography that slips into autobiography. The narrator chronicles the death and life of his closest friend, an intellectual teacher and philosopher Ravelstein. Ravelstein is a Platonist, and also an atheist. He claims not to believe in an afterlife but often speaks as though he does. In his dying days he returns to religion and the problem of being Jewish in this modern and hostile world. He asks his best friend, a writer who is older than he to write a personal biography. The narrator/friend agrees, but delays the project for years until a sudden and debilitating illness confronts him with the nearness of his own death. Chick (the narrator) has said that after death he thinks the 'pictures will stop'; but he simultaneously possesses an irrational belief that he will see his family and friends in some sort of afterlife.
The good parts in the story are the descriptions of Abe Ravelstein - a big man who spent wildly, lived wildly - a man of both passion and intellect. I think the point of the book was in Ravelstein's preoccupation with great love, or searching for it. Completeness, not only desire. Living with a grand passion is more important than good and evil. Reading this makes me want to reread Plato.
There were a few odd things about the book: read as if written in the early nineties when AIDs was an inexorable scourge,and largely untreatable (Ravelstein was on AZT monotherapy) because it was published in 2000. On second thought, the speaker is writing a memoir of a deceased friend, and so the time-frame of the book is earlier. This book doesn't dwell though, on the reasons for and physical process of death, but on the mental and 'spiritual' journey toward it.
At any rate, you are meant to consider mortality. The finality of death. For those of us who don't believe in an afterlife this is simultaneously terrifying and wondrous.

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