Martin Amis’s twelfth novel reimagines the sexual revolution as a comedy of manners, with deadly serious intentions
The Pregnant Widow
By Martin Amis (Jonathan Cape, £18.99)
Over the last decade, one nagging question has increasingly vexed the literary commentariat: is Martin Amis turning into his father? Fulminations against “Islamo-fascism” and modernity’s idle relativism have, together with the advancing years, convinced some observers that a familial pattern is being played out. A young Turk shocks the establishment with the wit and verve of his debut, enjoys spectacular (by literary standards) success and notoriety, and then spends his last couple of decades lurching steadily to the right and lamenting the awfulness of modern times.
According to this model, Amis junior—who turned 60 last year—is about due for an autumnal fictional flowering. His father finally consolidated his status as a major British author at the age of 64, with the 1986 publication of The Old Devils, which won him the Booker prize that has so far eluded his son. Martin Amis has not written a great work of fiction since The Information—one of the most spectacularly entertaining accounts of artistic envy ever committed to print—in 1995. Is this the return to form we have all been hoping for?
In short—yes, it is. Despite its autobiographical resonances, however, it is not the figure of Kingsley Amis who most presides over this twelfth novel from his son. Instead, Martin has turned towards the dour genius of his father’s closest friend, Philip Larkin, for sustenance; and it is Larkin’s poetry of disappointed, disillusioned sanity that provides The Pregnant Widow with its literary and intellectual core, via a series of quotations and paraphrases—and, close to the end, a full-frontal discussion of the quintessentially English place of loss and longing that Amis dubs “Larkinland.”
It is 1970, and we are holidaying in Italy in the company of an attractive and improbably-named young cast. From behind the ramparts of privilege—a picturesque castle where, among others, DH Lawrence and his lover, Frieda Weekley, once dallied—they and we contemplate a provincial Europe as yet untouched by the sexual revolution rocking London. So far, so familiar: this could be the upwardly-mobile cousin of Amis’s 1975 novel Dead Babies, which savagely dissected its times from the confines of a British country house. Linguistically, too, we find ourselves treading the well-laid paths of Amisland, where few etymologies are left unprobed, few phrases left unadorned by a pungent adjective, and few sentiments left unqualified by dazzling asides. As ever, it is brilliantly done; as ever, it can be wearing.
As I progressed through this landscape, however, I found that something unfamiliar was beginning to happen. I was starting to care—about these young people’s feelings, about their lives, about the history congealing around them. Alongside the authorial performance was something that had long felt absent from Amis’s fiction—a kind of tender urgency, working not only at unearthing the best bon mots, but at articulating something central about recent history and about how the great societal shifts of the 20th century insert into the 21st.
The Pregnant Widow focuses on three students from the University of London who, not coincidentally, are almost identical in age to their author: children of the late 1940s, contemplating their first adult decade. They also form a perfect triptych of Britain’s old social and professional order: “Law, Mathematics, English Literature. Intelligentsia, nobility, proletariat. Lily, Scheherazade, Keith Nearing.”
Amis’s overriding interest is (like his characters’) in sex, in both senses of the word: the physical act, and what it means to be male or female. In the post-free-love world, he explains, girls are now “acting like boys”—that is, they are permitted to seek out sex aggressively and for its own sake. Society as a whole, meanwhile, is savouring “the tingle of licence”: everyone can get drunk, swear and sleep with whomsoever they desire. The old social order has given way to a distinctly Darwinian democracy of the body: “There used to be the class system, and the race system, and the sex system. The three systems are gone or going. And now we have the age system . . . [and] each and everyone of us, at some point in our story, will have been young.”
Early hints from Amis himself that The Pregnant Widow would be “blindingly autobiographical,” featuring a cast of real-life acquaintances and relations, have proved wide of the mark. Just beneath the surface, however, the autobiography is there—reconfigured, but raw. Keith, the centre of our attention throughout, shares whole tranches of Amis’s own life: his birth in August 1949, his degree course, his bibliophilia and dreams of literary success, his troubled and ultimately doomed younger sister, his equally doomed best friend. Over the course of the sizzling Italian summer, Keith digests more-or-less the entire Oxbridge English literature syllabus—and maps onto it his own quest for identity, guidance, and artistic forms adequate to his unfolding times. Nothing quite fits.
This dislocation is Amis’s great theme in The Pregnant Widow. The old order has passed but, as his epigraph from the 19th-century Russian writer Alexander Herzen puts it, “the departing world leaves behind it not an heir, but a pregnant widow” who must endure “a long night of chaos and desolation.” Such fragmentation is familiar postmodern territory, and Amis’s characters do at times appear to be flying apart into body parts and statistics: the measurements of their busts and waists, the number and type of sexual partners they have had, their heights and economic worth. In the end, though, the book is ballasted more deeply, finding its weight in the century’s cycles of war and generational loss—something that the children of the 1940s are the first generation not to have directly experienced.
Apocalypse and annihilation have long haunted Amis’s novels, and the nuclear stalemate of the cold war makes its presence felt here too, but the real crisis that these characters are hurtling towards is the present day: neither dystopia nor science fiction, but an era still waiting for its definitive account to be written. Amis hasn’t attempted to give us that novel: The Pregnant Widow is above all a comedy of manners. And, like all the best comedies, its intentions are deadly serious. There is, throughout, a restless commitment to discovering what can meaningfully be said today about certain human fundamentals—love, death, sex, and the illusions that cluster around these. This quest is in a sense an emblem of Amis’s own hyper-literary career: the pursuit from Ovid to Bellow via Shakespeare of what Larkin once called “Words at once true and kind/ Or not untrue and not unkind.”
In an explicit rejection of the despair that is the signature of Larkin’s late work, however, there is also hope. For the last 100 pages, Amis lets us see what became of all concerned—those who drowned, those who were saved, and those still struggling in the waters. Almost uniquely for his fiction, some (including Keith) do find a version of happiness: thanks to each other, but thanks also to a reconciliation with the pain that is the cost of living. “It’s the deaths of others that kill you in the end,” our nameless narrator—who turns out to be the voice of Keith’s conscience—says, quoting a line Amis himself has used in interviews.
We’re all going to the same place in the end. But—if this first full flush of late Amis is anything to judge by—there’s no reason why the last leg of the trip shouldn’t hold its own with the very best of beginnings.