Chicago — It has been six years since Saul Bellow won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Now 1982 has dawned bright and cold with the latest Bellow offering, ''The Dean's December.'' It is a novel, which, by his own estimation, cuts new Bellovian ground.
''I was thinking about hitting hard, as hard as I was able,'' he says over a shiny stack of the new release piled high on his desk. It is an undistinguished desk, tucked away in an even more undistinguished corner of the quite distinguished University of Chicago, a bastion of sandstone academia tucked away in Chicago's tough Hyde Park area. In this southern most, wind-driven tip of the city, clinging to the shores of Lake Michigan, the university feels like an outpost.
It is an unadorned place that seems to suit the temper of this man who, in his Nobel address six winters ago, called for a return to the ''simple and true.'' Mere trappings, however rich and coveted, have never outweighed the substance of art for this writer, who has collected a more than impressive array of literary awards, and who of late has been seen in no small number of magazines and newspapers.
For one thing he hardly appears physically capable of supporting a preponderance of medals of merit. A mere slip of a man garnished with the wispiest of white hair, Mr. Bellow seems a slight figure on the horizon of mankind. But study his words, and follow the intensity of his hooded eyes, and one soon realizes the force of his intelligence and fierce moral conviction. He wears his outer self almost as a disguise.
Here in Chicago, he has striven to pull the covers of ordinariness tight about him. He returned to this city, his childhood stomping ground, after fleeing New York in the early 1960s, when the literary community there became too ''politicized.'' Since then he has served on the university's prestigious Committee on Social Thought, which requires him to teach, and inhabit this office, two days a week. He doesn't seem to mind. ''Who am I going to discuss literature with -- the lawyers on La Salle Street? Stockbrokers, bankers?'' he asks somewhat tartly. ''I discuss literature -- if I want to discuss literature -- with my students and colleagues.''
Fortunately for the rest of mankind, Bellow does more than talk about literature, he creates it. In his more than 40 years of writing he has left a wake of nine novels, many of which were National Book Award winners, all of which are well known. Titles include ''The Dangling Man,'' ''Henderson, the Rain King,'' ''Herzog,'' and ''Humboldt's Gift.'' An out-of-print play and one recent nonfiction work complete his slim, but potent, lifework to date.
For Bellow, like so many other writers, sees literature as a means of exploring society around him -- poking at its mores, challenging taboos, exploding myths. Like their creator, his heroes (or antiheroes, if you prefer) are always at odds, and most often out of sync, with the rest of their world. As another writer put it, these male heroes, and they are always male, inhabit a world of ''cranks, con-men and fast-talking salesmen of reality.'' Against such a backdrop, the Bellovian hero gropes for his own spiritual and moral rightness. The ever-present risk of his search is the fallout of alienation, homelessness, hatred. But the rewards inevitably lead to increased self-knowledge and the rejection of too-easy optimism and even easier despair.
Bellow's latest hero, Albert Corde, follows on the heels of his predecessors. Just as those before him were seekers and observers out of the mainstream, so Bellow has spun Corde out from the main fabric. As that single thread held in suspension, Corde finds his equilibrium in his ''minute awareness'' of all that surrounds him. As a lone antenna, he has gone out to take ''a fresh reading of the big disorders.'' This is indeed Bellow himself -- the master writer calling upon the American public to scrutinize its surroundings anew.
Bellow is not exempt from this demand. ''If you're writing a novel as you should, then your own convictions ought to suffer a major attack, or at least be upset.'' What Bellow is pointing his slender finger at is the paralysis of Americans' national feelings. We are ''losing the capacity to experience,'' he says. ''If this book has any point to make about the way life is in the United States at present, it is that there's a terrible disorientation which is so extensive that is has even cut off people from their own experience of life.'' As Corde puts it: ''What I mainly see is the evasion.''
It is this evasion that most concerns Bellow. It is the individual's turning away from what are collective concerns. No longer satisfied with self-absorbing individuality, dysfunctioning adolescence, repetitive sexual adventuring, Bellow presses for new ground. What remains is the community, the American city, and it is in reprehensible shape. According to Bellow, it is time for Americans to turn their imagination toward their demoralized cities.
The deterioration of urban landscapes, the decline of the national underclass , this is what moves Bellow now. Can he put his finger on it? The hero is reluctant. ''Writing a book like that is an ordeal, because you're seized by invisible powers which won't let up. They wring your soul. And at the end you don't know exactly what it is that you've done. All you know is that you felt a kind of passion and that you wrote a book under the influence.'' The Nobel winner leans back in his chair. The hiking boots rise off the floor. The steam heat hisses from the walls. One feels the magic slightly.
On a more concrete plane, the author has created a novel of two worlds - two cities, Chicago and Bucharest. The protagonist, Corde, is stretched between the two. In fact, the book began as a nonfiction account of life in Chicago. Even in novel form, the book retains much that is based on Bellow's personal experience. Bellow, like Corde, is a man of letters; his wife is a mathematician, Corde's is a astronomer. Both men have traveled to Eastern Europe to attend to their respective mothers-in-law. If the book is Bellow on Chicago, it is also Bellow on himself. He has said the novel is a ''composite.''
Or more to the point, ''it's a confrontation between two worlds,'' he patiently explains. ''In one, people have to be human without freedom (Bucharest) and the other (Chicago) they succeed in not being human with it, despite their freedom.'' Or to put it another way, ''In one case it's a suppression of humanity, and the other case it's sort of the danger of abandoning it.'' In either case individuals suffer. But more important, individuals are responsible.
In the book, the reader comes face to face with city hospitals, county jails, murderers, drug addicts; much of the urban underbelly is thrust into painful view. It seems to us only slightly less horrible than the grim repression we witness in Bucharest. But this is as Bellow states: ''(Americans) reject the horrible. . . . Capitalistic democracies could never be at home with the catastrophe outlook. . . . Our outlook requires that each of us is naturally decent and wills the good.'' Just as Joseph Conrad, a writer Bellow admires, plunged into the heart of darkness, so Bellow admonishes us to turn and confront , feel what we have wrought upon one another. It is a plea that is far from simplistic, and it is made without self-consciousness.
For whatever the reasons that we have lost our moral imagination, and Bellow says the reasons are many, the result must be a personal struggle to recover it. Such is the one Corde undertakes. A man who ''couldn't stand it anymore,'' he struggles to articulate a new vision to replace our so-called ''modern consciousness.'' The author elaborates: ''We have approached these (social) problems on two levels: legislative and financial, and also on a professional basis. In both these phenomena, there's a failure of imagination.'' Thus the lines of battle are drawn.
Freeing our literary imaginations from, among other things, the ''grip of the media,'' and limbering up our atrophied moral imagination are the demands of the hour. In both his book and in person, Bellow lambastes those who traffic in the communication business but fail to communicate, to stir others' sensibilities. ''Exposition is never the same as passionate dramatization or representation,'' he complains.
If anyone is in a position to criticize writers for their shortcomings of passion, it must be Bellow himself. He is highly regarded for his ability to mix the colloquial with the intellectual, the street language with the high-flown. He is a master at observing and preserving the energetic details while keeping his eye fixed on the grand plan. Men that were ''nutria-bearded,'' whose ''sharp teeth were clean,'' and who possessed a ''sort of doughnut fragrance'' mix freely with such lines as ''to recover the world that is buried under the debris of false description or nonexperience.''
All this, Bellow continues, ''because one takes it for granted that a human being is a body plus a brain.'' And the window of vulnerability opens when we are ''dominated by certain practical interests which are reflected in the economy, in gratification of material needs, in the ruling forces of American life.'' It is assumed that the things of the head and heart ''will just have to take care of themselves.''
One knows by his tone of voice that those lesser tangibles will not, and cannot, take care of themselves. They need to be nurtured, if nothing else. And for most of us, just recognizing those needs is difficult enough. He goes on. ''This is the century that has characterized itself with the word 'nihilism' . . . where the existence of good and evil has been questioned.'' It is obviously not an easy time to rejuvenate one's moral sensibilities. But that does not excuse us from the need to try.
To strive against these ways of thinking, to declare an attitude outdated and go beyond it, is what Bellow insists upon. He chooses his words carefully and answers slowly. ''It's quite possible that people could be sufficiently independent in spirit, (so) they would not accept the verdict on life (that has) become so common; that you're supposed to be idiotic if you don't accept it.
If you think for yourself and feel for yourself, you refuse to accept as victorious the account that's given you. . . .''If you think and feel for yourself, says Bellow, you will fill your life with more than you can know. Who will help point the way? ''That's what literature is about,'' he says. ''It separates itself from the prevailing account. That's what it's for.''
The late morning lesson seems just about through. The steam heat gives an impatient hiss. The desk chair creaks to its normal upright position; the hiking boots return to the floor. Bellow seems only slightly uncomfortable at having waxed eloquent for this hour. ''Let me explain something to you about writing a book,'' he cautions. He seems to want to temper his definitive statements of the morning. ''The book is supposed to speak for itself. D. H. Lawrence said in his studies of American literature, 'Trust the book. Don't trust the writer.' ''
He lets this message sink in, then parts with this: ''The other thing I would like to mention is an old Midwestern saying: 'We don't shave here, we only lather. You get shaved across the street.' ''