Review: The Pregnant Widow by Martin Amis
Jonathan Cape, €14.99
SET mainly in Campania, Italy, in 1970, with later short snippets of narrative taking its gloomy hero Keith Nearing up to 2009, The Pregnant Widow is a tottering puzzle of a novel that's unlikely to further enhance the reputation of Britain's most inventive writer of fiction. Is it about lost youth and the business of growing old? So it seems, but these are inevitabilities most of us manage to come to terms with: not -- it seems -- Martin Amis, who is now 60 and clearly hating every second of it.
The novel is also, we are assured in an introductory chapter, about sexual trauma (from Gk. 'wound') and torture (from L. torquere 'to twist'), inflicted on, or granted to, Keith by a very weird anti-heroine. (The etymological bits in parentheses are the author's, not the reviewer's.) "It ruined him for 25 years," we are told.
Amis puts us in the picture early on by quoting Philip Larkin's famous lines:
Sexual intercourse began In 1963 (Which was rather late for me) Between the end of the Chatterly ban And the Beatles' first LP.
So it -- sex -- was nicely established by 1970 when a bunch of students and assorted oddities assembled in a castle in Montale to enjoy a summer holiday with lots of good food and wine and sunshine.
There's Keith himself, a student of English literature flying through the works of Richardson, Fielding, Dickens, George Eliot, Jane Austen, Tobias Smollett, and, reluctantly, Thomas Hardy. There's his girlfriend Lily (is she intended to be quite so uninteresting?), and her friend Scheherazade, whose breasts, revealed insouciantly and daily beside the pool, are the subject of much debate.
There's Adriano, a rich noble who is 4ft 10in and obsessed with Scheherazade, who is a foot taller. Out of the goodness of her heart she tries to reciprocate his passion but with little success.
There are many more minor players who come and go, and then there's Gloria Beautyman, who starts off giving an impression of primness, even dowdiness, but turns out to be a sexual obsessive. She is the catalyst of Keith's trauma, and long after the not-so-idyllic summer in Italy she will continue to turn up to cause havoc in his life, encouraged by Keith himself, a character with masochistic tendencies. Gloria is a sinister and repellent figure, without redeeming features; she is greedy, cynical without being funny, and openly on the hunt for a rich husband.
But before Gloria inflicts the psychic wound on Keith, he feels constrained to attempt the seduction of Scheherazade, even resorting to drugging his girlfriend Lily to clear the way for an assignation. He seems to be quite aware that his behaviour is a bit on the caddish side, but is unruffled by this realisation. On it goes, musical chairs in the Italian sun, quite funny in spots, readable page for page, if not quite exhilarating. And though the old sparkle is missing much of the time -- he seems to be deliberately making Keith as unlikeable as possible, and a bit dull too -- we do get the odd burst of the lyrical Martin Amis, loving the language. Such as this:
"The frogs, massed in the wet ground between the walled flowerbeds, gurgled and comfortably grunted. It came to his ears as a stupor of self-satisfaction -- like a clutch of fat old men reviewing a lifetime of probity and profit. The frogs in their shallow swamp, in their stupor.
"The yellow birds laughed in the garish tenement of the elm. Higher up, the crows, with famished and bitter faces, faces half carved away (he thought of the black knights on the chessboard). Higher still, the Homeric strivers of the upper air, dense and solid as magnets, and in formation, like the blade of a spear, aimed at a land far beyond the horizon."
In some ways, perhaps mainly, The Pregnant Widow, is a lament, even a lamentation: for the splendours and squalors of youth; for failed marriages (Keith at the end is two down, with one intact); for dead friends; for, importantly, a wildly dysfunctional sister -- dead too, at last -- the line on the screen beside her bed still as Keith listens to the machine breathing on, futilely.
Amis has made no secret of the strong autobiographical element in The Pregnant Widow, and of his preoccupation with growing old. He told one interviewer recently that he's thrilled with his year-old grandson, adding though that they (grandchildren) are "also a telegram from a funeral parlour".
In the same interview he indicated that this novel about the sexual revolution is satirical, though this may elude some readers. The autobiographical element doesn't include Amis Senior (the novelist Kingsley) -- Keith is the adopted son of a gardener -- but he seems to have stuck closely to the tragic story of his younger sister, Sally (Violet in the novel), an alcoholic caught up destructively in the sexual revolution who had, according to Amis, a mental age of 12 or 13 and who died at the age of 46. Keith's sorrow over Violet's predicament gives the book a core of real feeling.
It took me a while to work out why I wasn't exactly enthralled by this fitful novel with its moments of brilliance and its sporadically amusing protagonist: it was the absence of anything resembling joie de vivre. If I'd been sitting around a pool in an Italian castle at the age of 20, surrounded by birds and bees and all the rest of it, I would have been just delirious.
Amis's last novel, House of Meetings (2006), was one of his best and showed not for the first time the writer's willingness to venture into uncharted literary territory. He has, he said recently, completed the first draft of a new novel: if the see-saw nature of his career over the years is anything to go by, his admirers may allow themselves a flutter of hope and anticipation.