- Paperback: 320 pages
- Publisher: Penguin Classics (31 Jan. 2008)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0141188863
- ISBN-13: 978-0141188867
- Product Dimensions: 12.9 x 1.8 x 19.8 cm
- Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
- Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 527,583 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
The Dean's December (Penguin Modern Classics) Paperback – 31 Jan 2008
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From the Back Cover
THE DEAN'S DECEMBER
by Saul Bellow, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, 1976
The Vesuvian eloquence of Saul Bellow is one of the glories of modern literature.
-Jonathan Raban Sunday Times
A novel that will raise its readers to fever pitch of the kind of passionate excitement and involvement that only real art can inspire.
-Salman Rushdie New Statesman
A wittily meditative book, an intensely serious enterprise from a writer we can see we are right to acknowledge as of world class.
-Malcolm Bradbury Books and Bookmen
A brilliant piece of work...different in many ways from much of his earlier work, it is one of his best.
-David Holloway Sunday Telegraph
There is in The Dean's December enough thought and matter for ten other contemporary novels.
-Melvyn Bragg Punch
A serious, sane, thought-provoking novel of a kind rare these days, a worthy addition to the canon of a writer of genius.
-Paul Bailey Standard
In Saul Bellow the American novelist has come of age.
-Geoffrey Moore Financial Times
An overall mastery of form...and at times a sublime intensity.
-Lewis Jones Spectator
Bellow has at last created a plausible and likeable woman and has done so with wonderful economy.
-Gabriel Josipovici Times Literary Supplement
The shape of Saul Bellow's new novel is satisfyingly simple.
-Ian McEwan Observer
Near the end of Saul Bellow's admirable new novel, the dean is accused of "abyssifying and catastrophising".
-Thomas Hinde Sunday Telegraph
By any standards, a marvellous novel, rich, provocative, illuminating...buy it and read it: more than once.
-Alan Massie Scotsman
--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
About the Author
Saul Bellow’s dazzling career has been marked with numerous literary prizes, including the 1976 Nobel Prize, and the Gold Medal for the Novel. His work includes Herzog, More Die of Heartbreak, Mosby's Memoirs and Other Stories, Mr Sammler's Planet, Seize The Day and the essay To Jerusalem and Back. He died in 2005.
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Top Customer Reviews
Bellow is a master of style, whether it is evoking the bleak tenements and cast-iron bureaucracy or Bucharest or the rotting slums of Chicago. However, The Dean's December typifies many of the author's often-criticised characteristics. Albert Corde is less of a tangible human being than a manifestation of the author's philosophical preoccupations. A kind of giant question mark mired in extensive self-evaluation. Arguably this is Bellow's intention: a man capable of enormous philosophical objectivity but at the same time unable to control events happening around him. But Corde is a hard man to empathise with; coldly analytical, an unsympathetic portrayal. Because we are so closely bound to his perspective, it is hard to feel moved by the death of Valeria, his mother-in-law, in the principal story.Read more ›
The book is strong on the iniquities of Romania, experienced first hand by the Dean and his wife, and also gives large excepts from the Chicago experience of the Dean that has fuelled his articles and that form the background to the murder. Mankind does not come out well from these reflections.
I found the book held me throughout. The philosophical issues the book tackles about the meaning of life are addressed very directly - not, as in his previous novel Humbolt's Gift, at one remove through reflection on theosophy (or in the one before that, Mr Sammler's planet, through reflection on HG Wells and on Meister Eckhardt). And once you are hooked on Bellow's prose, it is hard ever to feel you have had enough of it.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Known for bringing artistic beauty, dimensionality, and a golden aura of wisdom to his tough Chicago turf, Bellow here took the gloves off. His University of Chicago Dean hero struggles with injustice and cynicism at its rawest, when he becomes engaged with the cavalier Chicago criminal justice system and its disgustingly casual response to the murder of a student. Counterpoint is meaningfully provided by the death of an old relative behind the iron curtain, whom the Dean visits. As in Lear, the subplot is no relief at all, merely stokes the flames of the main plot and brings Bellow's fury with the modern world to a white heat. Thus we are denied mere sociological or political excuses for our modern mayhem; the focus is what has gone wrong with our hearts the world over. Never has Bellow been more engaged or convincing. Indeed Bellow sacrifices something of his usual high gloss artistic finish to this product in the process, perhaps intentionally and savagely.
Yeah, he wants to stick it in your face and it shows. This is doubtless what offends some readers. Nevertheless it is a worthy response to having just received the Nobel Prize. Most writers, American and otherwise, react by self-inflating to sanctimoniously gracious gas bags. Saul knew who he was, however, and never let anyone fool him on that score.
I cannot recommend the real life portraiture and painting that shines through this text highly enough. It is entirely genuine, real, perfect, matchlessly true. I frankly know of no better Chicago novel.
To be fair, however, I must warn you that the 2 respected readers I know, who read this one cover to cover, were almost viscerally angry afterwards for having done so. Ultimately the experience only underscored to me the difficulties of succeeding in fiction, of making it that real.
It's bleak and apocalyptic in the Romania where Albert Corde, a prominent Chicago university dean begins his story. The depths of an East European winter made even colder by the moribund Communist dictatorship whose presence is felt everywhere seems nearly as leaden as the sallow plum brandy he sips as if it were contraband in the decaying parlor of his wife's ailing mother, Valeria. As the old woman, once a favored Communist official, now a sweetheart of an aging underground of pale faces and flowery dresses, slips into the slow throes of an early death, Corde is emotionally consumed, not with the potent world into which he has been pulled, but with another one: Chicago, a city he seriously believes is in uproar over two scathing rants against its crime-ridden ghettoes he'd recently published in Harper's.
But, Bellow cunningly implies, such is the world of the American acadamy. A few cross words, perhaps bent towards the embarrassment of a number of pig-eyed public figures, and the next thing you know, you're a disgrace, a schmuck, a putz, the last guy anybody'd ever want to invite over for cocktails ever again. Not surprisingly, this queasy underbelly of the dissociative hyper-reality of America's upper classes is part of the price of our American comfort. It's a price of not really wanting to look, or of not quite knowing how, the cost of having willfully pulled away in both disgust and inadequacy from the often invisible reality of the downtrodden, tucked out of sight as they are in every major American city. Of course, the Romanian government has several quite neat solutions to the problems of public insolence. While Valeria's position as a political pentitent isn't beyond Corde's understanding, however, he seems beyond all that just the same.
The bottom line? Corde's protected public role as the Dean of the School of Journalism has done nothing to protect him. He's worried about his job. He sticks out like a burn victim in the faculty lounge. He's worried about who he is, who he might become. Worried most of all about what the papers are saying, especially in light of the fact he's also managed to have gotten both himself and the university ensnared in a legal fracas involving a pimp, a whore, a murdered college student and his quasi-Marxist nephew, Mason--a typically Bellowish twist as the sublime and the vulgar mingle and become the ludicrous.
Struggle as he might to find a way to meet the world in terms that actually make sense, Corde seems to know he's going to fail, and perhaps even become the embodiment of how out-of-touch public debate is from realities that are pressing in from every side. For him, poverty in a tenement, with its screaming, its dinge, its stench, its hopelessness and frustration are nothing but abstractions. While he might be in a position with enough influence to bring the bad news to the surface, still he's barely aware that the situation is as alien to his ways and means as it is astronomical.
Saul Bellow is famous for railing at Chicago. He's been grilled for it. And doubtless he has first-hand knowledge of how it feels to shake the dust out of the rug when company is in the room. Furthermore, as a literary icon, Bellow more than likely has an intimate understanding of how askew the academic and mundane worlds in America are from one another. Perhaps Bellow just can't help it. He's writing what he knows. And so what if a close examination of our vaunted intellectuals proves they're clowns?
In case you are new to Bellow, his novels reflect his life, his writings, and his five marriages during his five active decades of writing. He hit his peak as a writer around the time of "Augie March" in 1953 and continued through to the Pulitzer novel "Humbolt's Gift" in 1973. He wrote from the early 1940s through to 2000. His novels are written in a narrative form, and the main character is a Jewish male, usually a writer but not always, and he is living in either in New York or Chicago. Bellow wrote approximately 13 novels and other works. The present novel - we can assume - reflects his own personal experiences of travelling to Romania in 1978, to attend the funeral of his mother-in-law, a former minister of health - similar to the story details of the book.
Bellow's style progressed a long way as a writer over the five decades. The early novels "Dangling Man" and "The Victim" were written 25 years before his peak. Those were heavy slow reads. "Dangling Man" is often boring, and Bellow was in search of his writing style in that period of the 1940s. Some compare his style in "Dangling Man" with Dostoevsky's "Notes from the Underground." Having read both I would say that "Notes" is brilliant while "Dangling Man" is at best average and sometimes a bit boring. The book is well written and compact and many like that first book, but it was never a big seller.
His style changes with time, and the novels became more colorful such as "Augie March" or "Henderson the Rain King," or in fact brilliant as in "Herzog" or expansive and entertaing such as in "Humbolt's Gift." In "Humbolt's Gift" the narrator Charlie Citrine, again a writer, tells us a bit about his philosophy of writing and the need to entertain. Some of these novels have a warmth and charm, and have a certain tongue in cheek approach in describing the trials and tribulations of the narrator. The humour is mixed in with the meaning of life and the future of our souls. Along the way there are a few diversions such as "Mr. Sammler's Planet" where we see a much more serious individual but again there is a bit of humour with the character Sammler.
That bring us to the present book, written by an older Bellow, one perhaps a step past his prime. But that did not stop Bellow nor does it detract in any way from the book. In fact, as we see in "Ravelstein" a few decades later, Bellow does not lose his touch, but the novels continue to change and evolve. The present book is serious, almost completely lacking in humour, and there are no side stories about former wives, or criminals, etc.
Without giving away the plot - such as it is and it is weak like most Bellow novels - the book has two parallel stories but perhaps just one complicated theme. The parallel stories involve the visit by the narrator, Dean Albert Corde, and his wife Minna to Bucharest to visit Minna's dying mother in an ICU in a Soviet style hospital. Corde is the Dean of Journalism at a fictional Chicago university. That sets a rather grim and humourless cold war era tone. In Bucharest he meets up with an old friend, and now a famous journalist, Dewey Splanger. Unknown to Corde, Dewey is preparing a piece to be published on Corde and on their upbringings in Chicago four decades earlier. The second of the two parallel stories is the life of Corde as a Dean and the subject of his writings and life in general in urban Chicago. These events all seem to come together and converge in Bucharest in a wintry December. The general theme is the way Corde views of urban Chicago; the theme reflects his writings on urban affairs, and the impact of the university on society.
The book is a bit slow to start, average in length about 300 pages long, but once underway is a complelling but not a brisk read. It does not have those Bellow touches that we see in some other novels. But still, it is Bellow, and as in other novels he makes literary tangent after tangent off of the main subject describing every character in great detail, and sometimes time shifting back many decades. He paints a stark contrast bewteen the grey communist Bucharest and the colorful and the complex Chicago, run by the political machine.
In a later book, "Ravelstein," Bellow uses Allan Bloom as a character and I thought that there were touches of Bloom in the Corde character, especially in setting the theme and how Corde viewed Chicago: "Bloom was a professor of social thought and a noted translator of Plato and Rousseau." Bloom became famous and wealthy following his book "The Closing of the American Mind", about American values and the role of Higher Education. Bellow and Bloom taught together and Bellow wrote the forward for Bloom's most famous book.
From a biographical description of Bloom I have copied this note: "Bloom blamed high technology, the sexual revolution, and the introduction of cultural diversity into the curriculum at the expense of the classics, which in turn produced students without wisdom or values. According to Bloom, American democracy has unwittingly played host to vulgarized continental ideas of nihilism and despair, and of relativism disguised as tolerance."
Some of those themes are present in the current novel, as Bellow describes the disillusionment of Corde with the crime and poverty of urban Chicago and the role in society of his own Chicago university.
This novel was a lot better than I had expected, but it lacks the warmth and charm of some of his other works.
Recommend. 5 stars.