A WEEK IN BOOKS

Should critics condescend to old age? The idea would outrage Saul Bellow, who in novels such as The Dean's December has pinioned the follies of the soft liberal conscience with a ferocious delight. The great Chicagoan, 82 this year, spent decades polishing a tone of unblinkered asperity that gave no quarter and expected no indulgence. All the stranger, then, to find some early responses to his new novella The Actual (Viking, pounds 12.99) cooing with a matronly approval that the old boy can still put on a decent show. Not bad for four-score-and-upward, eh?

Bellow deserves better. The Actual - an oblique, Jamesian tale of "what first love can do" set among the Chicago super-rich - ambushes you on many of its 100 pages with lovely touches of bone-dry wit and worldly (even world-weary) wisdom. Yet, thanks to its narrative voice, the total effect remains muffled and mannered. Harry Trellman is a thoughtful but possibly crooked antiques importer who has joined the informal "brain trust" of a billionaire developer. He recounts the reawakening of his rather abstract passion for the widowed Amy Wustrin, the "actual" of the title. To Henry James himself, the "real thing" implied death more than love. Mortality shadows this story too, which turns on the disinterment and reburial of Amy's no-good, skirt-chasing lawyer husband (a device that echoes the ending of Humboldt's Gift).

Harry has about him an air of remoteness and inscrutability ("an impervious pre-Columbian look") that Bellow underlines a shade too often and heavily. And The Actual's decade-shuffling plot of deals and divorces reaches us only when filtered through his sardonic gaze. We see things as if through the smoked glass of the stretch limo that ferries Harry's patron, the monstrously rich and shrewd old Sigmund Adletsky, around the Windy City.

Bellow's narrators have often sought to hold the overpowering reality of America at bay. Here, though, the thickness of the glass obscures our view. At one point, Amy chides Harry that "You never did have any use for the way other people spoke, or speak. Everything has to be translated into your own language." Exactly. But only a mind of Bellow's huge distinction could have snuck in that lethal sliver of self-analysis.

For that, and many other piquant moments, we should be glad that he has taken Harry's own advice: "Retirement is an illusion. Not a reward but a man trap ... A short cut to death". And neither has Bellow mellowed very much. Harry can still launch with precious little provocation into a stinging tirade against the "run-of-the-mill products of our mass democracy" around him.

All the same, newcomers to the work seduced by those dutiful notices may wonder what the fuss is about. For pounds 1 less, they could enjoy Everyman's handsome hardback of Bellow's masterpiece from 1953, The Adventures of Augie March, complete with a passionate essay by number-one-fan Martin Amis. Young Martin crowns Augie March as the Great American Novel for "its fantastic inclusiveness, its pluralism, its qualmless promiscuity".

Perhaps inevitably, The Actual's Chicago seems a chaster and tighter place, at times not much wider than Jay Wustrin's reopened grave.

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