The Pregnant Widow by Martin Amis
14/02/10, Mail Today
Here it is then, at last, the book that was going to halt the inexorable downward graph of Martin Amis’s literary career. The Pregnant Widow has nothing less than the sexual revolution of the seventies, and the attendant damages, in its crosshairs. It is the summer of 1970 and in a castle near Naples an assortment of young English visitors, all entering their twenties or thereabouts, lounge about by the swimming pool, thinking, talking and having sex. Our hero, Keith Nearing, not unlike Amis himself in several particulars such as age (twenty in 1970) and height (in ‘that much-disputed territory between five foot six and five foot seven’), is carrying on a desultory relationship with Lily, who increasingly reminds him of his sister, Violet, while being magnetically attracted to Scheherazade, who is endowed with awesome breasts (called, with typical periphrastic tendency, ‘twinned circumferences, interproximate, interchangeable’).
A reductive, but not wholly inaccurate, way of summarising the novel would be to see its plotline as centreing on the question of whether Keith and Scheherazade are eventually going to have sex. But this is Amis so a vast freight of bombast and portentousness is tacked on to a story of getting laid. Chief among these is a quasi-historiographical enquiry into the cost of free love, female promiscuity, carnal liberation, all of which came of age in that crucial year (or decade). As Amis writes, ‘Something was churning in the world of men and women, a revolution or a sea change, a realignment having to do with carnal knowledge and emotion.’ For a true reckoning of the fallout from the sexual revolution, we’ll have to wait until the summer of 1970 is over and the novel brings us to the present day Keith, a ‘respected critic’ and veteran of three marriages, totting up the cost to himself and to Western society in general. This reads like a completely different book sewn together, badly, with the more substantial story of the ‘hot, endless, and erotically decisive summer’. Unsurprisingly (in at least two senses, one of gender history and the other of its fact of being an Amis novel), the costs are paid by women while the self-pitying is indulged in by the men. So much has been said, justifiably, about Amis’s plastic women, all tits and arse and ‘boxes’ and unfulfilled lives, that it seems redundant to point out that The Pregnant Widow hardly bothers to stray from the old ways by creating even the ghost of an interiority for a female character.
Other dud notes abound. Keith is a student of English Literature who is making his way through the classics, so this becomes an excuse to have the book mediated through a potted history of the English novel, particularly Clarissa and Austen’s work. Allusions to Richardson and Austen, including plot devices, locutions, literary critical jamming, bring to the book an added ballast of pretentious knowingness, shading off into almost a metafictional friction at times. This feeds into one of the most damaging qualities in the novel, the way its characters, especially Keith, go about riffing portentously in a way that reminds readers unrelentingly how mindful they are of their places and significance in that particular point in history. Self-important riffs and a compulsive tendency to ‘tell’ and hector readers instead of ‘showing’, features that have marred Amis’s fiction for the last twenty-odd years, proliferate alarmingly here too. Here’s a sample: ‘Leafing through the glossy pages [of a Mayfair brothel’s brochure], he felt the brothel goer’s mad power – that of choice. Power corrupts: that is not a metaphor. And writers were instantly corrupted by the mad power of choice. Authorial omnipotence did not go with the definingly fallible potency of the male member.’ I wonder what Austen, so generously thanked in the ‘Acknowledgements’, would have had to say about that.
All this puerile strutting sits disjointedly with what the novel strains – and there is a lot of straining in Amis, for weighty sentences, lofty thoughts, Importance – to be, a meditation on ageing and mortality, a raging against the dying of the light. Too frequently for comfort, or art, the over-striving leads to baroque misfires instead of mots justes (‘insomniate’, anyone? Or ‘spangled, stratospheric suicides’?), importance to a flatulent self-importance. Even the stage-managed revelations and narrative twists (who is the first-person narrator who keeps butting in occasionally? Will Keith get off with Scheherazade?), instead of quenching suspense, seem only brimful of bathos. There is an orthogonal feel about the book, as if nothing on the pages is relevant or necessary: the only response it can elicit is ‘So what?’
Amis’s early books – The Rachel Papers, Money, even parts of London Fields – were characterised by a high hit-rate of swaggeringly clever sentences, some dangerously sharp observation and articulation, but even they were far less than the sum of their sporadically brilliant parts. Now the tide seems to have gone out so completely that the odd bit of glittering gem on the detritus-strewn shore only serves to show up the surrounding impoverishment for what it is.