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Birdwatching

image: Campus NewsTalk surrounding Ravelstein (Viking), the latest novel by Nobel laureate and former Committee on Social Thought professor Saul Bellow, X'39, has quickly turned from its strengths and weaknesses as a work of fiction to its merits as a work of fact.

image: Bloom's day
Bloom's day in the news, again.

In the novel, Chick--the story's narrator, presumed to be Bellow--reflects on the last years of the title character's life. Ravelstein is based in part on Allan Bloom, PhB'49, AM'53, PhD'55, Bellow's longtime friend and U of C colleague who wrote the 1987 best-selling cultural critique The Closing of the American Mind ("On the Shelf," April/00).

Tongues have been wagging because Bellow portrays Ravelstein as a gay man who dies from AIDS-related complications, while in real life Bloom never publicly disclosed whether he was gay, and his official cause of death was reported as a peptic ulcer and liver failure. "This is table talk," U of C English professor Richard Stern told the April 30 Chicago Tribune."We all love gossip."

In the April 16 New York Times Magazine, writer D. T. Max explained how the discrepancies have led to charges that Bellow unfairly "outed" Bloom and left a false impression of his death. Max quoted Nathan Tarcov, Bloom's medical executor and a professor in the Committee on Social Thought, the political-science department, and the College: "The word AIDS was never mentioned when Allan died. I think I would have known." Max also relayed Bloom companion Michael Wu's comments on the book: "It's fiction, not a biography."

Bellow, who has since stopped publicly discussing the matter, told Max he didn't really know if Bloom had died of AIDS: "It was just my impression that he may have." The point of giving Ravelstein the disease, Bellow continued, "was that here was a man who had everything in life but also had the knife to the throat. It's the tragic inevitability of the whole thing."

Chicago Tribune cultural critic Julia Keller detailed the controversy in an April 30 story, cheekily headlined "Between the covers, Bellow sparks firestorm." She rehashed the debate, eliciting the same denial from Tarcov and noting that it may be impossible to ever know if Bloom had AIDS because death certificates aren't public in Illinois and don't always indicate the disease.

The Ravelstein grapevine keeps growing. In an April 22 New York Times editorial, Brent Staples, AM'76, PhD'82, drew parallels between the character Rakhmiel Kogon--described as having "tyranny baked into his face"--and the late Edward Shils, X'37, a Committee on Social Thought colleague with whom Bellow had a falling out. On a more positive note, James Wood wrote in the April 15 Guardian that Ravelstein "pays a fine tribute" to Janis Freedman, AM'90, PhD'92, the Bloom graduate student who's now married to Bellow and who served as the model for Chick's devoted wife, Rosamund.

Reviewers have generally praised Ravelstein as Bellow's return, in his mid-80s, to the original, deeply felt characterizations and descriptions of his earlier fiction. And the hubbub has kept the book moving off shelves: Keller reported that more copies--53--were sold in its initial week of release at 57th Street Books than any other hardback work of fiction in the store's history.--C.S.


  JUNE 2000
  > > Volume 92, Number 5


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