Focus on Fiction

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Ravelstein by Saul Bellow (Viking, [pounds sterling]16.99) THIS is the Nobel master's 13th novel. Like many other of his prize-winning novels, it delves deep into the American Jewish intellect.

This time, rather than studying a soul in isolation, Bellow examines one life through the prism of another person's friendship.

Drawing on a real-life Chicago guru who formed generations of American politicians, educationalists and academics with his erudition in the ancient Greek masters, the novel is narrated in the admiring voice of Chick, a best-selling novelist: Bellow's thinly disguised self-portrait.

Chick's friend, Ravelstein, is a clumsy, genius, gay 60-year-old who dresses in deeply gorgeous Parisian shirts and is dying of Aids.

Ravelstein asks Chick to write his biography, but the novel is not so much Ravelstein's biography as Chick's memories of what the great man said about him.

We get Chick's love life, not Ravelstein's; we end with a near-fatal toxic poisoning which Chick caught after Ravelstein died, by eating a totally irrelevant reef-nibbling fish.

All in all, the novel is inconclusive, erudite, reflective; hardly calculated to keep you awake at night. But the language and ideas are brilliantly worked, and stylish sentences leap at you off every page.

Dream Stuff by David Malouf (Chatto & Windus, [pounds sterling]14.99) THIS prize-winning Australian novelist has turned his luminous intelligence to that most poignant of all genres the short story. The settings are a wonderful range of landscapes, mainly Australian, from 'blacksoil country' to city streets pullulating with muggers, mangrove-muddled tropical hills and the unforgiving outback.

Malouf varies his characters and timescale to match. A boy whose dad is 'missing in action' sees mum having sex with her GI boyfriend, and a ghost standing beside the bed, watching. His dad? No - himself, in the wardrobe mirror. …