Thursday May 6th, 2010

Where the Boys and Girls Are

The Pregnant Widow by Martin Amis
Knopf, 384 pp., $26.95

It’s quite possible that Martin Amis looks forward to the U.S. reviews of his books—relatively speaking, anyway. In the U.S. it is the books that come under scrutiny, not the life. In England now, critics find it nearly impossible to weigh in on Amis’ literary output without first offering a lengthy disquisition on the two L’s of Martin—the Lineage and the Luggage. The Lineage consisting, of course, of literary and personal comparisons to his famous father, Kingsley. The Luggage takes in just about everything else—the failed marriages, broken teeth, ruined friendships, dubious politics, rash public pronouncements, etc. Everything, that is, except the writing, which has a habit of turning up as a footnote in a soap opera that demeans all those who perpetuate it—Amis included.

Whatever else one might think of him, inarguably Martin Amis is one of the most original prose stylists of his generation. He’s also a first-rate literary critic. His 12th novel, The Pregnant Widow, takes place in Campania, Italy, at the height of the sexual revolution, in the midst of feminism’s second wave. Amis has stated that it began as an intensely autobiographical novel before splintering into two completely separate books. The Pregnant Widow is the first of the two to see the light of day, and it’s a sprawling, uneasy performance, one that exhibits both the best and worst tendencies of a formidably talented writer.

It is 1970, and three London University students, Keith, Lily, and Scheherazade, are spending their summer at a Campania castle owned by Scheherazade’s uncle. Keith and Lily are romantically involved, off and on. Lily has recently dumped him so that she might “act like a boy”: “Thus Lily had her hair restyled, and bought lots of miniskirts and cut-off culottes and halter tops and see-through blouses and knee-length patent leather boots . . . and all the other things you needed before you acted like a boy.” But sensitive, intelligent Lily discovers that she’s not ideally suited for being a boy, and so she asks Keith to join her on the summer sojourn.

If this were a work by someone other than Martin Amis, you might suspect at this point that the novel’s engine will be the question of whether Keith will betray Lily and fall in love, or at any rate, lust, with newly beautiful Scheherazade. But by now we’re aware that we don’t read Amis for plot. Even in his best fiction—Money, London Fields—he has relied on narrative gimmicks and trickery to support creaky storylines, and The Pregnant Widow is no exception. The summer of 1970 takes up 300 pages, while a coda, which is really much more than its label suggests, covers the next 30 years in less than 90 pages. As for tricks and gimmicks, when our narrator’s identity is finally revealed, it feels both obvious and strangely juvenile.

Amis is famously fond of playful character names (which can be a weakness), and this novel is full of them: Pansy, Probert, Amen, Dilshak. Which brings us to Scheherazade. One naturally thinks of the heroine of One Thousand and One Nights, who staves off death each dawn by telling the King a story that can only be completed the following night. Here, Amis himself plays an unlikely Scheherazade, somehow keeping the pages turning despite the absence of incident. For more than 200 pages, nothing happens. Keith reads during the day, making his way through English literature: “It seemed to Keith that the English novel, at least in its first two or three centuries, asked only one question. Will she fall? Will she fall, this woman? What’ll they write about, he wondered, when all women fall?” At night, he and Lily discuss Scheherazade’s sexual frustration, turning it into an erotic game acted out by the two of them.

Plot, for Amis, is just a sheet of old newspaper on which to hang beautiful sketches and portraits. One reads Amis for the style, the linguistic acrobatics:

Keith took more notice of the sky that evening, conscious perhaps of having recently neglected it. Its pouting pinks, its brothelly oranges. The sun put in a guest appearance, with a beaming smile, and then exited stage left. Just before curtain-fall, a ripe, hot, fully limbed Venus climbed up into the darkening blue. And he was thinking there should be a sky for every one of us. Every one of us should have our own peculiar sky. What would mine look like? What would yours?

But also—and noted with less frequency—for the regularity with which he delivers brilliantly framed insights:

Pornographic sex is a kind of sex that can be described. Which told you something, he felt, about pornography, and about sex. During Keith’s time, sex divorced itself from feeling. Pornography was the industrialization of that rift . . .


Death—the dark backing a mirror needs before it can show us ourselves.

Aging, mortality, and death, are much on Amis’ mind. They always have been, from the post-nuclear short stories of Einstein’s Monsters (1987) and the end-of-millennium dread of London Fields (1989), through the postmodern Holocaust novel Time’s Arrow (1991), the American noir of Night Train (1997), and on to the gulag in House of Meetings (2006). Increasingly, these themes announce themselves in more personal ways. Amis may be in the process of becoming our foremost contemporary chronicler of what it is to grow old. Philip Roth has made aging his great subject in recent years, too, but he waited until he was 70, approaching endgame, before giving it his full attention. Amis started making notes on the long, inexorable fade-out as early as Experience, the memoir he published at 50. The Pregnant Widow, like so much of his recent work, is filled with observations about the body’s decline and fall:

This is the way it goes. In your mid-forties you have your first crisis of mortality (death will not ignore me); and ten years later you have your first crisis of age (my body whispers that death is already intrigued by me).


. . . old age wasn’t for sissies. But the suspicion was building in him that it was all much simpler than that. Old age wasn’t for old people. To cope with old age you really needed to be young—young, strong and in peak condition, exceptionally supple and with very good reflexes.

The death that most clearly informs The Pregnant Widow, the one that acts as the novel’s own dark backing, is that of Keith’s sister, Violet. Amis has publicly stated that Violet represents a fictionalized version of his own sister, Sally, who died in 2000 at the age of 46. Sally Amis was an alcoholic and, to use her brother’s description, “one of the most spectacular victims of the (sexual) revolution . . . pathologically promiscuous.”

Violet is seen primarily through the filter of Keith’s relationship with his older brother, Nicholas. In written notes and cafe conversations, Keith brings Nicholas reports on his experience at what he imagines to be the front lines of the sexual revolution. For a while it gives the appearance of being a bloodless war. It is left to Nicholas, then, to bring news of the collapse of their sister. By then, Keith is temporarily lost, retrospectively assessing the nature of his own wounds. If Keith has suffered damage, Violet has been destroyed. The question is, by what? Did a series of callous men destroy her? Was it sex itself that brought about her ruin? Or was she a victim of her own deeply flawed nature?

It would be overly simplistic to suggest that Amis has written this novel in order to understand what happened to his sister. For one thing, the book seeks to explore how the era’s changing sexual mores affected men as much as it affected women. But there is no question that the book’s heart of darkness is its author’s examination of his own conscience—a rooming house for self-justification and guilt:

“Listen,” said Keith. “I’ve decided what I’m going to do about Violet. I’m going to stop loving her, Nicholas. Because then it won’t hurt. Look, I’ll muck in with my share, but I’m backing off. Emotionally. Don’t get angry.”

Then later:

He was there at the beginning and he was there at the end. But where was he in between? He was following his strategy, his strategy of withdrawal. And then he went and had it anyway, later, and worse—his breakdown or crack-up.

For Amis to write a novel that is at least partly about the sexual revolution suggests its own kind of courage or recklessness; take your pick. He has frequently been at odds with feminists, and has often been accused of misogyny. His suggestion here, that the revolution made women act contrary to their nature, is unlikely to inspire feminist converts. Likewise, the novel’s asides on religion, in general, and Islam in particular, will not strike his critics as particularly sensitive or sympathetic.

The Pregnant Widow is a book brimming with ideas and concerns, and one senses that the difficulty for Amis has been in making all of them connect to one another. Possibly for that reason, it isn’t quite as satisfying as his previous novel, House of Meetings, which was smaller in ambition, yet wholly original and deserving of more attention than it garnered. The Pregnant Widow requires a second run-through to fully appreciate its aspiration. Thankfully, it allows us to move past once and for all the self-parodic disaster that was Yellow Dog. Certain of Amis’ tics may be wearing thin, but perhaps that’s just the price to pay for his singular style.

John Davidson is a freelance writer and critic. Originally from Manchester, England, he currently lives in Austin, Texas.

Mentioned in this review:

The Pregnant Widow
London Fields
House of Meetings
One Thousand and One Nights
Time’s Arrow
Night Train
Einstein’s Monsters
Yellow Dog