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Arnold Schwarzenegger signing copies of his new autobiography "Total Recall" for Miss Canada 2012 Jaclyn Miles at Indigo in Toronto October 4, 2012.Mike Cassese

"Torturous." That's how Arnold Schwarzenegger describes the process of dragging his love-soiled laundry before the public gaze in his new memoir, Total Recall. Although, in that famous Teutonic accent barely softened by more than three decades in America, it comes out like this: tooor-chew-us. He gnaws on the word like a particularly gristly bit of steak.

He's not asking for sympathy. Schwarzenegger, who was in Toronto to promote the memoir, seems to realize that he made his bed, and now must lie in it. Although it's likely that Mildred Baena, his long-time housekeeper with whom he had a secret affair and love child, is the one who actually had to make the bed.

"We knew ahead of time it would be difficult to be out there with the project, to talk about it," says the man who was both Conan the Barbarian and, as governor of California, custodian of the world's eighth-largest economy. "It would be painful to rekindle the whole thing. We knew it would be tough for my kids and my wife. We needed to get the book out and be honest about it, without making anyone feel that we're trying to hide or avoid the whole thing."

The wife, of course, is the television journalist Maria Shriver, whom he married in 1986, and who is the mother of his four children. They separated after she discovered her husband's affair with the family housekeeper, which became obvious when Baena's son Joseph grew to resemble a mini-Arnie. There has been a suggestion in the press that Schwarzenegger wants to reconcile, but in conversation he refers to their relationship in the past tense: "It was a terrific relationship with a terrific woman."

Has she read the book yet? Schwarzenegger shrugs. "I sent it to Maria when I got my first 10 copies." In other words, she didn't get to read it beforehand. It's an astonishing thought – the most important person in his life didn't read his life story's before he made it public. Yet, it's perfectly in keeping with a complicated and intriguing psychology. When he and Maria went to marriage counselling, Schwarzenegger tried to wiggle free of any girlie-man oversharing. "Secrecy is just part of me," he told the therapist. "I keep things to myself no matter what."

So says the man who used to parade 99-per-cent naked and 100-per-cent oiled on the bodybuilding stages of the world; and whose first words to his future mother-in-law Eunice Shriver – the sister of Jack and Bobby Kennedy – were, "your daughter has a great ass." He is perhaps not so much shy as a Bill-Clinton-level compartmentalizer.

In person, Schwarzenegger is the epitome of continental charm: Having decided to subject himself to the pummelling of the press, he is taking it like a man. He stands when a guest enters the room – the product of an old-school disciplinarian father who held a wartime membership in the Nazi party – and offers a handshake that is firm, but not so firm that you'd need to seek medical attention. On the finger where his wedding band should be there's a ring with a giant blue stone, and on the other hand a skull ring the size of a baby's head (not made of actual baby). His own face is oversized and smooth, both familiar and cartoonish, like a Macy's parade float come down to earth.

Total Recall is less a tell-all than a tell-partly – a book that is fascinating not for the affairs (with Baena and actress Brigitte Nielsen, both glossed over) or the film-set groping allegations (refuted) but for the details of a life improbable beyond the dreams of fiction. Did you know, for example, that Schwarzenegger was piloting the toboggan that broke Barbara Bush's leg at Camp David? Or that O.J. Simpson was originally meant to play the Terminator, a role taken instead by Schwarzenegger, who was catapulted to stardom in 1984?

And yet the only person uninterested in revisiting this mad upward spiral from famine-struck Austrian village to Kennedy compound to governor's mansion is the central character himself.

"I despise looking back," says Schwarzenegger. "I just hate it. Every minute you look back, you lose a minute looking forward." The words of a man in a hurry, or a man who doesn't necessarily want to reflect on the appetites and ambitions that have defined him?

His future ambitions, he claims, do not involve politics: "There's no office I'm interested in. … My vision was never to be a career politician; my vision was always to set high goals, to solve problems." He wouldn't even be tempted to run for office in Austria, like his acquaintance Frank Stronach? Surely he could take Stronach. There's a small, Terminator smirk. "He's done it all in the private sector. Now it's just a question of, can he pull it off? Are the [Austrian] people into that?"

One gets the sense that he considers Austria small strudel, and that his plans, like his pecs, must be bigger than everyone else's. He recently launched the Schwarzenegger Institute for State and Global Policy, a non-partisan think tank at the University of Southern California.

Every Jan. 1, Schwarzenegger makes a list of goals for the coming year. In 2013, he has at least two movies coming out – he's a besieged sheriff in The Last Stand and teamed with his old nemesis Sylvester Stallone in The Tomb. He also plans to bring "great political leaders" to his think tank to debate global issues like immigration and climate change.

Perhaps the most pressing problem is the one closest to home. He laces his fingers together as he considers the final goal of 2013: "To pay full attention to my relationship and my family, to slowly bring the family back together again.''