At 84, Nobel Laureate Saul Bellow has produced a new novel as lively and engaging as any of his previous books. Like Humboldt's Gift, which is a fictionalized portrait of the poet Delmore Schwartz, Ravelstein reportedly is based on the life and death of another of Bellow's great friends, the political philosopher Allan Bloom, who became a worldwide celebrity with his own book, Closing of the American Mind.
A brilliant thinker, Abe Ravelstein is a true original, who embraces life with equal measures of Dionysian and Apollonian gusto. When his novelist friend, Chick, suggests he write a book for a popular audience, they are both surprised when it makes millions. Already accustomed to living large, the newly wealthy Ravelstein rewards Chick with a trip to Paris. Once ensconced in the opulent Hotel Crillon, Ravelstein surprises Chick with the request that the novelist write his biography.
Chick resists, but the idea sparks his voluminous memories of the intellectual sparring the two men have enjoyed. For many years, their diverging philosophies on everything from love, sex, mortality, history, and what it means to be a Jew, have inspired countless animated conversations, often punctuated with old vaudeville routines and off-color jokes. When Chick discovers that Ravelstein is dying of AIDS, the urgency of the appeal to write a memoir plagues the novelist. But until he has his own brush with death, Chick cannot begin to keep his promise to his departed friend.
As he ponders his course, Chick conjures up the wild details of Ravelstein's eccentric life and the inextricable part he, himself, has played in it. Again and again, Chick returns to Ravelstein's endorsement of Plato's suggestion that man is incomplete, always searching for his missing half. This becomes the central point of the novel that these two men truly were each other's missing half. Ravelstein shares similarities with Humboldt's Gift, particularly its freewheeling first person narrative, which avoids linear chronology and ricochets with a seemingly inexhaustible supply of intellectual ideas and cultural references. But with Bellow, nothing is random, and it adds up to an all-encompassing, loving elegy for a friendship without equal. Caustic, compassionate, and philosophical, this is a book that only Bellow could have given us.