The Actual

The Actual

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by Saul Bellow

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Harry Trellman doesn't belong. Not in the Chicago orphanage where he is sent by his mother, not in high school (too brainy), not even on the streets. Human attachments? Yes, he has them, but they are like everything else in his life, singular and irregular. People who know him say that he "drowns his feelings in his face," and that he has a Mongolian "masked look."…  See more details below


Harry Trellman doesn't belong. Not in the Chicago orphanage where he is sent by his mother, not in high school (too brainy), not even on the streets. Human attachments? Yes, he has them, but they are like everything else in his life, singular and irregular. People who know him say that he "drowns his feelings in his face," and that he has a Mongolian "masked look." But though Harry stands apart, he has always been a most keen observer, listener, recorder and interpreter, and none of this is lost on the Chicago billionaire, Sigmund Adletsky, who takes Harry into his "brain trust." He retains Harry to advise him. They discuss ordinary things - they gossip together. Old Adletsky has set feelings aside while he amassed his vast fortune. The old man is so apt that he divines the secrets behind Harry's mask, and brings him together with the one person Harry has loved dumbly for forty years. Amy Wustrin has not exactly stood apart from the sexual revolution while waiting for Harry to come wooing. Far from remaining the static object of his fantasy, she has moved about in the real world, from one marriage to another, from rich to broke, from hot high-school girl to correct matron. Still, in Amy, Harry sees what he calls his "actual." Harry has had his opportunities with Amy, but it is not until he finds himself at the cemetery with her for the exhumation and reburial of her husband that he feels free to speak out.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
"A man's road back to himself is a return from his spiritual exile, for that is what a personal history amounts toexile." So says Harry Trellman, the narrator of the Nobel laureate's latest work, who is by any measure an exile several times over. Trellman's ailing mother and hardworking father consigned him to an orphanage; shady business dealings kept him in the Third World for most of his adulthood. Over the years, his high-school sweetheart, the only woman he ever loved, has grown old in the arms of other men. Now in late middle age, Trellman has returned to the Chicago of his youth to recover what he can of the life that has passed him by. A kind of an affectionate, latter-day "Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock," this novella nevertheless carries distinguishing Bellow trademarks: the mythically cosmopolitan, clubby Chicago where bankers quote Hamlet and intellectuals stumble into wealth; the Emersonian turns of phrase ("`Distance' is a formality. The mind takes no real notice of it") grounded in Yiddish earthiness ("He's got a condom over his heart"); and, deeper than these, Bellow's passionate eroticism, wherein, in order to get at the "actual" beloved, one must survive sex, transgression, divorce and mnages trois, whether of the body or the spirit. Bellow is a conservative in the best sense: he calls his readers constantly back to what they can't help but believe, at the same time insisting, as Trellman puts it, on a common recognition "that the powers of our human genius are present where one least expects them." As usual in Bellow's more recent fiction, plot is secondary here. So is character, for the hero of this small love-story is character itself. (May)
Library Journal
Harry Trellman, the protagonist of Bellow's latest offering since the trio of short fiction, Something To Remember Me By (Dutton, 1991), is an orphan of sorts, a spiritual self-exile who imagined he could "effect a transfer to another civilization"; he made his fortune in the Far East before returning to Chicago to ease his emotional longing, specifically for the woman who has figured in his thoughts since age 15. Harry, as a remote observer of human nature, will put readers in mind of numerous of Bellow's antiheroes, such as Moses Herzog (Herzog, 1964) and Charlie Citrine (Humboldt's Gift, 1975). Harry's vehicle for immersion in the actual is the ancient billionaire Siggy Adletsky and other "notables" of Chicago society bent on a series of coming-clean schemes that Bellow concocts so ingeniously. In effect, this charming, pared-down tale is a study of the master's method, and despite his determined obfuscation, it is an achingly simple cry from the heart that reads like a parting love letter. Essential for all collections.Amy Boaz, "Library Journal"
Scott Turow
A wonderful book. -- Chicago Tribune
Kirkus Reviews
Nobel laureate Bellow's recent penchant for the novella (A Theft, The Bellarosa Connection, both 1989) continues with this witty portrayal of late-life intrigue, politicking, and passion.

Chicagoan Harry Trellman, the story's narrator, is a semi- retired importer whose cautious demeanor and unusual physiognomy (he describes his countenance as "Chinese-looking") have made him a kind of outsider—from the centers of financial power and also from the satisfactions of romantic love. A "first-class noticer," Harry is appropriated as an advisor by elderly Sigmund Adletsky, trillionaire hotel magnate, and, as a chance by-product of joining Adletsky's "brain trust," Harry is reunited with Amy Wustrin, the woman he'd loved decades ago, and with the bittersweet memory of Amy's late husband and his old pal, faithless, freewheeling Jay ("If being sexual was like being drunk, Jay was something like a drunken driver"). Bellow expertly tangles these characters' lives together: Amy, an interior decorator, is hired to assess the value of furnishings in a luxury apartment the Adletskys covet—owned by Bodo Heisinger, whose wife Madge was convicted and imprisoned for hiring a hit man to kill Bodo, who nevertheless continued to adore her and secured her release. Though Harry thinks he's separated, by looks and lifestyle, from this melodramatic human muddle ("I see myself taking pleasure in these assorted people, their motives, their behavior"), he learns he's one of them—a perception emphatically confirmed by a cliffhanger ending recalling that of Bellow's great short novel Seize the Day. The working-out of these intricate plotlines is rather perfunctory, and a few redundancies have escaped editing, but the writing is sharp, and we're absorbed by the personalities of several vividly sketched characters, especially Harry, one of Bellow's most engaging everymen.

Like Augie March, Harry Trellman chooses life; like Tommy Wilhelm (of Seize the Day), he's shaped and driven not by intellectual or social imperatives, but by the insistent proddings of "the heart's ultimate need."

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Product Details

Penguin Group (USA)
Publication date:
Penguin Great Books of the 20th Century Series
Product dimensions:
5.20(w) x 7.60(h) x 0.34(d)
Age Range:
18 Years

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The Actual 3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
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