- The Pregnant Widow by Martin Amis
Cape, 470 pp, £18.99, February 2010, ISBN 978 0 224 07612 8
My feelings about Martin Amis are complicated, as is surely only proper. His latest novel is odd and discontinuous and in the end incoherent, with much stopping and starting, and echoing of previous novels, and quoting from Shakespeare, and other things that might be adduced as evidence of artistic stalling or, alternatively, as developments towards a late style – there’s even a bizarre final-act revelation involving a lady draped in ‘the hijab’, which could make sense only in a Winter’s Tale-type romance. Let’s begin, though, with a wave in the direction of some good bits. On what ageing does to the skin of the middle-class male body:
As you pass the half-century, the flesh, the coating on the person, begins to attenuate. And the world is full of blades and spikes. For a year or two your hands are as nicked and scraped as a schoolboy’s knee. Then you learn to protect yourself. This is what you’ll go on doing until, near the end, you are doing nothing else – just protecting yourself. And while you are learning to do that, a doorkey is a doornail, and the flap on the letterbox is a meat-slicer, and the very air is full of spikes and blades.
Sheep, as heard by townies on holiday:
Naa, said the sheep. Nah. Nah! … The entirely understandable boredom (ragged, end-of-tether) that went with being a sheep.
And the traditional Amis shortarse anxiety, owned up to and acknowledged in the person of the hero – who is called Keith Nearing and is said to occupy ‘that much disputed territory between 5’6” and 5’7”’ – but also redoubled, in a wonderfully horrid low comic coup, by a minor character called Adriano, who is rich, aristocratic, handsome, a daredevil, and only 4’10”: ‘You know what they looked like?’ someone says, having seen Adriano standing next to his well-over-six-foot brother. ‘They looked like a bottle of Scotch and a miniature. The same brand and the same label.’
The novel begins with much throat-clearing and attention-seeking, the sort of thing Fay Weldon said she learned from working in advertising – lots of sensational copylines designed to draw you in. ‘This is the story of a sexual trauma’; ‘She loomed up on him unclothed and unarmed, with her pincers of bliss’; ‘It was the opposite of torture, yet it twisted. It ruined him for 25 years.’ The actual set-up scene is terrific: it’s 1970, and Keith is 20, an English literature student at London University, on holiday at a rich friend’s castle in Campania. He’s gone for an evening stroll in the nearby village with Lily, his on-off lover, and Scheherazade, her second-best friend, both girls English and blonde and, for southern Europe 40 years ago, somewhat underdressed. ‘Swiftly and surreally’ they are surrounded ‘by a swarm of young men’,
whooping, pleading, cackling – and all aflicker, like a telekinetic card trick of kings and knaves, shuffling and riffling and fanning out under the street-lamps … The energy coming off them was on the level … of an East Asian or sub-Saharan prison riot – but they didn’t actually touch, they didn’t actually impede; and after a hundred yards they fell like noisy soldiery into loose formation, a dozen or so contenting themselves with the view from the rear, another dozen veering in from either side, and the vast majority up ahead and walking backward. And when do you ever see that? A crowd of men, walking backward?
There is much potential – hot girls, massed men, explosive sexual frustration – for the sort of ugly comedy Amis often enjoys, but it’s handled with a restraint that turns, almost, to earnestness, as a wise old homosexual pads on to caution that they should look ‘at these guys with a bit of perspective’. Italy, the man says, is just beginning to make the transition from ‘shame and honour. It’s like Afghanistan. Or Somalia’ (the first of many weird and anachronistic irony-of-history references to the early 21st-century clash of civilisations). And if looking at ‘these guys with a bit of perspective’ were not un-Amislike enough, here and elsewhere the book contorts itself to present these girls with almost bien pensant sympathy. Later, Eric Hobsbawm – ‘a distinguished Marxist historian’ – is cited, and so is the Equal Pay Act, and the National Organisation for Women. And ‘The Female Eunuch … Women’s Estate … Sexual Politics … and Our Bodies, Ourselves’, which ‘all appeared in 1970, back to back, and with perfect timing. It was official. It was here, and just for Keith.’
This, we gather, is to be a story about the early days of women’s liberation, as it affects a small group of posh students on holiday in an Italian castle. Sex, it seems, is beginning to become separate, not just from love and marriage, but – the vanguard fondly imagines – from consequence and commitment, with Keith doing his best, as he confesses, to ‘ponce off the spirit of the times’. Philip Larkin – the usual – is quoted on the matter; there’s a bouncy riff about ‘girls acting like boys’ being ‘in the air’, and another about all the ‘cool pants’ a chick has to buy if she hopes to carry things off. Keith and his friends are ‘Nuclear Cold War’ veterans, children of a ‘Me Decade’ and ‘the She Decade’, ‘children of the Golden Age’, shortly to turn into ‘the Silver Tsunami’. The book’s title and one of its epigraphs are from Herzen: ‘The death of the contemporary forms of social order ought to gladden rather than trouble the soul. Yet what is frightening is that the departing world leaves behind it not an heir, but a pregnant widow. Between the death of the one and the birth of the other, much … chaos and desolation will pass.’ The story cuts between 1970 and the early 2000s, with young Keith trying to get his end away, and old Keith thrice married and bearing scars; old Keith, like the author, has two young daughters, which is perhaps one reason for this novel’s noticeably greater sensitivity to the experience of women.
To begin with, the story, too, is oddly un-Amislike, comedy-of-manners bourgeois, round-the-swimming-pool pastoral; except that inevitably the holiday, and the sexual liberation idyll, have both already gone wrong. Remember those Italians, crowding round the hot blonde dyad? ‘You know, boys are so cruel. And so fucking rude’: the boys, it seems, made it clear they liked Scheherazade, ‘5’10”, 37-23-33’ with ‘glorious’ breasts, much better than Lily, who is only ‘5’5”, 34-25-34’. Keith cringes for her, and comforts her when she weeps about it – ‘Oh, Keith, why aren’t I beautiful? … Everyone’s beautiful. Why aren’t I beautiful?’ Keith really does sincerely and truly love her, but he’s desperate, none the less, to have sex with Scheherazade, although Scheherazade would rather be doing it with Timmy, her errant boyfriend, and although Keith knows that nothing in the world would hurt poor Lily more. And so Amis poses a version of the great utilitarian question underlying consumer democracy. Is there a way everybody can get what they think they have a right to without causing too much suffering to others? ‘So it’s not just me,’ Keith thinks at one point.
We all sense it: the reality of that frightening thing, social change … This is a contest that is coming, intersexual and intrasexual: a beauty contest, a popularity contest and a talent contest. There is more display, comparison, staring, noting, assessing – and therefore more invidia. Invidia: that which is unfair, and likely to arouse resentment and anger in others. It is a contest, and therefore some will fail, some will lose. And we will find many new ways of failing and losing.
The protagonists are young, though, in 1970, and there are lots of ways of having your cake and eating it waiting to be tried. Such as drugs and mildly fetishistic sexual role-play and free love – ‘but it wasn’t love that was on offer’ – and various forms of liberating deceit. Keith tries to smother his frustration with some heavy-duty reading of the English novel: Pamela, Shamela and Clarissa, Tom Jones, Pride and Prejudice (‘It’s a happy ending’ … ‘Except for that slag who fucks the dragoon’). Reflection on the novels becomes, sometimes, a way of discussing the history of sexual politics: ‘It sometimes 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?’ But it also becomes a discussion about modes of representation, and whether or not it’s true that the only ‘kind of sex that can be described’ is porn. Lily, it seems, is a ‘creature of the middleworld’, an admirer of George Eliot who has ‘no patience with any work of fiction that strayed from the sternest social realism’; Keith, to begin with, assumes ‘that social realism would hold, here in Italy. And yet Italy itself seemed partly fabulous … He was, ominously, a K in a castle. But he was still assuming that social realism would hold.’
And so it does, for around 300 pages, until it ‘swiftly and surreally’ falls away. Another young woman comes to the castle, Gloria Beautyman, Scottish and prudish, who wears thick-knit and skirted swimsuits in an effort to cover her disproportionately enormous backside. To begin with, she is just irritating and implausible, overloaded with attributes stuffed in because, you never know, they might come in handy: a ballet dancer, and an artist, and the daughter of a disappointed diplomat, and a gold-digger, engaged to be married to Scheherazade’s repulsive cheese-magnate cousin – ‘a terrible compendium of Upper England … Ascot and Lord’s and the Henley Regatta … hay-wains and ha-has and cowpats and sheep-dips’ etc. But then she is revealed to be a harbinger of the new dimension, hyperreal and hypersexual, ‘shaped and framed, packaged and gift-wrapped, stylised, cartoonified and looking, for a moment at least, illusorily pure’, as the London Fields Martin Amis wrote of Nicola Six. Her character vibrates with world-historical significance; her arse, we are told, is ‘an achievement on an epic and terrifying scale, like the Chinese Revolution or the rise of Islam or the colonisation of the Americas’. At another point, Keith imagines ‘her buttocks as a pair of gigantic testicles … not oval, but perfectly round, and sloping upward into the hard-on of her torso and the helmet of her head’. In other words, Keith imagines his visitor from the future as a giant penis. Or, as she puts it: ‘I am a cock. And we’re very rare.’
It’s Gloria Beautyman who owns the ‘pincers’ that deliver Keith to the advertised ‘trauma’, which takes place in the castle bathroom, ‘lit by the innards of the storm’. The sex is described as a ‘black mass’; it’s largely anal, so far as I can tell, and, ‘You know – backward. Everything the wrong way round.’ It’s not the acts in themselves that do the damage so much as the pornography of it, the mirrors, the coldness, the calculation, ‘the vulgarity of the colour white’. Gloria goes ‘at it’, we are told, ‘as if the sexual act, in all human history, had never even been suspected of leading to childbirth’, as if it were only ‘a play of surfaces and sensations’, transcendent, in no way a part of reality. ‘What category am I in?’ Keith keeps asking himself. ‘What genre did I visit?’
In its lustres and static facets it often reminded him of the pages of a glossy magazine – fashion, glamour. But what was its type as drama, as narrative? He was sure it wasn’t romance. Every few minutes it occurred to him that it might be science fiction. Or advertising. Or propaganda. But this was 1970 and he didn’t know it – he didn’t know the mode.
The argument is difficult to follow, but Amis, I think, is trying to tell a story about what he calls a ‘second dissociation of sensibility’, in which ‘sex divorced itself from feeling’, with the mode that has no name in the Italian castle in 1970 none other than the old faithful, ‘pornography … the industrialisation of that rift’. The sexual revolution starts innocently, with girls like Rosalind and Viola pretending to be boys; it then develops into something Amis calls (I forgot to mention it earlier, but Gloria is furiously religious) ‘pornotheological farce’. Keith doesn’t ‘know the mode’ because he’s too young and English to know about the sex industry and how it works in the age of mechanical reproduction, shoehorning its products into every tiny gap between desire and actuality, fantasy and reality; he will find out soon, though, when a few years later he starts going ‘to America – to New York, to Los Angeles’, where the development of ‘the genre (the type, the mode) that Gloria in some sense belonged to’ is already well advanced. By the time the story gets to our present, Gloria’s mode has pretty well taken over. Keith’s 23-year-old stepdaughter comes round one evening, dressed up, she says, in ‘her new uniform – as a feminist’: miniskirt, halter top, bare stomach with jewellery in it, and in her nose and lip. ‘It’s a joke,’ she says bitterly, ‘I hope you’re proud.’ Nowadays, she says, the sexuality of young people is always-already pornographic, ‘pornoid’: ‘We’re the spiders of the Web. We got everything we know from the infinity of filth.’
The second half of the novel also tells a different but related story, that of Keith’s younger sister, Violet, which we know – because Amis makes a point of telling journalists – is ‘blindingly autobiographical’ and based on that of his own sister, Sally, who died ten years ago of chronic alcohol abuse. The fictional Violet is always drunk, helplessly promiscuous, and just wears herself out, unable to tell the difference between exploitation and affection. It’s a very sad story, and feels true, and is written with tenderness and insight. I wonder, though, if a novel such as this one is the right place for it. Early on, we see Keith using Violet’s problems as a Bunbury, an alibi that covers him for some of his own more nefarious doings – ‘But men are shifty. Shiftier than they know. Shifty even within their own shifty beings.’ The problem is that as the novel goes on Amis’s use of the Violet material comes to seem a Bunbury itself: Keith gets a lot of wiggle room, a vicarious aura of victimhood, what with all the grieving for his poor lost sister. Whether consciously or unconsciously, with calculation or caught up in a creative panic, Amis uses both Violet and Gloria to let Keith off the hook.
As I said at the beginning, my feelings about Martin Amis are complicated. I can see he’s a forceful comic stylist, and that his early novels wrench round the English Literature dialectic in clever and lasting ways. I still laugh every time I think about ‘Keithene. Keitha. Keithinia’, and Keith Talent’s other ideas for naming his baby; I’ll always remember that smear of shit on the side of Nicola Six’s toilet, even though I’d rather not. Plus I’m as used as everybody else is to living with the shadow of Amis, like one of those Slitheen spaceships that’s always looming over London on Doctor Who; and I really like a lot of his reviews. In particular, I like his habit of ending in mid-air, speechless, wagging his finger – when it’s someone or something worth admiring – as at a blackboard, on which he has transcribed a list of quotes. And the memoir, Experience, is majestic: the apparent freedom and potency of the memoir genre so often tempt the writer into terrible aesthetic and ethical confusion, but Amis glares down the challenge ‘without artifice. Though not without formality.’ It’s a work of great discipline and forbearance, of feeling and of thought. And yet, only a couple of years after it came the incontinent Yellow Dog, and Koba the Dread and House of Meetings, and the foolish remarks about Muslims and ‘horrorism’ and so on. You can sort of see why, in the stress and shock of the moment, Amis might have mistaken the destruction of the Twin Towers as evidence of his own manifest destiny, given his longtime interest in sharking planes, impending cataclysm, bombs, wars and masculine protest; but you’d hope he’d get over it. ‘Someone who is perennially surprised that depravity exists,’ as Susan Sontag wrote in Regarding the Pain of Others, ‘has not reached moral or psychological adulthood. No one after a certain age has the right to this kind of innocence, of superficiality, to this degree of ignorance, or amnesia.’ In The Pregnant Widow, Amis tries very hard to get beyond the inflated self-regard that has got in the way of his recent attempts at geopolitical thinking. Except that it always seems to ping out somewhere else.
There’s a particularly odd bit in the present novel where Amis reprises one of the pieces collected in The Second Plane (2008), which mentions Jihaz al-Haneen, the Iraqi secret police force under Saddam. ‘Jihaz al-Haneen,’ Keith thinks in 2003, ‘translated as the instrument of yearning. The only way the phrase made any sense to him was as a description of the human body.’ Some pages later, Keith, 1970 version, is snooping around in the Italian castle, lusting as usual after Scheherazade and her breasts. ‘It was everything and nothing, it subsumed death and infinity – what to do with the instrument of yearning?’ It’s not clear if the author is aware of the irony or, if he is, what he thinks he’s doing with it. Amis could chuck more or less anything on a piece of paper and it would look good and seem to be interesting, up to a certain point. Beyond that, though, I can’t really say I know what he’s trying to say, and I’m not sure that he does either.
Let’s end instead on an airy quote-stab. So what about Keith’s and – who knows – maybe Amis’s final word on feminism, which seems to be that men and women need to make domestic duties work ‘fiftyfifty’ between them:
Everyone, now, was talking about torture. Well, Keith would be easy to torture. Make him show up at a PTA meeting, make him spend 15 minutes with his accountant, make him go with a list to Marks & Spencer – and he’d tell you everything he knew … Keith, in 2009, felt that boredom was as strong as hate.