Albert Corde is a dean in a Chicago college and a once promising journalist. The Dean’s December narrates one month in his life, while he is in Bucharest with his wife Minna, visiting her sick mother Valeria Raresh, who is dying in hospital.

During this cold December, Corde is mostly idle, since the colonel in charge of the hospital security has severely restricted the dean and his wife’s visits to her mother. Though Corde can’t speak Rumanian, he is sometimes asked to meet family relations who speak either English or French, but mostly, he spends his days in his wife’s old room, reminiscing…

In this atmosphere of poverty, restrictions, suspicion and grief, Corde is recalled of the problems he left behind in Chicago: his writing of articles denouncing the squalor, corruption and insecurity of his city and his role in bringing to justice two young blacks involved in the killing of a white student from his college. As his "friend" Dewey Spangler, whom he meets twice in Bucharest, makes him notice, the articles represent the unmaking of Corde as a journalist. Starting his career in Paris, Corde interviewed personalities such as Stalin, Churchill or Truman, but later came back to Chicago, took an academic position, and started writing again only to infuriate or puzzle many readers. Accused either of racism or of being a moralizer, Corde now has a grim professional perspective both as a dean and as a journalist. Beside, he has to make up his mind if he will involve himself in a new cause : the problem of lead poisoning and its dreadful consequences for the human being, as explained to him by Sam Beech, a serious scientist…

This "tale of two cities" puts in balance the problems of two modern societies, equally doomed: the obviously inadequate communist hell, and, the less obviously corrupted and inadequate Western democracy… Deeply introspective, the novel takes us into the dean’s inner thoughts, his perceptions of himself, the people around him, and the world he lives in. For instance his view of the cities is that they "were moods, emotional states, for the most part collective distortions, where human beings thrived and suffered, where they invested their souls in pains and pleasures, taking these pleasures and pains as proofs of reality" (p.285). Thus, according to him we live in the caves of Plato, seeing of the reality only distorted shadows. A beginning of solution seems to be found in the last pages, when Corde, on Mount Palomar observatory, realizes that the does not see the "real heavens". In order to see, one had "to feel", to establish a kind of communion between oneself and the universe…

In The Dean’s December, moments of literary greatness cohabit with duller parts. I had never read Saul Bellow before, and I realize that this novel might not be the best place to start…

Rating: 3/5