Novelists can be lucky in their editors, in their friends, in their mentors and even in their pupils. Sometimes they are generous or sentimental enough to fictionalise the relationship. In Keep the Aspidistra Flying, George Orwell gave his friendless, dowdy and self-pitying protagonist Comstock one true pal: the editor and patron Ravelston, proprietor of the small yet reliable magazine Antichrist. This Ravelston - some composite of Sir Richard Rees and John Middleton Murry - was a hedonistic yet guilt-ridden dilettante, good in a pinch, and soft on poets, but too easily embarrassed by brute exigence. Saul Bellow - who has already shown a vulnerability to exigent poets in his wonderful Humboldt's Gift - now presents us with Ravelstein, a hedonistic kvetch who manifests patience towards none. As is known to all but the meanest citizens of the republic of letters, the novel is an obelisk for the late Allan Bloom, author of the 1987 shocker The Closing of the American Mind. This book, which was a late product or blooming of the University of Chicago Committee on Social Thought, argued that the American mind was closed because it had become so goddamned open - a nice deployment of paradox and a vivid attack on the relativism that has become so OK on campus these days. Bloom's polemic swiftly became a primer for the right-wing Zeitgeist; a bookend for the shelf or index sternly marked 'all downhill since 1967'. And even then, there were those who detected a Bellovian lending, or borrowing as the case might be.
LRB 27 April 2000 | PDF Download