The Pregnant Widow
By Martin Amis
Knopf / Jonathan Cape,470pp
Reviewed by Robin Mookerjee
When Mr. Amis releases a new novel his many readers want to know if it is fun – as fun as works likeLondon Fields. Other commentators busily ascribe views to the author on the basis of fictional dialogue. No contemporary novelist is subject to as many personal attacks as Amis, whose reviewers seem to think it appropriate to size him up personally as if he were a newcomer to their Upper West Side (or Islington) circle. Generally, the verdict is that Amis thinks too well of himself. So, when were distinguished authors expected to be self-effacing? These complaints conceal resentment that an author, out of key with contemporary tastes, is conspicuously talented and shows it. If the “courageous” authors of novels with three-word titles ending in “wife” or “daughter” could write like Amis, they probably would.
The nadir of recent entries in ad hominem criticism greeting The Pregnant Widow may be found in Katha Pollitt’s Slate review. The Nation columnist begins by implying that the author shouldn’t be taken too seriously, since he has a habit of making provocative remarks for the sake of publicity. She quotes two: “all leftists are Stalinists” and “British Muslims should be strip-searched at random.” Why does Pollitt misrepresent Amis’ remarks and call them “aggressively dumb”? (Well-informed readers may be inclined to reverse the charges.) At least she draws her ascriptions from nonfiction sources: a memoir about Stalin and an interview in The Times Magazine. However, she reviews Amis’ latest fictional work as a failed history of the feminist movement. It is insufficiently comprehensive, she writes: where is the revolutionary spirit? Perhaps she forgets that it is a story and not a cultural history.
Amis’ story treats the sexual revolution from a fairly unique point of view, and therein lies the problem. A variety of commentators approach nearly any fictional work as if it were a position paper from a neophyte party member who didn’t get the platform right. Amis, a serious novelist, approaches fraught issues from a questioning and willfully naÃ¯ve standpoint. It is naÃ¯ve not because he is ignorant of the scientific progress of history but because he sets aside received wisdom on a given issue, allowing himself and his readers a fresh vista. His bracing, questioning spirit is uncomfortable for some and may be seen as confrontational in spirit. But Mr. Amis is merely reopening cold cases, and he sees them everywhere.
As a result, critics are vexed in their attempts to apply labels to him: paleoliberal, Blitcon, neocon, etc. There is nothing new in this; satirists from Rabelais to Swift to Muriel Spark have always been difficult to label. If only they could be seen as a function of a genre of belief they would be tamed, since they are disturbing precisely because their perspective remains indeterminate. In his relative indifference to abuse, Amis resembles Mailer more than his obvious precursors, Nabokov, Bellow, and Roth. Each of these satirists, however, found himself on the receiving end of sustained and vigorous name-calling.
Such animus is especially curious when applied to The Pregnant Widow. The book’s frightful subject matter (sex) and use of commonplace words for body parts raised some manicured eyebrows, but it is mild stuff on the surface. The setting is pastoral and the words in its lexicon, including the main character’s given name, are strange new specimens as mouthed by the liberated 1970s cast at a remote Italian villa. Harry Mount of The Daily Telegraph worried, apparently with a straight face, that Amis’ wife might be disturbed by the author’s obsession with breasts. Sensitive readers understand that words like “sexual intercourse,” “breasts,” “cock,” “arse,” and “cunt,” repeated frequently in meandering, idle conversations in a Brideshead-like setting, are part of an elaboration on the comedy of youth. Being young and somewhat ridiculous, these characters see themselves as reinventing the most fundamental aspects of human experience, when in fact – male and female – they don’t have the least idea what they are doing.
Is such comedy an aging author’s unseemly display of prurience? Far from it. Amis’ earlier satires – especially The Rachel Papers, Money, and London Fields – books still kept behind the desk at indie bookstores for fear of shoplifters – contained a lot of verbal pleasure-seeking, discussion of drug use and sexual acting-out for the delectation of author and reader. Amis was not encouraging or promoting misbehavior, merely revealing his and our pleasure in hearing and thinking about it. Later books, the literary comedy The Information, the memoirs Experience and Koba the Dread, Yellow Dog, and The House of Meetings, contain transgressive elements aplenty, but subordinate them to questions about horrors in our collective past and the shimmery thinness of life in the urban present.
Like Evelyn Waugh, Mr. Amis began as a funnyman and was more generally liked in this earlier pose. But he was always a confrontational comic, a Lenny Bruce: shocking us with our own hypocrisy. The Amis of Yellow Dog and House of Meetings became so confrontational that audiences became a bit timorous. Do we really want to think about the ubiquity of pornography in our lives and minds? What was it that existed in the mental space now occupied by pornography? Even this is more palatable than dwelling on the under-discussed horrors of the twentieth century. Often described as a moralist, Amis is a satirist with no clear didactic purpose. Polemicists excite controversy only when they win adherents. Amis’ serious novels have merely taken the joke away from center court at Wimbledon (to borrow a favorite Amis theme) and onto the cement playground courts of other neighborhoods. The author of Yellow Dog, seen by Tibor Fischer as something like an uncle caught masturbating, is not pleasuring himself and making us watch. He is pleasuring us and making us squirm.
There is nothing like the brain-damaged, rampaging hero of Yellow Dog in The Pregnant Widow. Keith, like Charles in Brideshead Revisited or even Nick in The Great Gatsby, is a bedazzled wallflower among the indolent and privileged. His own name and his sister’s name are plain, and he and his sister are plain. Their privileged friends, Gloria and Scheherazade, gain stature through the accidental virtues of physical beauty, a palpable and irresistible power. Waking up in this liberated world, or watching this new world awaken, Keith finds himself surrounded by a strange language, startling for its frankness: its concern with body measurements, its judgments about stature and breast and penis size, and its unprecedented behavioral freedoms. Keith complains about the way ladies dress in this world; it shouldn’t be allowed! He also finds himself drawn into the preoccupations of privileged youth: with one’s own body, with other people’s bodies, with the virtues and uses of body parts, the variety of sexual options, and so on. Compared to the novels in supermarkets and drugstores, this book has few depictions of sex but an abundance of meandering and frank conversation. Beneath the badinage, the loosening of traditional behavioral codes, undertaken with such casualness, may be a fission bomb ready to go off beneath the peaceful villa, and Keith, barely a contender in this sexual arena, may be the only one to sense the danger.
The ingénue Keith is not the only traditional aspect of this story. The English country novel is rewritten with its genteel features, especially polite, indirect chitchat, essentially unchanged except by the new conventions of the 1970s. As Keith becomes increasingly infatuated with Scheherazade, his reading, beginning with Pamela and Shamela and moving through Pride and Prejudice, Wuthering Heights,Vanity Fair, Jane Eyre, and so on, parallels the novel’s progress through The English Novel. All the elements are there: complex courtship rituals, rich widows, wealthy but troubled male suitors – even Dickensian orphans. English confusion, class affiliations, conflict between love and venality, and ambivalence about sex remain the same even in the “liberated” world of the novel. The sexual shenanigans that remained tacit in the works of Henry James are occurring, mainly offscreen, here, but Keith remains a figure like Strether in The Ambassadors: perpetually confused, inquisitive, and terminally titillated.
This changes along with the novel’s pastoral feel when Keith has a transforming sexual experience, a confrontation with brutish physicality. At this point, the values, manners, and attractions that possess the minds of self-absorbed youth are replaced by the urgent bewilderment of fledgling adulthood. Unprepared for the carnality he now inhabits, Keith rewrites his story in a modernist mode, and launches into a confused and ethically questionable series of encounters. Keith’s sister, Violet, is similarly overmatched by the demands of the body, from which social conventions no longer shield the youth of the time, and, as the progress of the story shows, suffers a greater penalty for her innocence.
Is Amis writing about his sister Sally, who seems to have followed a broadly similar path? Is he saying that the sexual revolution was harder on women or shouldn’t have happened at all? Like other comedians, Amis subordinates viewpoints and autobiographical sources to the exigencies of his craft. Throughout The Pregnant Widow, Keith’s unpreparedness for a world he experiences as shockingly visceral echoes the novelist’s distance from the brick-and-mortar events evoked in his text.
He stumbled and then steadied. Ever since his arrival, four days ago, Keith had been living in a painting, and now he was stepping out of it. With its cadmium reds, its cobalt sapphires, its strontian yellows (all freshly ground), Italy was a painting, and now he was stepping out of it and into something he knew: downtown, and the showcase precincts of the humble industrial city. (11)
Whether he interprets the fresh hell in which he has found himself as a novel like Clarissa or a canvas by Delacroix, Keith must approach life through aesthetic media. Even words like “downtown” are comfortable labels rather than place markers for an urban world a figure like Keith may actually inhabit. Is it his lack of privilege, either socially or in the looks department, that accounts for his detachment? We can’t be sure, but we are nonetheless struck by the way Amis’ wordplay, often described (even by his father, another great satirist) as self-indulgent, are integrated into the narrative consciousness guiding us through The Pregnant Widow. Even when the voice is that of an author given to discursive asides, these asides are on the subject of language as it is sometimes used. This language is something like the Potemkin Village of our minds concealing an inconceivable state of affairs.
Vital statistics. The phrase originally referred, in studies of society to births, marriages, and deaths. Now it meant bust, waist, and hips. In the long days and nights of his early adolescence, Keith showed an abnormal interest in vital statistics; and he used to dream them up for his solitary amusement. Although he could never draw (he was all thumbs with a crayon), he could commit figures to paper, women in outline, rendered numerically. (10)
Surely every adolescent is interested in statistics? No, but the inevitable curiosities accompanying adolescence are translated in Keith’s mind into the language of the time, the measurements fromPlayboy and 1950s beach movies. The sophisticated obsessions of older youth merely exacerbate Keith’s adolescent confusion, turning puberty into a math game. The passage shows Amis’ ability to articulate the line between public language and its private uses, which often confound public intents. In later life, Keith remains troubled by a shifting lexicon.
When he was young, people who were called stupid and crazy were stupid andcrazy. But now (now he was old) the stupid and crazy were given special names for what ailed themâ€¦ He noticed that even the kids’ stuff got special names. And he read about their supposed neuroses and phantom handicaps with the leer of an experienced and by now pretty cynical parent. I recognize that one, he would say to himself, otherwise known as Little Shit Syndrome. (3)
Keith’s skepticism about psychological labels aside, his point of view throughout the novel highlights its true theme: the obfuscation of pressing realities and necessities of life by our preoccupation with verbal conceits.
Like earlier English novelists, Amis highlights the distinctions between the surfaces of language as used and the underlying psychological and physical realities. However, he treats this novel theme in a unique way through the topic of the sexual revolution. His story suggests this revolution was not a true liberation, merely a renegotiation of our verbal habits as they apply to sexuality. This shift had its consequences on behavioral norms, to be sure, with which some characters were ill-prepared to cope. It may be that the old English hypocrisy about the facts of life at least helped maintain some prophylactic social structures and behavioral strictures.
Now, that’s not good or bad: it’s something to think about. Amis’ recent novels give us that opportunity. However, like some of the characters in the book, many of us can’t get past all the dirty words. We have more in common with their gossipy mentality than we ever knew.