The Actualby Saul Bellow
In this wise and dazzling work of fiction, Nobel laureate Saul Bellow writes comically and tragically about the tenacity of first love. The story behind The Actual belongs to Harry Trellman, an aging, astute businessman who has never belonged anywhere: not in the Chicago orphanage where he was sent by his mother, not in high school (too brainy), not even on the streets, where his vaguely Asian features set him apart from the rest of the pack. As for human attachments, they are like everything else in his life, singular and irregular. But Harry has always been a keen observerùa trait not unnoticed by billionaire Sigmund Adletsky, who retains Harry as his adviser on human affairs. The two men discuss ordinary things, but the older man is also sharp enough to realize that, behind his stoic mask, Harry harbors some intense feelings for a certain woman. That womanùthe object of some forty yearsÆ passionùis Amy Wustrin, a twice- divorced interior designer whoÆs walked through her share of lifeÆs ups and downs. Thanks to Sigmund, she walks unexpectedly into HarryÆs life. And this time heÆs not about to let her go.
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 outsiderfrom 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 covetowned 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 thema 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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