Saturday, June 25, 2011

Martin Amis' The Pregnant Widow

Rarely does a cover do absolute justice to the essence of a book. Whoever in Random House commissioned this photo deserves a medal! 

This new book from the (former) infant terrible of English literature, Martin Amis, is a stunning exploration of the sexual revolution and its aftermath, what it meant in the late sixties/early seventies, and what it seems to mean now. The 'pregnant widow' metaphor, first used by psychologist Alexander Herzen, refers to the rather long period between the death of one social order and the birth of the new - 'a long night of chaos and desolation'. 

This is a longish novel, at 465 pages, so requires a commitment of time, but it is absolutely worth it. Amis is such a stunning, gifted writer. His prose is magic. In virtually every paragraph a marvellous phrase, drenched in insight or sharp comedy, stands out and delights:

'And it came to Keith now - her essential peculiarity. She went at it, as if the sexual act, in all human history, had never even been suspected of leading to childbirth, as if everyone had immemorially known that it was by other means that you peopled the world. All the ancient colourations of significance and consequence had been bleached from it...' (p.380)

A group of young English friends in 1970 are spending the summer in a mansion in Italy. The setting is highly sensual and erotic, with much sexual activity going on, more off-stage than on. The principal antagonist, Keith, quite obviously in this semi-autobiographical novel the young Amis, is in a comfortable but unchallenging relationship with Lily, but he's sexually attracted to her friend the beautiful, mysterious (and romantically named) Scheherazade (the girl on the right on the cover - Lily is on the left). 

Keith is a student of English literature, just graduated, which allows Amis to contrast this modern setting with older social orders portrayed in classic English novels, particularly those of Jane Austen. Despite Keith's rather irreverent readings of Austen - 'one fuck per book' - Amis succeeds in making the point: the rich, layered social spheres, constraints and mannerisms of the old, against the seeming yet entrapping freedoms of the new.

The final part of the novel re-visits the friends decades later, in contemporary times. The logic of their complicated personal identities and relationships, barely visible then, has been played out, both predictably, surprisingly, and sometimes quite sadly.

I've read most of Amis' novels over the years, including his non-fiction, so I think I can say with confidence that The Pregnant Widow is his best. Amis' superb talents are fully evident, and his serious, critical preoccupations best displayed. 

1 comment:

  1. Sounds good. Have added it to my reading list. Thanks Peter