The Pregnant Widow by Martin Amis (Knopf, $26.95, 370 pp.)
By Richard von Busack
Some wiseacre (maybe it was the now-forgotten proto-McSweeneyite Jack Douglas?) once summed up the plot of Of Human Bondage as “a story about a guy with a clubfoot getting kicked around by a girl, when it seems like it would have made more sense the other way around.” Tell me this isn’t similarly reductive: a book about a boy who falls obsessively with a girl with big breasts, only to be undone later by a girl with a big butt. Such is the first reaction to Martin Amis’ The Pregnant Widow, though the backdrop of the novel has more stature than the premise. It’s Amis’s farewell to the sexual revolution of the 1970s. Here he demonstrates the same sort of regret for radical excesses that he evinced later in life about Stalin. Couplings cheered or leered over in novels like Dead Babies and The Rachel Papers are now groaned over in the winter of life.
The theme of The Pregnant Widow is the sexual revolution falling, losing to religious atavism and the enduring power of money. 20-year-old narrator Keith Nearing, of none-too-rich or distinguished family, spends the summer of 1970 as a guest in a minor Italian castle. His filial, bed-ailing (if not quite bed-dead) relationship with young Lily is interrupted: her friend, a splendidly built girl named Scheherazade fascinates Keith. This is indicated by the way he compares their measurements. Later, Gloria arrives–an Edinburgh prude with a sensational butt. (Gloria is nastily nicknamed “Junglebum”.) She seems virginal, but in the fullness of time, Gloria evolves into one of the most savage bitches since Lucy Tantamount in Point Counter Point.
College age people travel in packs, which justifies the constant introduction of ever more new and half-drawn characters dropping in during the summer. Scads of people with peculiar nicknames and no personalities clutter the page. Keith’s shameful behavior, inspired by an incident in Richardson’s Clarissa (published 1747-8), is aptly punished by the females in this novel, who seize the male privileges of picking up a man fast and dropping him hard.
The physical life is contrasted with Keith’s daytime activity: cramming for an English major by keelhauling himself through the works of every British author from Samuel Richardson to D. H. Lawrence. It turns out Lawrence spent some time at this very castle, being given a similarly hard time by the straying Frieda. All of this cited reading makes for some salty literary commentary, which of course Amis could do blindfolded and drunk. Behind the scenes and between the chapters, is commentary of the Keith of today. He’s an older sadder figure living just as the Iraq War is commencing. Surely, Keith is a figure with something in common with Amis: with more past than future, waiting to see what diseases old age has in store for him.
And just as surely, Amis gets some sense of that rat-in-heat quality in youth. There is an emblematic rat in the novel: an animal that might be a rodent and might be a lapdog—a joke that’s worked like an everlasting jawbreaker. The book’s tunnel vision is reflected in other bits of wit: here, Amis’s Unabashed Dictionary defines “sodomy” as “the beast with one back.” It’d be hypocrisy for any male reader to read this and not remember how much young lust influenced falling in love: then, a deep cleavage seemed to indicate some similarly deep, maternal, earthy quality…just as young women fooled themselves into thinking every starveling guy is a spiritual esthete.
In stressing this, Amis may not be a letch—he’s just accurate about how simplistic a young man can be. And Amis champions of the civilizing mission of the English novel—the long climb out of the tangles of seducers and the seduced, evolves into the intellectual power to choose in Jane Austen’s heroines…not to mention the sexual frankness of Lawrence. (And yet it’s more than the extensive literary quotes, and the novel fading out on one of Ariel’s songs from The Tempest, that make this book read like something retrofitted from a young person’s diary.)
As text, it resembles Neil LaBute’s views of sex as one-upmanship, such as defined by father Kingsley: an act that “reminds an animal pretending not to be an animal that it is an animal”. If one tossed in the element of pleasure—as opposed to the way the sex drive is seen here, as an escape hatch from torturous, unbearable urges—the book might have turned into much-loathed pornography. There, at least, people pretend at least to like one another while they’re having sex.
The Pregnant Widow’s title is taken from an Alexander Herzen quote about the infant hope that survives the dashed hopes of any failed revolution. But even if one wrings hands over new Ayatollahs and born again Christians, doesn’t it seem like the pregnant widow in question delivered a healthy baby? Focus on, say, Idaho in 1970 instead of upper class Europe in 1970, and you’d think that the sexual revolution never got a real start. Focus on Tehran in 2010 instead of, say, Idaho, 2010, and you’d consider the sexual revolution lost. In fact, sex lives have changed even in the most backward parts of the world.
A 50 year old’s sex life is no joke, unless the joke’s on him. The narcissistic man of that age might think the whole globe is living on similarly thin rations. Most evidence suggests that the young are leaping into great polysexual piles, photographing each other and uploading it, buying porn like Marines on leave, and literally inventing categories of bedroom behavior that never existed before. Whatever one thinks of their morals, their music, or Christ help us, their literature, the evidence stands that young people are still rutting like hyenas on Cialus. Thus the point of The Pregnant Widow—to say nothing of the frustrating, meandering power plays recorded here—is slightly irrelevant.