Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1537
The title of this work calls a peculiar attention to itself—even as the action wanders somewhat gingerly, never quite achieving the tightness of plot customary in short fiction. In other words, the story itself seems to elude true “actualization” while questions dealing with “actuality” are raised and explored with wit and imagination. The many meanings of “actual” are all involved and orchestrated in such a manner that the near-absence of an “actual” plot does little to weaken the reader’s sense of experiencing a completely fashioned and finished story.
Bellow explores all that pertains to the “actual” in order to shore up “characterization,” a concept sacred to his fiction ever since the mid-1970’s, when he attacked the aesthetics of choseisme (“thingism”) in the fiction of Alain Robbe-Grillet (see It All Adds Up, reviewed in Magill’s Literary Annual, 1995). Postmodernism, with its strong focus on language and culture, has intensified a rejection of the idea that individualized human experience—characters involved with one another—is the quintessential ingredient of fiction.
First there is the literal meaning of “actual”: that which involves an act or action. There are, of course, many of these in Bellow’s story, ranging from farcical “plot movers” (such as Madge Heisinger’s spilling of hot tea on Amy Wustrin’s dress in order to get her into the bathroom so Madge can talk Amy into jacking up the appraisal on the billionaire Sigmund Adletsky’s furniture) to the outrageously comical transfer of graves at the end of the story when Amy gets her divorced husband’s body removed from the family plot. Yet this kind of actuality (explicitly realized action) is on the surface of Bellow’s fictional world. At its center is the comic agony of Harry Trellman, the orphan hero of the novella who “drowns his feelings in his face” and has a Mongolian “masked look.” He is a man who cannot actualize himself, who cannot, until the very last sentences of the story, express the love he truly feels for Amy, a woman he has loved since high school. These sentences are framed in the recognition of what it means to act in explicit ways without second thoughts:
Taking Amy by the hand, I said, “It’s not the best moment for a marriage offer. But if it’s a mistake, it won’t be my first one with you. This is the time to do what I’m now doing, and I hope you’ll have me.”
Harry’s difficulty in reaching this bittersweet happy ending (“bittersweet” because it is almost too late in life to matter) lies in the essence of his nature, which is grounded in all that opposes the actual. He is speculative, theoretical, nominal. These qualities make him a keen observer, listener, recorder, and interpreter. Bellow’s literary joke is to make his narrator’s strengths the very things that keep him from actualizing his life. Harry’s mimetic and expressive powers bring his story to life, which is essentially a death-in- life.
Harry is saved by the old billionaire Sigmund Adletsky, a man whose whole life has been defined by a series of sensational business deals involving the most expensive real estate in the world. He is a man who always gets his dollar’s worth, what in the world of finance is called an “actual”: something actually received, real, as distinct from estimated, receipts. He admires Harry’s powers of reflection and interpretation and takes him into his “brain trust”; as an inactualist, Harry can sharpen the old man’s sense of what is real and what only appears to be so. Harry is being used for his weaknesses. He is a negative example.
Adletsky, however, is influenced by Harry’s sensibility and comes to understand that he, Adletsky, must save Harry from the very qualities that make him useful to the old man. This involves getting Harry to drop his “mask” and readdress his love for Amy, a love that has the real possibility of being actualized now that Amy’s husband, Harry’s old rival, is not only dead but very much out of Amy’s heart.
It is Bellow’s theologically Christian whimsy to cast the relationship between Harry and Adletsky in terms of “actual sin” and “actual grace.” Harry’s “actual sin,” as opposed to “original sin,” is that of “omission contrary to the law of God.” He has observed life at the expense of action. Mr. Adletsky, on the other hand, is an agent of “actual grace” because he “assists God in the performance of actions meritorious for eternal life” (C. W. Currier). The tension between the observer and actor, between the passive and the active character, is a perennial theme in Bellow’s work. Augie March (The Adventures of Augie March, 1953) acts; Mr. Sammler (Mr. Sammler’s Planet, 1970) observes. Herzog does both, and this is why the novel named for him (Herzog, 1964) remains the author’s quintessential work. The choice of life, the vital engagement of it as suffering lover, perplexed thinker, bemused but compassionate person, is at the heart of Bellow’s Jewish comedy.
For Bellow the supreme act of literary creation is to imagine the other, and the principal service of the literary artist is to persuade the reader that selfishness and individuality are actually opposites. Character, both morally and aesthetically, lies in the individual’s grasp of what is beyond self. Bellow has called this “aesthetic bliss,” and he is constantly subjecting his observer heroes—not to mention himself—to its test.
Near the end of the tale, when Amy has assured herself that Harry really has loved her in all the intervening years—despite her marriage to Jake, despite her promiscuity (a tape recording of her lovemaking was used by her husband to divorce her)—she asks the ultimate question (in the form of a statement):
“. . . But you loved me.”
“After forty years of thinking it over, the best description I could come up with was ‘an actual affinity.’”
“You never did have any use for the way other people spoke, or speak. Everything has to be translated into your own language.”
In this exchange, Harry is forced to confront the central paradox of his life. Unable to bind Amy to himself in their younger years, he cut himself off from any actualized experience of the world. He was, as Amy says, locked into his own language and unable to hear the language of the other. His observing intellect was talking to itself, cancelling itself out.
There was only one “actual” Amy. Harry does achieve self-actualization by finally acting on his love for her. The keen observer whom Sigmund added to his “brain trust” is revealed as a mind detached from life. By finally asking for Amy’s hand, Harry becomes an “actual” himself.
In recent years, Bellow has been repeatedly attacked for his reputed male chauvinism, a hostility to women that expresses itself in savagely satirical portraits. Madeline in Herzog and Renata in Humboldt’s Gift(1975) are done in broad and often vicious strokes, but any close reader of Bellow will eventually come to the rather startling realization that he is quite possibly the greatest comic literary portraitist of women in twentieth century literature. This may be his greatest achievement in “aesthetic bliss,” his most impressive discovery and creation of the other. In an age when women writers and questions regarding the rendering of women’s sensibility in literature are at the forefront of literary discussion and debate, it may come as something of a shock to suggest that the rendering of women may best be done by a man (or a man by a woman) with the genius to render the other. One may recall Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary and, for that matter, Emily Brontë’s Heathcliff. To actualize the self, the writer must imagine the other.
In the dialogue between Madge and Amy in Madge’s bathroom after the tea-spilling episode, Bellow’s acute ear for the very sound of the modern woman in a comic mode comes through in perfect pitch:
“. . . but I was taught that this is one place where privacy is respected.”
“Well, I gave you time enough to examine the burned spot. The tea was lukewarm. . . . I can see for myself that the red scald isn’t too bad. You got wet, I’m sorry to say, and I’ll pay the cleaner’s bill too, but tea won’t stain—we used to rub spots out with tea when I was young.”
“Well, let me pull my clothes into place.”
“Yes, adjust a little, honey, and don’t mind me.”
“You did behave like a wild bitch,” said Amy. “Do you always do every goddamn thing that rushes into your head?”
Chaucer and Shakespeare would approve.
Sources for Further Study
Booklist. XCIII, May 1, 1997, p. 1460.
Commentary. CIV, October, 1997, p. 46.
Los Angeles Times Book Review. June 8, 1997, p. 3.
The New Republic. CCXVI, June 16, 1997, p. 41.
The New York Review of Books. XLIV, June 26, 1997, p. 17.
The New York Times Book Review. CII, May 25, 1997, p. 14.
Publishers Weekly. CCXLIV, March 24, 1997, p. 57.
The Times Literary Supplement. August 22, 1997, p. 23.
The Wall Street Journal. May 21, 1997, p. A12.
The Washington Post. May 14, 1997, p. C2.
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