Martin Amis, in The Pregnant Widow, takes as his control experiment a long, hot summer holiday in a castle in Italy, where half a dozen young lives are afloat on the sea change of 1970. The result is a tragicomedy of manners, combining the wit of Mon...
The Pregnant Widow is a novel by the English writer Martin Amis, published by Jonathan Cape on 4 February 2010. Its theme is the feminist revolution, which Amis sees as incomplete and bewildering for women, echoing the view of the 19th-century Russian writer, Alexander Herzen, that revolution is "a long night of chaos and desolation". The "pregnant widow", a phrase taken from Herzen's From the other shore (1848–1850), is the point at which the old order has given way, the new one not yet born. Amis said in 2007 that "consciousness is not revolutionised by the snap of a finger. And feminism, I reckon, is about halfway through its second trimester."
Martin Louis Amis (born 25 August 1949) is a British novelist, essayist, memoirist, and screenwriter. His best-known novels are Money (1984) and London Fields (1989). He has received the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for his memoir Experience and has been listed for the Booker Prize twice (shortlisted in 1991 for Time's Arrow and longlisted in 2003 for Yellow Dog). Amis served as the Professor of Creative Writing at the Centre for New Writing at the University of Manchester until 2011. In 2008, The Times named him one of the 50 greatest British writers since 1945.
Amis's work centres on the excesses of "late-capitalist" Western society, whose perceived absurdity he often satirises through grotesque caricature; he has been portrayed as a master of what The New York Times called "the new unpleasantness". Inspired by Saul Bellow and Vladimir Nabokov, as well as by his father Kingsley Amis, Amis himself has influenced many British novelists of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, including Will Self and Zadie Smith.
The story is set in a castle owned by a cheese tycoon in Campania, Italy, where Keith Nearing, a 20-year-old English literature student; his girlfriend, Lily; and her friend, Scheherazade, are on holiday during the hot summer of 1970, the year that Amis says "something was changing in the world of men and women". The narrator is Keith's superego, or conscience, in 2009.
The novel was a work-in-progress for the best part of seven years, his first since House of Meetings (2006). Originally set for release in late 2007, its publication was delayed to 2008, when he made what he describes as a "terrible decision" to abandon what he had written to that point, and begin again, building the story up from one section he retained, the part about Italy. The long gestation period resulted in its expansion to some 370 pages, making it his longest novel since The Information in 1995.
For at least the past decade Martin Amis has seemed intent on making the most distinctive comic voice in contemporary British fiction – his own – do the most unlikely things. He's put it in the mouths of historical tyrants and 9/11 plotters, he tried it out for size – for laughs – as an impotent monarch and – in earnest – as a survivor of Soviet purges. He's had a go at Americans called Russia and women called He and one of the problems with all these characters is that they have sounded too smart, too Mart. The first thing to say about Amis's 12th novel, The Pregnant Widow, then, is that it is a great relief to find him back as a Keith.
The moniker might be a nod to Keith Talent, the antihero of Amis's last wholly successful novel, London Fields, but Keith is a homecoming for Amis in more than this sense. Keith Nearing is the most proximate a fictional alter ego he's written since Charles Highway in The Rachel Papers. This Keith is nearing 21 (his birthday, when our tale begins, is days away), he's nearing normal male height, like the author, "in that much disputed territory between five foot six and five foot seven", and he's inching toward a statuesque 20-year-old blonde named Sheherazade, with whom he is sharing a fabled summer in an Italian castle, along with several friends (including his semi-platonic and semi-liberated girlfriend, Lily).
Amis starts with a typically arch disclaimer, the suggestion that his tale – like the murder story in London Fields – is another "gift from real life". "Everything that follows is true," he drawls, blowing smoke at the reader. "The castle is true. The girls are all true, and the boys are all true. Not even the names have been changed. Why bother? To protect the innocent? There were no innocent…" He has said elsewhere that the novel is "blindingly autobiographical" and, though names obviously have been changed, you half believe him.
We're mostly in 1970, at the moment when Amis himself started to find his voice. Few writers have ever been more conscious of ageing – like all prodigies he seemed totally undone by the creeping knowledge that even his dazzle would die – and having looked back on his lost youth first as crisis (in The Information), then as hard-won wisdom (in the memoir Experience), Amis finally, at 60, gives it a go as what it no doubt mostly was: romantic farce. The Pregnant Widow reminds you of those medieval epics in which the hero, Troilus, or whoever, observes from a heavenly vantage, free from earthly care, his teenage self tortured and dying for love, and permits himself more than a wry smile.
The version of his youth that Amis gives us here is a fleshed-out reincarnation of the narcissist he described briefly in Experience, "short-arseing along the King's Road" in green velvet flares, sending letters to Kingsley that concluded "Kafka is a fucking fool" or "Middlemarch is fucking good". "Aren't they nice, the young?" Keith's older self observes, here: "They have stayed up for two years drinking instant coffee together, and now they are opinionated – they have opinions…."
In the castle Keith is cramming Eng Lit compulsively. He's force-feeding Richardson and Fielding, fast-forwarding Austen and George Eliot, each novel seeming to him a dramatisation of the interminable sexual frustrations he is experiencing around the castle's pool. Keith is a trier, and a dreamer (he's also, of course, a list-maker, an aphorism-coiner, and an italiciser); like Amis, he has swallowed Skeat's Etymological Dictionary whole and punctuates even his chat-up lines with lessons in linguistics. He is viewed by the author with amused and sometimes poignant affection ("Nostalgia, from Gk nostos 'return home' + algos 'pain' 'the return-home-pain of twenty years old'.") The portentous note that has sometimes been Amis's fatal flaw is mostly played here for comedy.
Consciously inhabiting the past, particularly this skewed slice of his own past, seems to liberate his writing from unwitting self-parody. He (and the reader) are spared the awkwardness of the last "big" novel, Yellow Dog, which seemed to be formed of a desperation to continue to accommodate what John Self once called (when Amis was really on the money) "the real stuff, the only stuff… the present, the panting present". Looking back he knows every contour of the territory, the sex, the politics, the pretensions, and most of all the language. By framing his recollections in the present – it's not Keith that is speaking, we eventually learn, it's his grown-up conscience, the Jiminy Cricket of 2009 looking back on the Pinocchio of 1970 – he finds he can have it all ways.
The result is a flashy Decameron of the sexual revolution; 20-year-old Keith may want to believe that his present moment – the Pill, female emancipation in the bedroom – has been plotted just for him, but a part of him can't help fearing he is on the wrong side of the barricades ("the Me Decade was the Me Decade, right enough – a new intensity of self-absorption. But the Me decade was also and unquestionably the She Decade..."). Women – in particular the women Keith observes in torturous peripheral vision plunging in and out of the castle's pool, topless (and occasionally bottomless) – are undoubtedly more available in theory, but not, strictly, in his experience, in practice. Keith is doomed and hamstrung in his pursuit of Sheherazade not only by his legion of neuroses, and a vestige of old-fashioned loyalty to Lily, but also by rival suitors – an absent (and very tall) Pentecostalist, and an ever-present (and very short) Italian count. Love, in 1970, appears to have been replaced by "hysterical sex" and of course "hysterical sex means never having to say you're sorry".
Tragically and despite all of his historical advantages, it appears Keith's own strike rate as a result won't improve on Samuel Richardson's Lovelace in Clarissa ("one fuck in 2,000 pages," he notes glumly), and predictably this is the source of much bathetic torment, delivered with all Amis's mastery of register and tone. Unusually for Amis, Keith's deferred gratification also injects into the novel that other, often elusive, 18th-century quality, suspense ("Amis novel" and "page-turner" have not always been synonymous). There are other surprises, in comparison with recent Amis, too: fully realised female characters – Lily, in particular, Keith's almost cynical girlfriend, is shown torn between having it all and having nothing at all; and walk-ons who are not just one-liners (Adriano, the diminutive count, is a virtuoso performance).
For the most part Amis stays within the limits of this comedy of manners; when he is finally tempted to stray beyond it in the latter third of the book, with the introduction of the girl Keith eventually does get, and regret, his substitute Sheherazade, Gloria Beautyman, the plotting creaks just slightly. Beautyman spins Keith seductive yarns about her age, and her religion, truths that are unveiled in an ending that strains for universal significance. This intervention can be forgiven, though, in some vintage Amis peacockery: riffs on the earthiness of Italian plumbing and the obviousness of Italian men, on Montaigne and Northanger Abbey, and fresh updates on such familiar refrains as hangovers ("The air itself was about to throw up. And he could hear the yellow birds in their tree – pissing themselves laughing…") or the evolutionary insistence of winged insects, those "armoured survivalists with gas-mask faces".
For a long while, it has been hard to imagine how a writer much concerned with reputation would begin to fashion for himself a convincing late period to match his stellar youth. This novel looks a lot like one answer to that. Amis has, of late, become a professor of creative writing at Manchester University and you could even begin to imagine that his position has prompted a satisfying return to first principles. Lesson number one: always write what you know.
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