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Handsome Is

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Saul Bellow has a keen eye for talent, and Harriet Wasserman gives him full marks for singling her out just as she was beginning her career as a literary agent. Bellow flirted with her, bedded her, but then transformed their relationship into a solid professional liaison that benefited both author and agent.

In HANDSOME IS: ADVENTURES WITH SAUL BELLOW: A MEMOIR Harriet Wasserman tells her story with a minimum of comment. She does not hide her feelings—especially about the way Bellow dumped her for superagent Andrew Wylie—but her criticism usually emerges in scenes and in dialogue, a most effective way of dramatizing what it was like to live in Bellow’s jaunty, moody, presence.

Like many artists, Bellow, in Wasserman’s account, needs constant reassurance. He does not take criticism easily even when he seems to invite it. Yet she is gratified to see the changes he makes when she criticizes early drafts of his fiction. She never doubts his genius, even though he sometimes puts his formidable intellect at the service of intricate plots that make it seem as though he is the victim, not the aggressor.

Perhaps Wasserman’s most important contribution is to show how Bellow’s fiction emerges out of his life and how delicate a thing a story or novel is as the novelist confronts innumerable decisions—attempting to maintain the freshness of a first draft while attempting to deepen his insights during multiple revisions. Wasserman has written an honest memoir, full of warmth and the astringent humor that her former client has practiced so well himself.