Reading guide for Ravelstein by Saul Bellow

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By Saul Bellow

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  • Hardcover: Apr 2000,
    224 pages.
    Paperback: May 2001,
    224 pages.

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Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!

Abe Ravelstein is a capacious, vibrant, larger-than-life character; a teacher who insists that the ideas of Plato, Aristotle, and Nietzsche are vitally important to his students' lives; a philosopher who is committed to saving human dignity from encroaching "boobism"; and at the same time a man who luxuriates in all the sensual pleasures life has to offer, from Armani suits to the finest French hotels. When his friend Chick suggests he turn one of his popular courses into a book, no one would have foreseen that it would become an international bestseller and vault its author into a worldwide, and often controversial, spotlight. As Chick notes, "It's no small matter to become rich and famous by saying exactly what you think - to say it in your own words, without compromise." The wealth such success brings allows Ravelstein to indulge his extravagant tastes, but as his health begins to fail and he senses death from AIDS approaching, he turns to Chick and requests that he write a memoir of his life.

Six years pass before Chick is able to begin a book that turns out to be not a memoir but a novel and not simply Ravelstein's life story but a complex and interconnected portrait of their friendship, the profound impact it has had on him, and Chick's confrontation with his own mortality. Approaching his subject in a "piecemeal" way - through anecdotes, flashbacks, poignant vignettes, reported conversations - Chick attempts not to provide an account of Ravelstein's ideas but of his personal life, to make himself "responsible for the person..." What emerges is the story of a remarkable friendship, both intellectually challenging and emotionally intense, between two men who share their deepest secrets and who discuss everything from Vaudeville routines, Chick's wives, and French cuisine to Ravelstein's Socratic view of love, and the Holocaust and its legacy for the twentieth century. In the process, we see Ravelstein eating, drinking, and holding forth, playing matchmaker with his students, visiting heads of states, poking holes in Chick's political naiveté, and generally reveling in both the life of the mind and of the body.

Discussion Questions
  1. In the absence of a conventional plot, how does Ravelstein manage to create the necessary narrative tension to pull the reader along? In what ways is the book suspenseful? What surprises occur in the novel? How do these unexpected revelations create the expectation of further surprises?

  2. Ravelstein tells Chick, "You must not be swallowed up by the history of your own time" and quotes Schiller's injunction to "Live with your century but do not be its creature" (p. 82). In what ways is Ravelstein himself not a creature of his own time? How do his ideas, beliefs, and behaviors set him apart from the dominant ethos of his own era? In what historical period might Ravelstein have been more comfortable?

  3. In considering his relationship with Ravelstein, Chick writes that "there are no acceptable modern terms for the discussion of friendship or other higher forms of interdependence" (p. 94). In what ways is this novel an attempt to find a language to talk about friendship? Why have Ravelstein and Chick developed such an intimate, intellectually challenging, and affectionate attachment to each other? What do they most value and admire in one another?

  4. When Ravelstein asks Chick to write his memoir, he tells him to "do it in your after-supper-reminiscence manner, when you've had a few glasses of wine and you're laid back and making remarks" (p. 129). Does the novel have this quality of relaxed reminiscence? How does Chick's own involvement in the narrative complicate its telling?

  5. What kind of teacher is Ravelstein? What does he demand of his students? What does he offer them? Why does he insist that they "must rid themselves of the opinions of their parents" (p. 26)? Why do his students remain so devoted long after they've ceased taking his classes?

  6. Ravelstein combines a huge intellectual appetite for such thinkers as Socrates, Aristotle, Machiavelli, and Nietzsche with a taste for the finest clothes, cars, food, and other luxuries and a fondness for Michael Jordan and Mel Brooks. Are these interests contradictory? What do they suggest about the kind of man Ravelstein is?

  7. Death hovers over the entire narrative of Ravelstein - the individual deaths of Ravelstein and many of Chick's other friends, and the collective deaths of the millions of Jews murdered in the Holocaust. Indeed, Chick and Ravelstein come back to Hitler and Stalin in their conversations again and again. In what ways does Chick's own brush with death free him to write his book about Ravelstein? Why do you think death is such a powerful presence throughout the book? In what ways does Chick remain connected to Ravelstein even after he dies?

  8. Ravelstein is deeply affected by Plato's idea that human beings are driven by the longing to regain a lost wholeness and seek, through romantic love, a partner to complete them. How does this idea affect Ravelstein's own life and judgments? How does it color his view of Chick and his marriage to Vela? In what ways is this conception of Eros out of tune with current thinking about "healthy relationships"

For more information about other Penguin Readers Guides, please call the Penguin Marketing Department at (800) 778-6425, email at or write to us at: Penguin Books, Marketing Department, Readers' Guides, 375 Hudson Street, New York, NY 10014-3657.

Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Penguin. Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.

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