Albert Corde is a professor of journalism and dean of students at a Chicago university. He and his wife, Minna, travel to Bucharest, Romania, where Minna's mother has suffered a stroke and is lying semiconscious in the local state hospital. As Corde tries to adapt to life in his mother-in-law's small apartment and cope with her relations and friends, news filters through to him of problems he left behind in Chicago: one of his students has been murdered, and a series of articles he is writing offends powerful and influential Chicagoans he had thought of as friends. Gradually it becomes clear that Corde's trip abroad is more than a brief interlude in a calm and orderly life, and that nothing will ever be the same again. Witty and erudite, The Dean's December will be a delight to fans of Saul Bellow.
The Dean’s December tells the story of Albert Corde, a former journalist, now Dean at a University in Chicago, who travels with his wife to Bucharest to attend to his dying mother in law. The reality of life in Bucharest is not utopian. It is hard for Corde to come to terms with the fact that one man, the Colonel, can decide about simple matters, such as whether or not to obtain permission to visit the dying mother-in-law in hospital. The reality of Bucharest is inhumane and harsh. Corde concludes that this is a lesson he is taught, a lesson about the human condition. In Communist countries, it is the government that sets the pain level for you. In the United States, it is very different, muses Corde, because it is a pleasure society which likes to think of itself as a tenderness society. In conservative capitalism this harshness is smoothed over by explanations that whoever should die are those who are disadvantaged, (…) or come from a backward section of the country. (p. 275).
During his career as a journalist, Corde passionately wrote about the social injustice he observed in his hometown Chicago. His sympathy is particularly with that black underclass, (…) which is economically redundant (…) falling farther and farther behind the rest of society, locked into a culture of despair and crime.(p.206) They are a part of society that has been written off.
Corde’s message does not earn him any honours. Rather, his analytical powers are derided and he is slandered for a traitor, writing about such problems in his city.
Much of the philosophical theme of the book doesn’t emerge until the last quarter of the book, although the first part of the novel plays an important role to build up to that. What is most on Corde’s mind at the beginning of the novel is a court case about a murder trial involving two black students at his own university. Corde is convinced that the case is misrepresented, and that the black students do not get a fair trial. There is no room for the “reality” of the case. The idea that the death of the white student was not premeditated but the result of an unfortunate accident does not fit the view of the case, or, as Corde observes with ordinary consciousness you can’t even begin to know what’s happening”. (p. 266)
With nothing at hand, and meeting an old school friend in Bucharest, Corde has not much other to do than to contemplate this case, and his career as a journalist and academic, barely realizing and “incapable of grasping the full implications of world transformation”. Reality didn’t exist “out there”. It began to be real only when the soul found its underlying truth. In generalities, there was no coherence—none. The generality mind, the habit of mind that governed the world, had no force of coherence, it was dissociative. It divided because it was, itself, divided. Hence the schizophrenia, which was moral and aesthetic as well as analytical. (p. 266)
The Dean’s December is a novel with an uneasy message. It describes a situation in American society, which remains unresolved, and which, in the waning of the hegemony of the United States will present itself more on the foreground, as the American Dream makes way for the American condition. The Americans haven’t seen any real pain yet. The American character doesn’t even exist yet. It’s still kicking in the womb.
The Dean’s December seems to have a limited readership. It was published at the time of the ascent of neo-liberalism, and perhaps therefore ignored. However, the tremendous scope of the novel, and the prediction contained in it, about the formation of the American character and the undecided outcome of the American condition, a novel written by a Nobel Prize winner, must mean that there will be a future re-assessment of its value, at a time when Americans have to come to terms with every man’s inner inner city. (p. 207).
"The Dean's December" has described as kind of a dual commentary on the evils of both large-scale communism and big-time capitalism that was released at about the time that it started becoming clear, if only in hindsight, that the socialist dream was just about over. There's something to this, but this isn't just a political novel: Bellow seems concerned about how specifically modernist and/ or humanist conceptions of the soul, or of consciousness, might survive in a world split between a forceful but often brutal capitalism and a atrophied, clearly inhuman Soviet system. I also don't think, as some excessively political readings of this book might have it, that Bellow's account of the manners and networks that people used to preserve their basic dignity in communist-era Romania are arguments for socialism: these systems and rituals all contravene communism's core principles, if perhaps not explicitly, and exist in what little is left of the private sphere. But it's nonetheless saddening to watch the dean's wife's family, many of whom can remember a Romania before communism, try to make a life in what little space is allotted to them.
What's really significant here, I think, is how novel is a much darker, less optimistic work than "Herzog" or "Augie March" "The Dean's December is. It is, at base, a plea for the preservation of some idea of humanity in a world where this concept carries less and less weight. The articles the titular dean has written for Harper's, after all, aren't pieces of dry social science but pleas for readers to recognize the human cost of the choices that the United States has made. The souring of the liberal ideal of the nineteen sixties seems embodied by Mason, the dean's nephew, who, thanks to some misguided solidarity, has gotten himself involved in a murder case and is presented as disdainful and judgmental, a coddled white kid in perpetual revolt. Still, if "The Dean's December" is prescient about anything, this novel's prescient about the black, urban experience in the eighties: all the elements of community decay -- social abandonment, despair, and widespread drug use and unemployment -- are present, and Bellow seems to have written this before crack became a national phenomenon. "The Dean's December" is still very much a "Chicago novel," but the city described in forthrightly demonic, barbaric or even apocalyptic terms here. In Bellow's earlier work, the city's dirt and poverty at least seemed energetic. This novel, by contrast, seems worried and dour.
Of course, there are, as there seem to be in most of Bellow's books, relationships sometimes take center stage, even in a "novel of ideas." The book contains a beautiful portrait of a marriage between our humanist dean and his wife, a Romanian-born astrophysicist, which lets the author probe how these worldviews connect and don't connect. And we see the dean interact with a friend of his who "sold out" to become a popular, unchallenging newspaper columnist while the dean took the less visceral, and perhaps, in the end, less influential, academic route. Their memories common don't seem to have faded, and their friendship survives, somehow. But Bellow hardly seems optimistic about what's coming next.