With novelists like Bellow, who needs biographers?

RAVELSTEIN

By Saul Bellow

Viking

233 pp., $24.95

When Toni Morrison publishes a novel, she gets her face on the cover of Time magazine. When Saul Bellow, America's other Nobel Prize-winning writer, publishes a novel, he gets his face on a wanted poster.

"Ravelstein," Bellow's latest roman clef, is a memorial to his late friend Alan Bloom and an essay on the challenges of biography. It's a masterly piece of writing and his first full-length work in more than a decade, but it will have trouble finding an audience - or forgiveness.

Bellow and Bloom became friends in the late 1970s when Bloom joined the faculty at the University of Chicago. After team-teaching with the classical scholar, Bellow encouraged him to write a critique of higher education. If nothing else, the book might raise a little money to pay for the expensive suits and Persian rugs that Bloom loved.

"The Closing of the American Mind" (1987) bloomed into the most unlikely bestseller of the decade. (Bellow wrote the introduction.) Until this time, Bloom was known - to the extent he was known at all - as a brilliant translator of Rousseau and Plato. With "The Closing" he positioned himself at ground zero of the culture wars.

Bloom argued that America was in the midst of a spiritual crisis brought about by the weak intellectual rigor of its universities. In prose at once passionate and learned, he claimed that uncritical enthusiasm for pop culture, deconstruction, and relativism had so infected liberal arts education that it was essentially worthless. The great need, as he saw it, was to acknowledge that certain values (i.e. classical values) are better than others (e.g. feminism, Afrocentrism, and the sexual revolution).

Oddly, Bloom's homosexuality never entered the fiery debate his book incited between liberals and conservatives. He would not find his private life so politely ignored if the book were published today.

Indeed, with friends like Bellow, who needs outing? In "Ravelstein" the names have been changed, but the details of this "novel" so closely reflect those of real life that the friends Bellow praises can't help but feel honored, and the enemies he savages can't help but feel attacked. (One of his ex-wives endures such a nasty portrayal in these pages that Bellow would have to reassemble O.J.'s jurors to avoid a conviction for defamation.)

Between the early drafts sent to reviewers and the final copies appearing in bookstores this month, Bellow tempered his references to Bloom's homosexuality. And last Sunday in The New York Times magazine, he expressed regret about his frank portrayal of Bloom's private life. As the narrator of "Ravelstein," he laments that "there are no acceptable modern terms for the discussion of friendship."

For those who know Bloom's work, these private details fill out the picture of a complex scholar full of curiosity and wisdom. But for readers coming to this book as a novel on its own terms, Ravelstein seems a self-destructive, manipulative gossip, driven by consumerist fantasies. (In one typically comic scene, Ravelstein is chain-smoking in the intensive care unit, while ordering an $80,000 BMW over the phone for his Chinese lover.)

I couldn't help thinking of "The Great Gatsby." Both novels involve a narrator of questionable loyalty describing a larger-than-life, ludicrously opulent friend in the final months of his life. Both Gatsby and Ravelstein create themselves through the power of imagination, and both pursue a lost love of mythic proportions that can't be reclaimed.

Bellow writes, "In my trade you have to make more allowances, taking all sorts of ambiguities into account - to avoid hard-edged judgments. All this refraining may resemble navet. But it isn't quite that. In art you become familiar with due process. You can't simply write people off or send them to hell."

There's no denying the engaging quality of Bellow's reflections on the power and mystery of friendship. Ravelstein insists, "I want you to show me as you see me, without softeners or sweeteners." Mission accomplished.

*Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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