Robert Boynton
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Review of Saul Bellow’s “The Actual” and Harriet Wasserman’s “Handsome Is: Adventures With Saul Bellow”



Newsday, May 25, 1997

HANDSOME IS: Adventures With Saul Bellow, by Harriet Wasserman. Fromm
International, 194 pp., $23.95. THE ACTUAL, by Saul Bellow. Viking, 104 pp.,
$17.95.

In many respects, literary agents were long the unsung heroes of the
culture industry. Novelists, journalists, even editors and publishers got their
share of ink, while the very best agents made sure to stay out of the limelight,
preferring to spend their time quietly promoting their clients and collecting
their fees. The explosion of media interest in agents during the '80s was only
one among many ominous signs that publishing was no longer a genteel profession
and the chattering classes were much more interested in the book business than
they were in books themselves.

In New York literary circles, there are few agents as discreet and
well-respected as Harriet Wasserman, which is why her decision to write a memoir
about Saul Bellow, her longtime client, has drawn so much attention. After 30
years as his agent and confidante, Wasserman was unceremoniously dismissed two
years ago when Bellow signed up with Andrew Wylie, one of the most flamboyant of
the '80s superagents. Although Wasserman presents "Handsome Is" as a tender
remembrance of her long collaboration with Bellow, it is also an occasion to
settle scores with both him and Wylie. And settle them she does. When asked to
meet with Wylie in order to reconcile their differences, she replies curtly that
she would rather meet him "at the 42nd Street and Eighth Avenue subway and clean
the men's room toilet bowl with my tongue." Not a woman you want to cross.

Wasserman's portrait of Bellow is much more sympathetic, which has the
(unintended?) effect of making it more damning. For all his foibles, Bellow was
the love of her life. "Once in a lifetime, if we're lucky, we get to cross
paths, share our dark days, and connect with the work and life of another that
changes the course of our own," read the first lines of "Handsome Is." "I've had
the extra privilege of that other being a man of genius." Such high hopes
couldn't help but be disappointed.

Bellow met Wasserman in the '60s when she was a young assistant in his
agent's office. "You know, you're really very pretty," he flirted with her. "Do
you think you could take care of me? Would you marry me?" They never did marry,
but they did have a brief affair ("Oh my God, I'm going to lose my client," she
says during the seduction), and she ended up taking care of him for the next 30
years. Wasserman gives new meaning to the phrase "full service agent." She types
his novels, records his editorial changes in seven-hour phone calls,
his novels, records his editorial changes in seven-hour phone calls, accompanies
him to award ceremonies and is his first reader. Although Bellow claims he wants
her honest response, he clearly prefers undiluted praise. When she tells him she
prefers his first draft of "The Dean's December," he has a hissy-fit. "What's
the big idea?" he complains. "I give you my revised manuscript to read, and you
tell me the first one is perfect. I was up all night. What kind of thing was
that?"

Every outrage and tantrum is excused, because Bellow is a genius. "Simply the
greatest writer we have," The New York Times Book Review once called him. While
Wasserman has unshakable confidence in his literary talent, she also leaves the
impression that Bellow has mastered the art of surrounding himself with people -
mostly women - who will go to any lengths to nurture his narcissism. After
decades of complicity, Wasserman exacts her revenge with great subtlety. "Saul
is as deeply emotional as he is highly intellectual and cerebral, an uncommon
com- bination. He seems to need that stimulation to be constantly charged all
the time," she writes. "Perhaps this accounts for the number and duration of his
marriages."

Wasserman, who describes herself as "a real-life character in a living Saul
Bellow novel," was largely responsible for giving Bellow's career a second wind.
It was her idea to publish "A Theft" and "The Bellarosa Connection" as original
paperback novellas in 1989, a strategy that was roundly hailed as a stroke of
marketing genius. It also established the precedent for Bellow's most recent
novella, "The Actual," which, like "Handsome Is," is a love story of sorts.

Harry Trellman is a Chicagoan who has spent time in the Far East, where he
discovered he has a flair for business. Now semi-retired, he is asked to join
tycoon Sigmund Adletsky's informal "Brain Trust" to use his skill as a
"first-class noticer" and offer advice on a variety of matters. Trellman is
simultaneously thrown back together with his childhood sweetheart, Amy Wustrin,
who has since had several husbands, the last of whom was Harry's old friend Jay
Wustrin. Jay has recently died, and although he and Amy had been divorced for
several years, they are still oddly linked: As a parting joke, Jay had himself
buried next to Amy's mother, who hated him. Amy now wants to move him to a more
appropriate plot.

Harry and Amy's rapprochement is engineered by the clever Adletsky and
culminates at the cemetery where Jay is being re-buried. While Amy and Harry
watch the gravediggers work, Harry muses over the tenuous nature of their
relationship. "We had gotten along for decades without knowing each other," he
thinks to himself. "I had concluded that I was too odd for her. Or that for
various other reasons she assumed I could never be domesticated. So my emotions
went into storage, more or less permanently."

Not much more happens in this novella of manners, leading some critics to
label it as "Jamesian" - the classic middlebrow compliment paid to minor books
by important authors. Bellow is a great novelist, but readers looking for
Sammlers, Herzogs or Humboldts in "The Actual" will be sorely disappointed.
Having wrung the juice out of a thin story, the master serves up a glass of
flat, warm Bellow Lite: wispy characters, fragmentary dialogue and clever
scenarios that don't go anywhere. Where once Bellow crafted dazzling discursive
speeches on a variety of intellectual arcana, here he can barely bring himself
to go through the motions. "When I met her, she made me think of a course in
field theory, and I mean psychological field theory - for which I registered in
my student days - having to do with the mental properties of a mental region
under mental influences that resembled gravitatonal forces." Whatever.

When Amy confesses that she has always loved him, Harry's response is
characteristically cryptic and vague. "After 40 years of thinking it over, the
best description I could come up with was an actual affinity,' " he says. Too
bad Saul Bellow decided not to write an actual novel.




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