ALBERT CORDE is a successful Chicago journalist turned academic administrator. Possessed of a "truth-passion" which makes him ill-fitted for either his first or second profession, he trusts the evidence of his eyes: or rather, in late middle age, his spectacles. "His dependency on these goggles made him recognize how much he was organized for observation and comprehension." At times he seems to observe too well, too clinically, as in this detached observation of his much-loved and grief-stricken wife: "In the sunlight her face was as white as meringue. A small hollow had formed just below her underlip. That was where the grief-control seemed concentrated." His wife, Minna, also observes through lenses. She is an astronomer of international reputation. Her projected visit to the Mount Palomar observatory has had to be postponed because she receives the news that her mother in Bucharest is dying. The Cordes have quit Chicago for the drabness and iron austerities of a communist regime.
The Dean spends his December cooped up in Minna's family home, trying to pull strings to overcome the reluctance of the authorities to let them visit the dying woman. Having played a part in setting up the regime, but fallen out of favor, she has been granted the privilege of a bed in a state hospital; but the bureaucrats are not disposed to go out of their way to be pleasant: particularly for a daughter who has defected to the West. Corde is numbed by the dehumanized, monotonous existence of the police state; and at the same time the news that reaches him from the variegated jungle of Chicago does not console him. A student had been murdered, and the Dean had directed that charges be pressed against two blacks. Radical students (including his own dropout nephew) have accused him of racialism. The controversy has not made him popular with the university hierarchy. A series of articles he has published, describing and reflecting on the horrors of his native city, has struck liberals as reactionary, conservatives as un- American and crazy. Both at home and abroad, he is being treated as a suspect character.
In a novel in which it is difficult to separate the hero's voice and vision from the author's, a juxtaposition of two almost equally unpleasant cultures is effected. Bucharest is partly redeemed by the graciousness and spirituality of the old-world relatives with whom Corde comes into contact--characters from Chekhov's world who have helped to transform a bad society into a worse. The old ladies stagger under the weight of their faded fur coats, in a way that suggests the dominion of spirit over flesh, as well as decrepitude and semi-starvation. By contrast, the wealthy natives of Chicago are powerfully packed in flesh and fat; they move with sleek, taken-for-granted power, lords of the jungle. Theirs is a harshly male world, whose pitiless jungle-laws separate the men from the blacks, so to speak. Its women, as they age, don't stagger under fur coats but "put the sex into sexagenarian," as Corde's vulgar secretary expresses it. This Miss (now Ms.) Porson has a "plump face, heavily made-up . . . whitish pink, as if washed in calamine lotion . . . She kept up her pants with heavy silver-and-turquoise belts." While Ms. Porson swings, the dispossessed hang out, taking drugs and sometimes committing monstrous crimes, the fat tycoons bully and cheat. The just man, Corde, is not muzzled as he would be in the East, but he is subject to attack and innuendo and is forced to resign his position.
Corde's mistake has been to discard the acceptable language of non-communication, the abstract discourses on urban problems, in favor of the real language of experience and emotion: what Corde calls "poetry." The liberal West, Corde believes, has set up such a barrage of communication that nothing is communicated anymore. It processes evil, injustice, despair, through a system which makes abstractions of them, defuses them. It is afraid of confronting the truth that Corde knows: "It was not so much the inner city slum that threatened us as the slum of innermost being, of which the inner city was perhaps a material representation." We will admit Karl Marx to our inner cities, but not Dostoevsky. We will go to any lengths to avoid having to say: An act of evil has been done. Thus, a pleasant liberal-minded lawyer, interviewed by Corde about a black murderer he is defending, cannot comprehend the Dean's horror at the crime, which has involved multiple rape of a woman and locking her in the trunk of a car for many hours at a time. Corde can feel, in the anguish of his imagination, the horror of being shut up in a trunk, whereas "anguish beyond the bounds of human tolerance was not a subject a nice man like Mr. Varennes was ready for on an ordinary day." Theology is disturbing; it is much more comfortable to talk in terms of "urban deprivation" and the like.
I find Saul Bellow's "theology" in this book both terrible and convincing. I am less convinced by the fiction which sustains it. The ideas seem to control the narrative, rather than being in equilibrium with it. Corde is a supremely decent individual, but the novel suffers from his total decency. As writers have found from the time of Homer, it's very difficult to make virtue interesting. We look through his spectacles, but in the end we are enclosed in his mind, and in the author's. The occasional, brief physical descriptions of him strike a foreign note, because he is never really seen from the outside. To describe him seems as odd as to look in one's owm mirror and describe one's own face. The supporting characters--even the bulky Americans-- are shadowy. The love between Corde and Minna is stated, not imaginatively realized. Their conversations are like prison-visits, a glass wall between them. No doubt this is intentional, up to a point; Minna has been carefully reserved from harsh reality by her mother, and her devotion to pure science estranges her from earth. But the couple clearly "get on," and have a passional life; even in her crisis of bereavement this ought to have been suggested, but isn't. Their last-page ascent to the top of the Mount Palomar telescope seems more romantic, in the escapist sense, than Hardy's use of a similar milieu in Two on a Tower.
The use of flashbacks, letters, and quoted articles, though made necessary by the Cordes in Bucharest for almost the whole book, creates for the reader a problem of detachment. Too much has to be absorbed at second hand, by way of secondary texts or Corde' memory. We, too, depend on "goggles." When we are allowed to see with the naked eye--for example, the old lady lying near death, and the terrifying crematorium--Bellow's gift for absorbing everything and then reflecting it back in sharp-edged images is powerfully effective. "December brown set in at about three in the afternoon. By four it had climbed down the stucco of old walls, the gray of Communist residential blocks: brown darkness took over the pavements, and then came back again from the pavements more thickly and isolated the street lamps. These were feeble yellow in the impure melancholy winter effluence. Air-sadness, Corde called this. In the final stage of dusk, a brown sediment seemed to encircle the lamps. Then there was a death moment. Night began." There are many such inspired passages, but the novel as a whole is Parnassian: even if Bellow's Parnassian slopes are higher than the peaks aimed for by most novelists.