Reading Guide Questions
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.
- 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?
- 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?
- 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?
- 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?
- 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?
- 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?
- 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?
- 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"
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