Magazine article The Spectator

When I Am Old and Gay and Full of Sleep

Magazine article The Spectator

When I Am Old and Gay and Full of Sleep

Article excerpt


by Saul Bellow

Viking; L16.99, pp. 254

Old age, on the whole, is not a time to be recommended, but very old novelists are allowed to write about what they like and at the age of 85 Saul Bellow is interested in illnesses and their recent treatment and patients who are `blindly recovery-bent, who have the deep and special greed of the sick when they have decided not to die'. If they have things left to do, that will be a way of keeping themselves alive.

His Mid-Western narrator is Chick, Old Chick, an unassuming scribbler with Bellow's own familiar, puzzled, confiding, deeply beguiling voice, talking half to us, half to himself. He has undertaken to write a memoir of his younger friend, Professor Abe Ravelstein, a scholarly but grossly successful teacher and writer. Unlike Chick, Ravelstein is a human being on a giant scale. Even his hands tremble, `not with weakness but with a tremendous eager energy that shook him when it was discharged'. All his life he had wanted - in fact, needed - the best of everything: Vuitton luggage, Cuban cigars, solid gold Mont Blanc pens, Lalique wine-glasses. Naturally this had got him into financial trouble. Chick had suggested that he might try a book based on his lecture notes. Abe did so, and became tremendously rich. It is rather difficult to envisage this book, which is said to have sold millions in both hemispheres, but Ravelstein belongs, like Bellow's Henderson the Rain King, to a mythical world which seems to await discovery behind the real one, or is perhaps the more real of the two.

Bellow once wrote that

it's obvious to everyone that the stature of characters in modern novels is smaller than it once was and this diminution powerfully concerns those who value existence. I do not believe that the human capacity to feel or do can really have dwindled or that the quality of humanity has degenerated. I rather think that people appear smaller because society has become so immense.

One of his responses has been to create figures of legend. Abe is only truly himself in Paris, and in Paris at the Crillon and in the Crillon in the penthouse suite. He is bald, he spills his food on the floor, one of his feet is three sizes larger than the other. …

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