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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.