William H. Pritchard August 9, 2010 - 11:32am
The Pregnant Widow
Alfred A. Knopf, $26.95, 384 pp.
Over the years I’ve tried, not very successfully, to keep up with Martin Amis’s fictional output, working through long, substantial novels such as London Fields and The Information, and remembering little except an overall sardonic tone directed at his characters. But whatever his limitations as a novelist compared to his brilliant father Kingsley, Martin Amis wrote a distinctive and very moving book (Experience) mainly about that father, a book in which the son showed resources of feeling one couldn’t have predicted from his novels. Now, following a quite unreadable historical novel about the Soviets (House of Meetings), he has brought out what must be called an autobiographical fiction, even as I shrink from applying the label to such a sophisticated and canny writer. The results are at times self-indulgent, but evident in its pages is, as always, a formidable verbal dexterity, expressive of what Kingsley Amis once called, referring to Martin’s style, a “terrible compulsive vividness.”
The book’s title is taken from a sentence of Alexander Herzen’s about how a “departing world leaves behind it not an heir but a pregnant widow.” The main historical sections are set in 1970, a year in which, we learn from the protagonist Keith Nearing, “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.” At the beginning of the novel Philip Larkin’s poem “Annus Mirabilis” (“Sexual intercourse began / In 1963”) is quoted and updated with the information that by the summer of 1970 “sexual intercourse was well advanced.”
Doing their best to advance it are three English twenty-year-olds, Lily, Scheherazade, and our hero, who are spending the summer at a mountain castle in Italy. Keith is catching up on English novels for his university work, but when he’s not reading (Clarissa is “killing” him), he sleeps with his partner Lily while not-so-secretly yearning after Schererazade, who is mainly distinguished by being tall and having magnificent breasts. (Commonweal readers should be warned that a good deal of sexual description follows.) Much admiring prose is devoted to her best feature, rivaled only by another young female visitor’s backside, upon which large bouquets of extravagant prose are lavished: “And yes, it is too big, much too big...but it now strikes his famished gaze as an achievement on an epic and terrifying scale, like the Chinese Revolution or the rise of Islam or the colonization of America.” Indeed, tits and arses are also pretty much central to Keith’s reading, as when he admits to Lily that Jane Austen’s heroine Emma Woodhouse (“Handsome, clever, and rich”) greatly appeals to him. Lily asks the salient question: “Ah, but has she got big tits.... Does Jane Austen say if they’ve got big tits?” to which Keith replies, “Not in so many words. Or not yet. Any moment now she’ll probably say, Emma Woodhouse had big tits. But not yet.” He explains further that Austen uses the code word “consequence” to designate “big tits,” as in Northanger Abbey: “When Catherine’s growing up she gets plumper and her figure gains consequence.”
This sort of thing can and does go on for a long time. Much energy is also devoted to assessing the prowess of one Adriano, a perfect young Italian gent except that he’s only four feet ten inches short; and to pondering the case of Gloria Beautyman (she of the terrifying backside), who will prove instrumental in Keith’s sexual awakening and whose misfortune preceding her visit to the castle goes as follows: “She lost her bikini bottoms just before she nearly drowned. She said they got sucked off by the jacuzzi.” To which revelation a character comments, “That’s awfully good.” The reader needs an appetite for large doses of such highjinks (some of them quite funny) which Amis cultivates so assiduously.
But The Pregnant Widow is also deadly, indeed deathly, serious—not only scatological but eschatological. Its chronicle of 1970 shenanigans among the young folk at the castle is periodically interrupted by “intervals” in which we are addressed by a presence, sometimes an “I,” who tells us, from the perspective of moments in the present century, truths like the following: “When he talked to his children Keith noticed that cool was pretty well the lone survivor from the lexicon of his youth,” although for them “it just meant good.” For someone born in 1949, such as Keith or Martin Amis, the word and its opposite bring additional difficulties: “Getting old is very uncool. Pouches and wrinkles are very uncool. Deaf aids and walking frames are very uncool. Sunset homes are so uncool.” There are other fortifying and original observations about getting old, as when Keith, still a smoker, contemplates the claim that nonsmokers live seven years longer and wonders which seven “the god called Time” will choose to subtract from one’s life: “It won’t be that convulsive, heart-bursting spell between twenty- eight and thirty-five. No. It’ll be that really cool bit between eighty-six and ninety-three.”
Late in the novel a bit of narrative trickery has the first-person voice commenting on his hero’s post-1970 history, declaring “I would like to put some distance between the ‘I’ and his protagonist.” To be sure, insofar as the first-person narrator is closer to Amis the novelist, he may be distinguished from Keith the poet (sort of); still, both are reviewers (both worked for the Times Literary Supplement) and many of Keith’s friends and fellow participants in later decades are based on people Amis knows or knew. When the “I” pronounces, looking back, that “during Keith’s time, sex divorced itself from feeling,” you feel Keith would agree, and has probably said it for himself. Finally, in the novel’s “Valedictory” section, Keith describes the grisly death of his sister, Violet, consumed by drugs, alcohol, and madness. We know that the life of Amis’s sister, Sally, had a similar trajectory. And all three—Keith, the “I,” and The Real Amis—knew, having been born in 1949 (“as old as NATO”), that it all works out:
Your hams get skinnier—but that’s all right, because your gut gets fatter.... Shrill or sudden noises are getting painfully sharper—but that’s all right, because you’re getting deafer. The hair on your head gets thinner—but that’s all right, because the hair in your nose and in your ears gets thicker. It all works out in the end.
The approaching end of the novel coincides, in a twist of gallows humor, with the end of life.
But not quite the end, for Amis concludes with two pages of acknowledgments, in which everyone from Ted Hughes to Jane Austen is saluted. There is even, in what he terms “the most plangent evocation of the time I lived through,” Shakespeare’s song from The Tempest, “Full fathom five,” which appears in the novel and returns for a curtain call here. So the acknowledgments, like The Pregnant Widow as a whole, are over the top. I can’t think of any recent novel whose performance more teases, sometimes pleases, and sometimes grates, with its combination of verbal smarts, deep solemnity about the fact of death, and a show-off itch that doesn’t mind issuing in puerility. “Terrible compulsive vividness,” to quote again Kingsley Amis’s words, has the right mix of ambivalence about Martin Amis’s gifts and their excesses.