The Dean's December
Ernst Gombrich in Art and Illusion talks about those pictures which appear to be one thing until you perceive a different pattern, whereupon the rabbit turns into a goat, the can-can girl into a hag in a bonnet. Once you’ve seen both, you can then have either perception, but not the two at once. Saul Bellow’s new novel is like this, a novel about Albert Corde, an American spending December in Rumania, or a novel about conditions of American society presented through the meditations and conversations of the same character, removed from the scene, in a situation that affords certain opportunities for comparison and reflection. Either novel disappears when the other is focused on. The pattern of the social novel is the more insistent and interesting, but the Corde novel rivalrously endangers it.
The Corde novel suffers from the author’s satisfaction with his creation, Corde, a former journalist, now a college dean in Chicago. Dashiell Hammett once wrote of a book he was reviewing that its hero “thought he was a giant. His wife thought he was a giant. That is all very well. But when [the author] agreed with them, he spoiled his book.” Bellow’s approval of Corde is so immense, and he takes so little trouble to convince us of his view, that the reader feels excluded; it’s like embarking on a long train journey alone with two people who have just fallen in love with each other.
Moreover, it’s not easy to see what Bellow and the other characters see in this love object. Corde is just a plain person—smart, but very plain and calm. He visits his dying mother-in-law in a Bucharest hospital: why should her vital signs galvanize when she is advised by this son-in-law, whom she hardly knows, that she is loved by him? Or why should he be the talk of Chicago? Why do the Rumanian cousins worry about his diet, and the curious contrive to meet him? A Nobel Prize winner they might, maybe; a dean, no. Yet Corde feels himself constantly the object of attention, like a wonderful object under glass, which confuses the reader’s perception that this novel is not about him; he is only the interpretative consciousness in a novel about much larger matters.
The reader will have other complaints. Most of the characters are not especially interesting; they have the faded, anonymous aspect of old photos of someone else’s ancestors. The Rumanians are as understandably subdued and grim as their Rumanian situation compels, and the potentially more colorful Chicagoans lose color from being rendered discontinuously from Middle Europe in Corde’s meditations as he passes the time. Partly the collective pallor is owing to the fact that the minor characters have very few lines, and none of the fantastical exuberance of, say, Henderson’s African king, and none of the dignified learning of the elderly Jewish gentlemen Bellow does so marvelously.…
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