Sunday, April 30th, 2000
Life section

Bellow's betrayal -- or act of friendship?

Literary Storm

Saul Bellow's new novel is a memoir of his friendship with Allan Bloom. In it, he 'outs' the conservative author of The Closing Of The American Mind

years ago, the great Jewish-American writer Saul Bellow, then 79, almost died after eating poisonous fish on a Caribbean holiday.

Hooked up to a respirator, he lay unconscious for five weeks.

"Seeing him on his back, you would never have believed that he would walk through the door again. But he did just that."

That's from his novella, What Kind Of Day Did You Have?, published in a collection in the mid-1980s. Like his ageing protagonist in that novella, Bellow, too, walked through the door again.

He attributed his good fortune to his young, fifth wife, Janice. "It's not too much to say, she pulled me through," the author told a Guardian interviewer in 1997.

But there could have been another reason why he wasn't ready to go to the grave. He had promised his close friend, Allan Bloom, before the latter died in 1992, that he would write a biographical sketch of him. He had to keep that promise.

And so he did. Now at 84, he has published a novel called Ravelstein, which just about everyone in the know insists is really about Bloom, the political philosopher who became a star late in his life when his polemical book, The Closing Of The American Mind, came out in 1987.

Critics on both sides of the Atlantic have praised the novel lavishly. But it has also kicked up a storm in the literary world, because the Nobel laureate has "outed" Bloom.

Abe Ravelstein, the protagonist in the book, is portrayed as gay and dying of Aids. Bloom never disclosed that he was a homosexual, and his death at the age of 62 was attributed to liver failure.

Why did Bellow write Ravelstein? Is it an act of friendship or betrayal?

Did he mean to enhance Bloom's reputation or discredit it?

And if it is really a memoir, should the author have tried to pass it off as a work of fiction?

Bloom's "outing" is especially sensational because he was this great conservative giant whose intellectual rigour won grudging admiration from even his strongest critics.

In The Closing Of The American Mind, which was a No. 1 bestseller in the United States for 10 weeks, he mounts a stout defence for classical Western education, and rails against relativism, multi-culturalism and feminism, which he sees as forces of mediocrity wreaking havoc on higher education.

The book won him an admirer in the then American President Ronald Reagan and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. According to her husband Dennis, she stayed up till 2.30 am reading the book.

And when she met him, "for once, she was listening and asking questions", according to George Walden, the maverick former Tory Education Minister who knew both Bloom and Bellow.

Walden insisted to the Observer that the book is a memoir. "So many details, down to Bloom's apartment in Chicago, are exactly described," he said.

But he said: "I don't believe that Bellow has diminished Bloom in this portrayal. It is not a hagiography, though. It is the kind of true picture that Bellow is so good at... "

Still, the storm has caused Bellow to bowdlerise his own book. Mentions of homosexuality and Aids have been tinkered with.

He also told the New York Times Sunday Magazine that he had misjudged people's sensitivities about homosexuality and Aids.

"You know, I've discovered that this is a very itchy subject, and the people carry over attitudes more appropriate in the Middle Ages."

Storm or no storm, I can't wait to read Ravelstein -- an order has already been placed with -- because it is Bellow's first full-length novel since More Die Of Heartbreak (1987), and it may well be his last.

Heartbreak was the first book of his which I read and was won over. The characters are so many and so diverse -- from university professors to petty thieves -- yet so real, and often brought to such vivid life in just a few sentences. And the words, they come in such a torrent.

I subsequently read and enjoyed Humboldt's Gift (1975), based on another friend of his, the dazzling depressive poet Delmore Schwaltz; and his collection of four novellas, Him With His Foot In His Mouth (1984), which includes What Kind Of Day Did You Have?

Bloom's The Closing Of The American Mind I found insightful and invaluable, however politically incorrect. It belongs on my shelf alongside Christopher Lasch's The Culture Of Narcissism (1979), that other great critique of post-1960s American society.

It may be about elitism, but to borrow a line from the other great Jewish American author of the mid-century, Bernard Malamud: "Elitism in a just cause has its merits."

That Bloom was gay and could possibly have died from complications brought about by Aids does not make his book any less a classic.

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