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The Pregnant Widow

The past few years have not been kind to Martin Amis. Somewhere between the unseemly spat with his former chum, Julian Barnes, over his decision to dump Barnes’ wife, Pat Kavanagh, as his agent, and his bellicose remarks about the need for the British Muslim community to “suffer until it gets its house in order’”, the gloss went off the former wunderkind. The golden boy who could do no wrong mutated into something darker, and less easily assimilated.

Part of the problem was political. In the aftermath of 9/11, Amis’s politics grew more strident, less compromising. Just as his friend Christopher Hitchens chose to see parallels between the US-led invasion of Iraq and the fight against European fascism in the 1930s and 40s, Amis took as his target what he construed as the vacillation of many on the Left about the war on terror and the threat of Islamic fundamentalism: “Given the choice between George Bush and Osama bin Laden, the liberal relativist, it seems, is obliged to plump for the Saudi.”

As rhetoric it’s impressive, but it’s also manifestly unfair. Widespread unease with US foreign policy among the British Left and a longstanding sympathy for the Arab cause do not, except in a few specialised cases, translate into tacit support for jihadists, nor, whatever the demagogues of Fox News would have us believe, is a desire to appreciate the complexities of the social and historical context of political Islam the same thing as a lack of resolve.

Provocateurs make enemies, of course. But it’s difficult not to feel that Amis’s problems run deeper than merely offending the proprieties of the Left. Certainly remarks, like those made to an interviewer several years ago, that he couldn’t be a racist because he’d once had a Pakistani girlfriend, reveal a curious lack of comprehension of the manner in which old assumptions of cultural authority no longer play in multicultural Britain.

Nor has it helped that his recent books haven’t been much chop. After the flawed brilliance of The Information and his startlingly tender and painfully raw memoir of life with his father Kingsley, Experience, Amis has, beginning with his history of Stalin, Koba the Dread, produced a string of misfires.

At least one of these, the 2003 novel Yellow Dog, is likely to endure by virtue of having been on the receiving end of one of the most famous literary hatchet jobs of recent years, when novelist Tibor Fischer, writing in The Daily Telegraph, described it as not “bad as in not very good or slightly disappointing. It’s not-knowing-where-to-look bad …  It’s like your favourite uncle being caught in a school playground, masturbating.”

Thrilling as the viciousness of Fischer’s review is, its savagery has occluded the fact that while Yellow Dog may not be Amis’s best, it’s a better book than it’s usually given credit for, and certainly much better than its successor, the egregiously awful House of Meetings.

Yet in it, and indeed most of Amis’s writing over the past decade, it’s possible to see something curiously misjudged, a sense in which Amis is struggling to adapt to a world in which old certainties have given way.

In this context it seems reasonable to feel a tremor of apprehension when faced with Amis’s new novel, The Pregnant Widow, which he has boldly declared deals with the aftermath of the sexual revolution, and more particularly the still-unfinished birth of a new, post-feminist notion of sexual roles and sexual morality. Certainly Amis is not the first writer who leaps to mind when one thinks of feminism. He is, after all, the writer who was nobbled by the Booker Prize committee for perceived misogyny in 1989, and whose sensibility might politely be described as more likely to find admirers among men than women.

In a way it’s curious Amis hasn’t been here before. After all, sexual failure and emasculation are recurrent themes in his writing, and in the larger Amisian universe the notion of female emancipation is, unsurprisingly, hopelessly entangled with anxieties about male superfluity.

The book itself is set in an Italian house in the late 1960s. Bankrolled by a relative of the hopelessly posh, improbably pneumatic Scheherazade, a mismatched group of English students have taken up residence for the summer, most prominent among them the chippy Keith Nearing and his girlfriend, Lily.

As the summer passes, and Keith wavers between the comforts of Lily and his increasingly consuming desire for Scheherazade, a series of others pass through the house, most notably Gloria Beautyman (and her impossible arse), Keith’s friend, Kenrik, and his travelling companion, the libidinous Rita (or as she is better known, “the Dog”), and a ludicrous miniature Valentino of an Italian nobleman, Adriano. There is also, like a silent chorus, the watchful presence of a veiled Muslim girl, Ashraf.

Once, such material might have provided Amis with the framework for a novel of almost Nabokovian brilliance. Yet The Pregnant Widow feels, if not tired exactly, then certainly somehow bereft, a book out of time.

In a way this is unsurprising: neither Amis the man nor Amis the writer seem to have quite got over the dreadful realisation of mortality that underpins The Information, yet here it is not just thematic but textural, the scabrous glitter of books such as London Fields and Money replaced by a creeping sense of loss.

The result is a book that feels curiously unnecessary. In part that’s because of the inescapable feeling that we have been here before, which, in many ways we have. For all that it presents itself as an exploration of the sexual imagination, The Pregnant Widow is essentially a tour of the anxieties and obsessions that animate so much of Amis’ writing: breasts, penis size, impotence, and of the male awfulness he both celebrates and excoriates, a tour given larger meaning by the book’s encounter with loss.

But it’s also because the novel’s ideas don’t measure up to the power of its literary and stylistic armature. This is not to say there aren’t moments in which the book swells with great, and often unexpected compassion, though as now seems inescapable with Amis, they are almost all about ageing (“Then fifty comes and goes, and fifty-one, and fifty-two. And life thickens out again. Because there is now an enormous and unsuspected presence within your being, like an undiscovered continent. This is the past.”). But it is also a recognition that for all its bluster, for all its flashes of brilliance, The Pregnant Widow is a book grounded in bafflement, not just at the way death and loss bear down on all of us, but at the way a world that was once its author’s command seems to have moved on and left him behind.

First published in The Australian Literary Review, February 2010.

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6 Comments Post a comment
  1. What a terrific review that is. But the book sounds horrible.

    I’ve just finished a patchy novel by first-timer Erin Kelly that also takes up the ‘group of students in a haunting house over the summer’ meme, in which I have a particular interest because I once had a summer like that myself, in Martindale Hall. My literary benchmark for this is Barbara Vine / Ruth Rendell’s A Fatal Inversion, which I’ve never seen anyone beat either for psychological acuity about the dynamics of such a group or for drawn-out dread.

    July 28, 2010
    • Thanks, Kerryn – that means a lot to me coming from you. It was one of those ones where you wanted another 1000 words to really get into it, but as I’m sure you know, that’s not always an option.

      I’ve read the Vine and remember liking it a lot, but it was a long time ago so I’m afraid I’ve forgotten most of the details. But you’re right, the students/summer genre is an interesting and surprisingly rich one, though I’d probably shoehorn a few other books that occupy the same terrain, in particular The Secret History and Ian McEwan’s The Cement Garden, both of which use the same dynamic of adolescents set free of social constraint and the gradual movement towards violence.

      July 28, 2010
  2. “It was one of those ones where you wanted another 1000 words to really get into it, but… that’s not always an option.”

    I think you needed those extra words. You’ve got a review sixteen paragraphs long. Ostensibly it’s a review of The Pregnant Widow, but you don’t actually begin discussing the book until more than halfway through — the eleventh paragraph — while the first ten paragraphs focus on the Amis oeuvre. That gives you only six paragraphs for the book itself, two of which are only plot summary, leaving you with just four paragraphs in which to first evaluate the book and then justify the ten paragraphs on the oeuvre: ie. to judge the book on its own merits and then to decide, on the basis of those merits, whether or not it represents a return to form for Amis. Because four paragraphs are not enough to satisfy both these aims, you end up with a weak summary evaluation not much more thorough than a capsule review: only one quote from the novel to justify one of your judgment calls and nothing to justify any of the others. I hear your verdict on The Pregnant Widow but I’m not persuaded by it because you don’t engage with the novel thoroughly enough to demonstrate how you arrived at it.

    I don’t mean to be harsh on your critical abilities per se. I understand as much as anyone how stultifying word limits can be. Plus, the governing assumption of the Australian broadsheets — including the ALR — seems to be that readers are either antipathetic towards or terrified of close engagement with fiction on literary terms and therefore find it more palatable to read about trivialities superfluous to the work itself (Amis’ spat with Barnes, for instance) than the nature and import of the words on the page. That’s what I mean when I say that you need those thousand extra words: broadsheet reviews have physical limitations and a perceived readership (or market) which, combined, essentially compel reviewers to write about books in a way that at best entails a digression from the subject of evaluation and is at worst antithetical to the task of evaluation. If only there existed some sort of literary medium that allowed you to engage with the book at greater length and in greater depth. If only you had access to some sort of publishing venue unencumbered by the requirement to serve a general readership and also unencumbered by a brutal word limit… cf. http://bit.ly/9EMBVr

    February 13, 2011
    • I’m sorry you don’t like the review. And I don’t think it’s any secret that word limits sometimes make it difficult for reviewers to engage with books in a serious way (though I’d argue a hell of a lot of craft that goes into writing good newspaper reviews, and a large part of that craft, as with any journalism, involves learning to work with its limitations).
      But I think you’re wrong to declare Amis’ spat with Barnes is trivial or irrelevant: reviewing (and reviewing in the broadsheets in particular) isn’t just about assessing books and close textual analysis, it’s about placing them in context and entertaining readers, and with a writer like Amis, whose career is intimately entangled with his public life and public pronouncements it’s almost impossible to discuss one without the other. Just as a film reviewer needs to be able to move from the aesthetics of film to the business of film to the political and social context of film, book reviewing in the broadsheets requires reviewers to operate on several different levels at once. That doesn’t preclude the sort of close engagement you advocate, but it does mean that it’s only one of a number of considerations that come into play in framing and writing a review. Whether I’ve got the balance right in this piece or not is an open question, but I simply don’t accept the argument that broadsheet reviews are necessarily compromised y their context.

      February 13, 2011
  3. Geordie #

    Daniel, you are quite the scold. I predict for a you a stellar career in academe.

    As for the review: James, I’m only sorry we cut so much of the material directly relating to the text. It was decent of you to refrain from blaming the editors but still: that was our bad.

    Geordie

    February 13, 2011

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