A Closing of the American Kind | The Nation


A Closing of the American Kind

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You will recall that when Augie March went to Mexico, he hooked up with an eagle, which he called Caligula. (He also ran into Leon Trotsky, navigating "by the great stars." In this, Augie was luckier than his creator, Saul Bellow, who had an appointment in 1940 to see Trotsky on the very morning of his murder and ended up in Coyoacán looking at a corpse: "A cone of bloody bandages was on his head. His cheeks, his nose, his beard, his throat, were streaked with blood and with dried iridescent trickles of iodine." But already I digress.) Suppose that instead of an eagle, Augie had grabbed a parrot, like a bag of Magical Realist feathers, and sneaked it back to Chicago. This might explain the marvel that knocks three times at the stained-glass window of Ravelstein.

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John Leonard
John Leonard, the TV critic for New York magazine, a commentator on CBS Sunday Morning and book critic for The Nation...

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(1) Abe Ravelstein, a political philosopher just out of intensive care and feeling shaky, is escorted by his friend Chick, a much-married older novelist, from the University of Chicago campus back to his apartment, stopping at every other corner to catch his breath. They happen, remarkably, on a flock of parrots in a clump of trees with red berries. Though not really interested in nature, Ravelstein needs to know: "What are we looking at?" Chick explains that the parrots, descendants of an escaped pair of caged birds, first built their long, sacklike nests in the lakefront park and later colonized the alleys; that "hundreds of green parrots" live in "bird tenements" hanging from utility poles; that the new "garbage-based ecology" involves raccoons and even possums, besides your usual rats and squirrels. "You mean," says Ravelstein, "the urban jungle is no longer a metaphor."

(2) Thirty pages later, two years after Abe's death, Chick thinks back to "the morning of the day when he and I had come upon the parrot-filled holly bushes where the birds were feeding on red berries and scattering the snow." He re-experiences his friend's surprise: "You're just back from the dead, and you run into an entire tribe of green parrots, tropical animals surviving a midwestern winter." And this time a grinning Ravelstein is made to say: "They even have a Jew look to them."

(3) Finally, at the end of this lambent novel, this prayer for the dead, Chick seems to be channeling Ravelstein: "He loses himself in sublime music, a music in which ideas are dissolved, reflecting these ideas in the form of feeling. He carries them down to the street with him. There's an early snow on the tall shrubs, the same shrubs filled with a huge flock of parrots--the ones that escaped from cages and now build their long nest sacks in the back alleys. They are feeding on red berries. Ravelstein looks at me laughing with pleasure and astonishment, gesturing because he can't be heard in all this bird-noise."

By now, Bellow's got it down like a scroll painting or a haiku. Indeed, for all that, Ravelstein is spiced with Western Civ's greatest hits--with long views from Athens and Jerusalem, as seen through the eyes of the noble dead (Plato, Rousseau, Nietzsche), the compulsive scribblers (Xenophon, Dr. Johnson, Joyce, Céline), the exemplary-prophetic (Job and Tolstoy) and the merely peculiar (Marie Antoinette and Whittaker Chambers), at whom, because "death does sharpen the comic sense," we are even encouraged to laugh "like Picasso's wounded horse in Guernica, rearing back"--there is something oddly Oriental about the novel, as if it were told by an odalisque with a folding fan. Or, to be even fancier, as if it were a series of tai chi exercises, a sequence of strenuous poses. Thus, for Ravelstein's many eccentricities--a white crane flashing its wings. For Chick's many marriages--a master strumming his lute. For the price exacted by world history and personal choice--a wild horse shaking its mane. And, for a teller done with his tale, a hunter holding the tail of a bird. ("As birds went," Chick says of Abe, "he was an eagle, while I was something like a flycatcher.")

I'm about to suggest that Ravelstein is the story of two deaths--of the philosopher and the novelist--with only one Lazarus, who isn't Socrates. I will argue that as much as Saul Bellow enjoyed the company of Allan Bloom, they had profound differences on how to live and die, what happens afterward and the way we best explain each other. These differences, as much as their friendship, are what animate the novel. They are in fact what make it a novel and not a tacky roman à clef, shellacked to fix its gaudy colors. But first the tabloid tease.

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