Some enemies of Saul Bellow and friends of Allan Bloom have tried to cast doubt on the idea that Allan Bloom died of AIDS, a fact that Bellow spread in his roman à clef about Bloom, Ravelstein.
The latest of these is a bitingly critical article on Bellow by Joseph Epstein in The New Criterion.
The relevant passage:
But with his final novel, Ravelstein, the acetylene torch truly seared the back of his pants. “I’ve never written anything like Ravelstein before,” Bellow wrote to Martin Amis, “and the mixture of fact and fiction has gotten out of hand.” In the less than clear sentences that follow, he writes that “Allan [Bloom, the University of Chicago teacher who is the undisguised model for the character Ravelstein] had enemies who were preparing to reveal that he had died of AIDS. At this point I lost my head . . .” Professor Taylor ought to have stepped in here with a lengthy footnote to recount, and if possible clarify, the import of what Bellow is saying, but, with his hands-off editorial policy, he doesn’t.
What was at issue is the exact cause of Allan Bloom’s death, which, so far as I know, has yet to be made finally clear. In Ravelstein, Bellow kills him off with aids. Bloom’s friends all insist that the effects of the disorder of the nerves called Guillain-Barré led to Bloom’s death by heart and liver failure. Werner Dannhauser, Allan Bloom’s closest friend, asked Bellow to lessen the emphasis on Bloom/Ravelstein’s private life, which would, one gathers, have meant playing down his homosexuality and expunging his death by AIDS. Bellow writes to Dannhauser that he tried to do so, but it didn’t work. By “it didn’t work,” one assumes Bellow meant that his plot required that Allan Bloom die of AIDS.
Bellow did, apparently, tone things down but not decisively. Then, later, after the book was out in the world, he told a reporter from The New York Times: “For a long time I thought I knew what Allan died of, and then I discovered other things that didn’t jibe with that, so I really can’t say now. I don’t know that he died of AIDS really.” So there it stands, a mess, created by a man willing to sabotage a putatively dear friend to contrive what he thought an appropriate ending for a novel.
This is a serious charge against Bellow. While I strongly believe in respecting individuals’ privacy while they are alive, when dead, they belong to history. And Both Bloom and Bellow are dead.
So I’ll do my best to help clarify the facts, for history’s sake.
While I can’t say for sure whether Bloom had or died of AIDS, I can say with good reason that he was, at one point, taking AZT in the hospital.
In Ravelstein, Bellow recounts an incident where a nurse let the cat out of the bag, in front of visiting friends, that Bloom was taking AZT. The book portrays Bloom as very angry with the nurse for disclosing he was on that medication in front of people.
Dannhauser, in turn, confirmed the incident did occur during the big “critical discussion” of Ravelstein that was broadcast on CSPAN. See the 19:45 mark on this video.
Dannhauser said this in the context of trying to criticize Bellow for violating Bloom’s confidences (he stressed how upset Bloom was at that nurse), but probably unwittingly gave more info to confirm Bellow’s thesis than he desired.
It is possible that one could be given AZT without being HIV positive; but I think it makes Bellow’s thesis more credible.