Thursday, June 9, 2011

Two Academic Novels: Ravelstein and Straight Man

This article was first published at The Compulsive Reader:

That there should be a proliferation of novels about the academy is not surprising, considering so many novelists today find themselves attached on one level or another, at some time or other, to the university for the money and leisure that will allow them to feed themselves and their families while they pursue their craft. There is a distinction to be made, however, between those novels in which the main character or characters happen to be academics and what may be more properly called academic novels.

In the former, a character's professorial position, while an essential element in defining his character, is no less essential an aspect of that character than would be played by any other profession--plumber for example. Such novels tend to pay little attention to the university community except to provide setting, a context of sorts. Those works more properly classified as academic novels, on the other hand, find in the university community and its customs and mores, its interpersonal; relations, their very reason for being. Saul Bellow's Ravelstein is an example of the former, Richard Russo's Straight Man, the latter.

Ravelstein, prestigious and influential professor of political philosophy, is the central figure of the eponymous novel. He is dying of AIDS, and has asked his friend Chick to write a biographical memoir. His relations with students and colleagues are detailed, but they are secondary to other things: his lavish spending on clothes; his love affair with France and things French; his thoughts about the after life, the nature of love, and the impact of anti-Semitism; his love of a good joke. That he is a professor is really no more or less significant than that he is gay, that he doesn't care for those who flaunt their homosexuality, and that though he lives with a young man, their relationship, he claims, is not sexual. The novel is the portrait of this man who happens to be an academic, as opposed to the portrait of an academic.

Bellow's book is concerned with human relationships among intellectuals, The academy is only significant insofar as it is a good place to find intellectuals to study, a kind of laboratory where the rats can realistically be put through their paces. It is really the friendship between Ravelstein and Chick that is the center of the book. They are in many respects quite different. Ravelstein is at best in the world of ideas, Chick is more at home with the anecdote, the telling incident. Ravelstein speaks his mind refusing to put up with hypocrisy and stupidity; Chick is willing to ignore problems for the sake of equanimity. Ravelstein is concerned with good clothes, good food, fine automobiles; things unimportant to Chick. Yet it seems that it is precisely because they are in so many ways opposite, that their friendship can flourish.

As Ravelstein, the philosopher, explains during a discussion of Plato's theory of Eros, love is in the union of contraries. One looks for one's opposite in order to create a whole, a unity. One might well be reading Percy Shelley on the search of the psyche for the epipsyche. Together, Chick and Ravelstein, form a whole, the one incomplete and unknowable without the other. As Chick says about Ravelstein's request that he write him up after he was gone in his "after-supper-reminiscence manner: " . . since I can't depict him without a certain amount of self-involvement my presence on the margins will have to be tolerated."

His presence, however fills more than mere margins. Everything of Ravelstein we see, we see through the filter of his point of view. If we admire Ravelstein, it is because he admires Ravelstein. If we forgive him his frailties, it is because Chick forgives him his frailties. One is reminded of the controversial intrusion of the author in Edmund Morris's recent biography of Ronald Reagan, Dutch. Yet how is it possible to disagree that in some very significant way the interpreter is a key to what is interpreted.

Bellow goes even further. It is not simply the importance of defining for the reader the point from which the subject is viewed that concerns him, It is the union of the two into the whole that is equally important. It is not insignificant that only once in the novel is Ravelstein's first name, Abe, mentioned, and never that I can remember is Chick's last name given. It is almost as if between the two a new character--a Chick Ravelstein--is created. The whole last section of the book, after Ravelstein's death, deals with Chick and his own near death experience leading to his eventual writing of the memoir. Ravelstein's story is Chick's story. Together Chick and Ravelstein--shades of the doppleganger--are the hero of the book.

The one thing that does not seem to be central to the book is the university, not so in Straight Man. Russo's sights are set squarely on the academic community. Set in West Central Pennsylvania University, Straight Man is a dead on satire, aimed at all the politics, pretensions, and perversities endemic to the lower echelons of higher education, and more than likely the higher echelons as well. Russo, having done time at five such institutions, knows whereof he speaks. Anyone even remotely connected with such an institution will recognize the familiar faces.

William Henry Devereaux, the novel's hero, is an unwilling chairman of a bitterly divided English Department--where is the English Department that is not divided. He has published a mildly successful novel, but has not quite managed another, and the school which had at one time seemed but a temporary stop on the way to a more prestigious career has become the end of the line. He makes up for his own perception of failure with jokes, wisecracks and a refusal to take anything seriously.

He is surrounded by a cast of characters--colleagues, administrators, students--straight from the campus of your own local university: the long haired male feminist who insincerely insists that a woman should be hired even at his own expense( nicknamed Orshee, because he adds "or she" whenever anyone says "he" the campus president (Dicky Pope, whose office is christened The Vatican) who has his head in budgets and public relations rather than education; the lesbian leader of the Women's Studies program, the alcoholic, the failed poet, the. . . and on and on--each one more familiar than the last.

Russo is a master at creating character with simple telling strokes Professor Finny, for example, one of the book's ineffectual antagonists:

Finny was dressed today as he was dressed every day after spring break, in a white linen suit and pink tie that showed off to great advantage his recently acquired Caribbean tan. Several years ago he’d let his white hair grow bushy, then hung a large color portrait of Mark Twain in his office, which he was fond of standing next to.

Pomposity and pretension personified that is Finny, and it is only fitting that the lone goose inhabiting the college duck pond is named by our hero after the white suited professor, and Devereaux is constantly required to distinguish for the reader when he is talking about Finny, the man, and when Finny, the goose.

The plot of the novel is farce without the doors: a nose out of joint after an attack by a spiral note book, failures to hold one's urine and one's breakfast, a threat to kill a duck a day, a host of concealments in an office, a ladies room, a crawl space above a meeting room--and these are only Devereaux' mishaps. The major plot thread concerns the university's lack of funding and budget projections and the impossibility of making adequate arrangements under such circumstances. The irony implicit in all of this is the failure of the university, the supposed seat of reason, to operate on any level with even a modicum of rationality. Irrational farce is the perfect genre for the insane asylum that is academia as painted by Russo.

In an interview on public radio, Russo spoke of Straight Man as a light novel. He explained that the story "The Whore's Child" which gives the name to his most recently published work was originally a part of Straight Man but was edited our because it was too dark and did not fit with the tone of the novel. Yet, if one may disagree ever so slightly with the author, there is an implicit darkness beneath the levity of the book. If after all this is a picture of some of our best and finest, is there not an indictment of someone, something, somewhere.

These are two quite different books, not only in the way they treat Academia, but in almost every other way as well. There is humor in Ravelstein, but it is of the subtle intellectual sort, not the banana peel slapstick of Straight Man. Though the university appears in both, the one gives us the great university, the other the pretender. One is concerned with the life of the mind, the other the social politics of an institution. The irony is that the book least centered on the intellectual institution is the book most directly concerned with the intellect and the mind.

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