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.