Ravelstein, by Saul Bellow. New York: Viking Press, 2000. 233 pp. $24.95 hardback. New York: Penguin USA, 2001. 240 pp. $13 paperback.

Witty, clever, elegant, Ravelstein has been hailed as a great read. But this is no ordinary novel: its characters are mercilessly recognizable; hardly anything has been altered beyond their names. Of course, claiming for it fictional status was not done out of a concern for privacy; rather, this clever conceit permits Bellow to make a philosophical statement. He deliberately sets out to defy Platonic Truth, worshiping the Shadows—the felt, believed, imperfect, flawed perception of touched reality. This—and nothing else—is truth, or at least the only truth that matters.

And so Bellow would craft this exquisite funny-tragic requiem to his late friend Allan Bloom, as he promised. Bloom had requested a faithful biography—which meant that Bellow should record his impressions. Bloom trusted those impressions not because they were perfect but because they were not. He trusted that Bellow cared for him, and would therefore understand whatever “essence” Bloom might possess, in the only way possible: with his heart.

Bloom turned out to be absolutely right. Never maudlin, Bellow conveys admiration and affection for the erudite, fascinating professor who loved arguments and questions because they were interesting, and beautiful, and important. In his own quixotic, exasperating manner, Bloom had once searched for the great essences, for the Forms of human existence. Those essences however had turned out to be paradoxically elusive.

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