The Dean's December revolves an architypal Bellow protagonist; a high-brow, an academic, whose philosphical preoccupations both blind him to the truth and form the observational perspective of the novel. Lambasted for a magazine article written on urban degradation and crime in his native Chicago, Albert Corde finds diversion but not solace in the old Soviet regime of Romania where he and his wife are attending to his dying mother-in-law. The book swings between grief and the austerity of communist Bucharest in the present, and the situation simmering back in Chicago, which finds the narrator having to justify a highly literary analysis of Chicago that attempts to 'recover the world that is buried under the debris of false decription or nonexperience'. A former journalist of repute who is accused of giving up his profession to accept a University tenure, he is also implicated in the trial and conviction of a young black criminal, in which his motives and values are put under scrutiny.
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. Especially since most of the female characters seem so remote, drawn up with cold artifice.
Bellow is more engaging when dealing with the subtle tensions and power play between men. Corde is a man of the mind and not confident physically. There are references to his awkward legs and the brutish presence of his nemesis, the University provost, whose body he compares to that of a linebacker. Corde rankles with indignation at the memory of his bawdy brother-in-law calling him the 'dud dean' and an accident when taking his nephew fishing in which he felt foolish and fragile. Fascinating too are the treachery and verbal sparring with his childhood friend Dewey Spangler and the argument with his nephew, now a student radical. It is the passages about Bucharest that dissapointed, with much devoted to the death of a woman who we have little knowledge of. And because the loss and grief are weighed up so analytically, it is hard to engage with it with real feeling. Nevertheless there is much to enjoy, especially for fans of Bellow.
This is an uneventful novel. The Dean of the title, a holder of an academic post in Chicago, visits Romania with his wife for the death and funeral of her mother. The Dean meanwhile reflects on recent events in Chicago - a couple of articles on the place he has written, pointing up its iniquities, which have caused a stir, his efforts to bring to justice the murderers of one of the students at his university - and some more distant recollections of his childhood.
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.
Although Dean's December cannot compete with Bellow's masterpiece, Herzog, it will be appreciated by his fans nonetheless. Bellow's work is simply mezmerizing in its descriptions, despite a the characters tendency to lose himself in philosphical thought. What the fan will learn from this book is that excessive flight into philosophy can blind the deep thinker from the truths of reality.