Ron Rosenbaum has a fascinating essay up at Slate on Saul Bellow’s Ravelstein—his last novel, a roman à clef centering on Bellow’s friendship with Allan Bloom at the University of Chicago, where they taught together. Rosenbaum admits to being a Bellow skeptic (something Sam Tanenhaus decidedly is not) but a lover of this particular novel, and speculates about the source of Ravelstein‘s great power. He suggests that it resides in an episode of food poisoning that nearly took Bellow’s life (and which appears in the novel). “The cigua toxin didn’t kill [Bellow],” Rosenbaum writes, “it made him, or made his work stronger, more vibrant and luminous, shimmering like Ravelstein’s golden sport coat or like the Caribbean waters that harbored the toxic seafood.”
It’s hard to imagine Bellow failing to find this implicit comparison to Adrian Leverkühn—the subject of Thomas Mann’s novel Doctor Faustus, a brilliant and radical composer spurred to incalculable heights of genius by syphilis—absolutely delightful. Rosenbaum continues in this Mannean vein:
It certainly seems to me that a number of American novelists could benefit from a cruise to the Western Caribbean of the sort Bellow took, and as many sumptuous seafood meals (red snapper and barracuda especially recommended) as necessary to raise the level of their art through a slightly less-than-lethal dose of cigua.
The whole essay is worth reading.