Of course, there's no telling what the reception of a Nobel Prize can actually do to how a prizewinner relates to his work or material. Does he simply keep up the good work and satisfy himself with more of the same? Or does he feel compelled to stretch out a little, tackle tougher terrain, become a world spokesman, a kind of Bob Geldof of the academic world? Or does he simply pull up the stakes altogether and move to, say, Parnassus? While critics have expressed mild dissatisfaction with the post facto work of one of those Nobel winners, Saul Bellow, mainly because what some believe to be an unecessary discursiveness has crept into his later novels, Bellow's previous work is often so tongue-in-cheek and humorously numinous that it is easy to dismiss the dismissers as perhaps having read "The Dean's December" too superficially. Bellow's first novel after the Nobel watermark, in many ways, then, seems to betray the author's early attempts to keep up with the reputation he has gained: Big subjects, high blown philosophy, windy passages. But what else would you expect from Bellow, a man who hails from Chicago, the Windy City?
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?