February 01, 1982 12:00 PM

by Saul Bellow

Bellow’s first novel since he won the Nobel Prize in 1976 details a crisis in the life of a Chicago college dean who goes with his wife to Romania, where her mother is dying. The dean is afflicted with what he calls “the modern consciousness, that equivocal queer condition, working with a net of foolish assumptions, and so much absurd unwanted stuff laying on your heart.” While the dean waits in wintry Bucharest, he becomes a figure of controversy at home in Illinois. He has been too outspoken about the ills in U.S. society, gotten involved in a murder with racial overtones, and is badly misquoted in an interview. He faces professional ruin. Bellow delves intelligently into his solemn subject matter and provides a marvelous portrait of a surreal Soviet-bloc city, but this process may frustrate some readers. Bellow seems more interested in developing ideas than characters, who are rarely seen in action. Instead, the dean ruminates—on the past, on the present, on conversations with his wife and others. The result is a static, distanced narrative that keeps the reader from real involvement. (Harper & Row, $13.95)

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