Review: The Pregnant Widow by Martin Amis

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The Pregnant Widow by Martin Amis book cover
The Pregnant Widow (2010) is a Martin Amis novel, no doubt about it. A short protagonist named Keith (an English lit. student) and a group of pretentious youngsters who are obsessed with one thing: Sex. Yes, this is undoubtedly, unmistakably a Martin Amis novel. But not one of his earlier efforts, as a short synopsis might suggest, rather a mature look back at the seeds of the sexual revolution from a distance of some decades. Set in the summer of 1970, Keith Nearing is holidaying with his girlfriend, Lily, and a group of friends in an Italian castle. They spend their days lounging by the pool and unashamedly putting sex at the forefront of their lives. The boys lust after the perfect breasts of Scheherazade and the huge bum of Gloria, the girls all struggle to define what liberation means for them – a safe but dull match, salacious liaisons, or maybe a tryst with local short-man, Adriano – well-endowed in the wallet and, seemingly, elsewhere too. But, of course, it’s not all harmless fun and as Keith looks back from the vantage point of 2009, he sees that the sexual revolution had its causalities as well as its beneficiaries.

Sex is everywhere in the novel - that is to say it is in all the characters minds and rarely far from their lips. Sex itself, that’s always just out of reach – beyond the veil. The density and repetitiveness of the sexual references and lustings, while representative of highly-charged youngsters, will prove tiresome to some readers, and do rather weigh the novel down in places. As each of the main female characters are introduced by their vital statistics, one might assume they will represent little more than the sexual projections of young male minds, yet women get a fuller role in The Pregnant Widow than in much of Amis’s fiction. Scheherazade, the dominant female presence in the early sections of the book, might be soppy, sappy, and all but sex-less, but the more interesting presence of Gloria, a sexually anarchic Catholic, and the less prominent, but nevertheless sexually-free, Rita, provide something deeper to enjoy. Lily, too, is a complicated and genuinely interesting woman – a depression seems on the edge of washing over her and there is an anxiety on her part, as though she fears that she may not be a winner in the sexual revolution. Violet, Keith’s little sister, is definitely a victim of the sexual revolution, and the more poignant passages of the novel that touch on her downfall will doubtless be compared to that of Amis’s own troubled sister, Sally. One could have stood a larger role for young Vi, but perhaps the blinkered vision of the male narrator is to blame for this omission.

Make no mistake though, the women might be liberated, but this is still liberation in relation to the masculine. Amis is strong on men’s sexual anxiety, and so he is on solid ground here, and his writing is all the better for focusing on a topic well within his comfort zone. His obsession with the human body and its many forms here is reminiscent of his early work. The creeping effects of aging too has been a long-term concern of Amis’s fiction and here too there is an anxiety about the past and the present. A decline and a mourning. Admittedly, he’s written with more verve and perception previously but, technically, this is one his best efforts for some years.

The Pregnant Widow is about sex, but not just any sort of sex: recreational sex. Procreation is spurned and actively snubbed when it is offered to Keith as a reason and requirement for sex. This is a generation who loved freely but not fully, not in the traditional sense. Sex is the headline, the main event, but the satellite concerns that circle around the sexual world sweep into the story’s focus on regular occasions. Perhaps most notable is religion – one of Amis’s growing preoccupations. Here we have characters who profess religion but act irreligiously, those who use their religion to shield themselves from the inevitable carnal act, others whose disregard for religion, ironically, stands between them and sex.

The suffocating static-ness of the castle setting works to create an insular and obsessive society with but a handful of members, but it can also be draining for the reader. There is little plot and the stagnancy of the situation mixed with the electric hormones and aching lust create an unusual social cocktail, which will nevertheless prove familiar to anyone who’s lusted after the unobtainable.

Keith’s position as an orphan, and the novel’s title, both suggest a child or generation without the guiding supervision of a parent – the absent father, the reckless youth who live without constraint. The epigraph highlights the fact that the title refers to the passing of an age, the death of the past and the hope of the future. Amidst the frenetic social change, Keith is afloat; not benefitting from the sexual revolution, not really. He is out of his depth, as Amisian males often are. It’s difficult to be sniffy about Amisian characters for their failures as this is rather missing the point – flawed and unpleasant is humanity, particularly amongst the pages of a Martin Amis novel.

Another Amis character named Keith may be more jading than comfortable, but the preposterously named Scheherazade - a liberator and tease – who finds the roots of her name in One Thousand and One Nights (Arabian Nights) more than makes up for the dullness of some of the other characters’ names. Young Keith appears to be working through the English canon and spewing forth entertaining (if reached for a little too often) views and opinions on Austin, Fielding, Richardson and more. Anyone who’s heard Amis speak on these topics will no doubt recognise more than a little of this. Indeed, Keith seems to take a remarkably similar position to Amis on most things: literature, god, and just about everything in-between. A more interesting literary reference is the leitmotif of Ovid’s Narcissus, injected into the narrative via frequent references to Ted Hughes’s translation of Metamorphoses, which bursts across the pools and fountains into which the young people gaze. A perfect inheritance.

A more rounded book, it would be easy to argue that The Pregnant Widow will overshadow Amis’s early work on similar topics – except for the fact that one not only gains from the distance in time, but also loses something – namely, the na├»ve vigour of prose that complimented the anxieties of the young characters in Amis’s young novels. There is controlled vulgarity here, but this is not a book to be quickly cast aside on the grounds of the overly-zealous use of profanity within, this is a book to be digested on a deeper level. Not vintage Amis, but perhaps a nod to a new direction.

To enjoy this you probably have to be prepared to look beyond the surface vulgarity - something that bothers me not in the slightest. An engaging read, but stodgy in places.


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