It has taken me a while to get to it. A missed bookclub discussion; a misguided original browse which put me off but now I was ready for it, cued up and motivated.
- The curious Bellovian deference to characters of greater intelligence (though not of greater art) let’s call it the Humboldt mode. Complex, contradictory intelligence rendered with wholistic care. At a slight or humbling remove, but wholly personally. At times the prose does seem slightly off-target, as though visions left of field cloud his targeting scope, push him sideways and bend the emotional pinpointing of his prose. But ultimately, this is all appropriate creeping, the sideward step or crab-march of death. Not a single sour note in all the distraction.
- The dual bio/autobio angle, and the purported indecision of approach only resolved near the end by contact with death. The authorial first principles that are restated from p95: the details, images and memories of childhood, which circularises the focus on death…
- The beauty of the Bellovian voice and method; even though it fits in equal parts biography (like any true voice) he renders nobility of character so skilfully, unsentimentally. The whole bag, private metaphysics of character and all, following the structural pacing and tangents of vocal, conversational anecdote, as with Amis’ Experience. But also something close to the true communion of (literary) spirits. Which is the aim of all biography.
- Just the right amount of significant characters. The right amount of literariness and bonded repartee. A gentle range of ideas.
- The indirect centrality of food and social meals (as well as hospitalisation).
- If I had to write a lecture on Bellow, with particular focus on Ravelstein, I’d call it The Novelist’s Eye there’s a feeling in it, whatever ‘numinous’ (Amis) truth there is in it, that it’s Bellow’s gaze, his writerly gaze which precedes or induces his particular conversational magic. An eye particularly suited to physiognomy. A nominal eye.
- Only now do I realise how much of Bellow (and of Rav. especially) runs thru Experience, over Nabokov. A direct parallel of method. A similar attempt at reach of character.
- Also the whole Symposium angle of a split sexuality, a severed state seeking reunion and its compensatory erotic drive, is a nice if ancient mythic idea. It ties in to the unfulfilled or diffused longing of the heart which I imagine runs thru The Closing of the American Mind, but besides this reference it doesn’t manifest any stronger in Rav. than the craving for luxury goods and fine carpets. Maybe this is the point of Bellow’s perspective on homosexual unfulfilment in Ravelstein. Possible speculation here recedes into standard biological remove.
Some fave quotes:
The challenge of modern freedom, or the combination of isolation and freedom which confronts you, is to make yourself up. The danger is that you may emerge from the process as a not-entirely-human creature. (p 132)
Nothing in the sexual line is prohibited anymore, but the challenge is to hold your own against the general sexual anarchy. (p143)
…Life, that is, what one incessantly saw, the pictures produced by life continued… (p 149)
He loses himself in the sublime music, a music in which ideas are dissolved, reflecting these ideas in the form of feeling. (p 232)
And some related wisdom from Amis’ Experience
…Of course, even the most precisely recreated character is nonetheless recreated, transfigured; of course, autobiographical fiction is still fiction an autonomous construct… This book is numinous. It constitutes an act of resuscitation. (p 226)
My organisational principles… derive from an inner urgency, and from the novelist’s addiction to seeing parallels and making connections. (p 7)
In other news:
The Women’s final at Wimbledon
. My viewing of it was strictly book-ended: I saw the warm-up serves, I saw the Russian rushing off for a last pit stop. I saw her take the first few games and thought, hey, it’s already going her way. Then I had to leave for a head massage. When I came back, I saw the matchwinning game. Williams looked absolutely defeated but her thighs were in usual fine form (visually, solidly). Facially she kept an astute dignity, a balance. Pity her game couldn’t keep up with the tall and lanky Russian style. Then the victory slump to the knees, the manic rush thru the audience to find daddy, the delaying calls to mum on the mobile, and the brandishing of the plate.
The demise of Brando
. All the stock phrases came out in the obituaries, the dry clichés of a genial actor, a masculine master of his art who nonetheless wasted his immense gifts, who spilled his talents… With all the summary write-offs about raiding freezers in supermarkets and dying on the breadline, his island in the Pacific and lazy obesity and the squaw at the Oscars… What I wanted to know, and it would’ve called for more speculation than mealy-mouthed journalists can muster on a slow news day, is what the hell was going thru the man’s mind in the last days of his life. For someone who could deliver so much inward emotion and suggestive affect, such typically-specifically masculine emotion, he must’ve experienced time with a severe and personal despair. I don’t doubt he was great and flawed in his way, but speculate a line for me on his mind and sensibility and whatever unquiet rage; externalise some of that hearty greatness which probably knew equal suffering. Don’t just wrap him up in a case of brittle tactless words. Give the man more than the modicum of respect he deserves, do the mind justice. Even le Monde headed with ‘Viva Brando … L’acteur mythique’ and three whole pages of real content