Sunday, March 17, 2013

Review: The Actual by Saul Bellow

Title: The Actual
Author: Saul Bellow
Genre: Literary
Publisher: Penguin Classics
First published: 1997

This is the story of Harry Trellman, a man who has never felt quite right about where he is in life. Never having found any place where he belongs, and never having made an effort to win the love of his life, he reaches a turning point only very late in life. An aging billionaire, Sigmund Adletsky, hires Harry for his "brain," as Harry has an excellent memory and seems to have an odd talent for remembering and knowing everything. His high-school sweetheart, Amy, is also re-emerging in his life, after decades of his dreaming and idolizing of her.

This short book was very well written, and had such a strong literary feel to it, which I loved.

Harry was an interesting character, even if he did seem a bit secretive and hard to figure out. I am convinced that he was a genius, and it seems that at times, he has no idea, while others, he is arrogant about his intellect. Amy views Harry as above her mentally, and reminisces about feeling a sense of inadequacy when they were together in high school.

Amy Wustrin, Harry's love interest, was well written in how normal she was. An average looking woman who has been married and divorced twice, with no quirks or eccentricities written into her character.
Her late ex-husband, Jay Wustrin, never actually appeared in the story, as he had already died by the time it started. However, he is very much present, and would have to be my favorite character. A trickster and a playful trouble-maker, while he was alive he was forever causing mischief with the ones he loved, and was also quite the ladie's man. He divorced Amy a little while before he died, but it seems that they remained friends. He arranged with Amy's mentally unstable father to buy his grave from him, so that Jay would be resting beside Amy's mother (who hated him). Knowing that a few years down the line, the grave would be needed for its rightful owner, he also knew that he would have to be exhumed and re-buried. Such trouble he was causing, even from the grave!
The exhumation was solemn, with a touch of comedy, as everyone remembers what a trickster Jay was. No one seems to doubt for a minute that he did all this purposefully.

Harry's enduring fascination with Amy was also a very vivid portrayal. Every day of his life, he thinks of her, but as he only ever knew her in high school, that is how he still imagines Amy to look. One day, he happens to pass her on the street. She recognizes him, though he would have simply walked by. Amy stops him and, upon realizing that her highschool boyfriend has no idea who she is, she is outraged, feeling that at last her beauty has officially faded.
True, Amy is no longer the beauty that Harry remembers so well, but after re-adjusting the image of her in his mind's eye, he still sees her as desirable, beautiful, and as the woman he has always loved.
Their heartfelt talk in the graveyard was interesting, genuine without being dramatic. Harry tells the reader that every other woman he has ever known seemed to be an apparition, with Amy being the only actual woman. Thus, she is his "Actual."

I left this book feeling a bit sad. Harry could have gone so far and had everything he ever wanted, but it is only very late in life that he begins to see this, or do anything about it.