The Pregnant Widow is a somewhat opaque title for this story, but the epigram at the start helps to explain what it is about. It is a quote, from Alexander 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 water will flow by, a long night of chaos and desolation will pass.
In this case, the death of contemporary forms of social order is the change from sexual inhibition to liberation that started in the 1960s and really kicked off in the 1970s. The story is set in the summer of 1970, when 20 year-old Keith Nearing is spending his summer holiday in an Italian castle with his girlfriend Lily, her friend (and provider of the castle) Scheherazade and several other friends. The book is interspersed with ‘ intervals’, set in 2006, when Keith is reflecting back on his life, and its focus is the long term effects of free love and the sexual revolution.
I was interested to read this because my own novel is set at the same time and also very much concerned with the impacts of the sexual revolution on women, but Martin Amis has the benefit of actually having been there. I’ve never read one of his books but knew that he is a British author that seems to attract lots of controversy, and is the son of one of the most famous British novelists – Sir Kingsley Amis. A hard act to follow, especially when you decide to become not just a writer, but a novelist and a comic one at that. I also had a little knowledge of his childhood, having read the autobiography of Elizabeth Jane Howard, Kingsley Amis’ second wife. The book claims to be autobiographical, and at least some of the details about Keith Nearing match Amis’ own life, according to his book ‘Experience’, which I read straight after and enjoyed immensely.
I’d also read on the release of this book of Amis talking about his sister who died at an early age of alcoholism and some of her problems Amis believes stem from the fallout of the sexual revolution. Her story is clearly linked to the character of Keith’s sister Violet.
Around 80 pages in, I was ready to hate this book but slowly as I kept reading, that changed and in the end I have to say I enjoyed it very much. Its greatest strength I think is its comedy. Keith Nearing’s attempts to sleep with the girls in the castle other than his girlfriend are hilarious and his failed attempt to make sure he gets away with it in one case is comedic gold. But like all the best comedy, its laced with tragedy and sadness. One particular example is of the character of Rita, who has travelled to Italy with their mutual friend Kenrick. It transpires, that against all advice, Kenrick has ‘fucked the dog’, as they call Rita, on the way there. Rita is a big, gutsy character whose accent Amis lampoons brilliantly but both she and Kenrick are ultimately troubled characters.
Keith is also reading his way through all the greats of English literature, and his discussions on Jane Austen in bed with one of the women, are hilarious. But the story I think really loses momentum in the aftermath of the holiday and the fate of some of the characters is pretty unconvincing. He talks for instance about the women who missed having children, but only in a passing way and not with any sort of understanding. There’s a few things Amis speculates on about the sexual revolution – the girls who started behaving and having sex like boys and the ones damaged by promiscuity are two of the themes. But I think these are issues that are still pertinent to women today but I guess what Amis is proposing is that the seeds of these issues were sown in the late 60s.
Amis is known for his linguistic acrobatics some of which are good and some just extremely annoying. Keith has a habit of peppering his speech with etymological references but these I didn’t mind. Some of his sentences are wonderful – ‘corpulent raindrops began here and there to fall’. But some of the deeper ruminations on the nub of things are just too impenetrable – ‘Here they were in the She decade – but they were all of them in the cusp of Narcissus. They were not like their elders and they would not like their youngers. Because they could remember how it was before: the lighter weight on the individual, when you lived your life automatically…They were the first that ever burst into that silent sea, where the surface is a shield that burns like a mirror.’ Eh? Too clever for me, I’m afraid. But overall, its a great read, the fall away towards the end notwithstanding.