We’ve Been Here Before

The Pregnant Widow by Martin Amis

In The Metamorphoses — one of the crowd of tutelary presences which throng the margins of The Pregnant Widow — Ovid’s tales tend to be aetia, that is to say fables which explain how something came about — for instance, how echo became a disembodied voice, or how mulberries acquired their deep red colour, or why magpies are such chatterers. 

The Pregnant Widow is also an aetion, and — in the first instance — the metamorphosis whose cause it narrates is the shift when “sex divorced itself from feeling”. Keith Nearing and his on/off girlfriend, Lily, are spending the summer of 1970 in Italy, in the castle of a friend of a friend. On to this well-defined stage enter a cast of miscellaneous young adults — Scheherazade, with her improbably large breasts, Gloria with her voluptuous rear, the exuberantly common Rita, Kenrik the Olympian alcoholic in training, Adriano the dwarfish embodiment of Italian machismo, Jorquil the comedy upper-class Englishman. As the sentimental entanglements of their summer unravel and reravel, Keith — who has been transparently lusting after Scheherazade — is initiated into the sexual future, as he thinks he wishes it to be. But his introduction to that future happens by an unexpected hand, and in an act of deep but disguised violence: “It was the opposite of torture, yet it twisted. It ruined him for twenty-five years.” Keith falls victim to the secret clauses in the manifesto of sexual modernity, those “written in fine print or invisible ink”.

The Pregnant Widow stands apart from Amis’s earlier fiction in the thickness and insistence of its literary reference (one can easily imagine a future doctoral project: ‘An Annotated Edition of Martin Amis’s The Pregnant Widow‘). Ovid, as we have seen: but also Shakespeare (Tempest, King Lear, Much Ado), Kafka, the Arabian Nights, Jane Austen (especially that favourite for modern retelling, Emma, but also Mansfield Park and Pride and Prejudice), Milton, Keats, Hardy, George Eliot — the novel is a literary whispering gallery. Partly this results from the fact that Keith is studying for a degree in English, and seems to have brought to Italy a copy of every major pre-20th-century English novel, through which he is ploughing his way with incredible speed. 

The speed is explained by the fact that poor desire-addled Keith is clambering up the towering summits of English literature with his eyes fixed on a very limited range of issues: “It sometimes seemed to Keith that the English novel, at least in its first two or three centuries, asked only one question. Will she fall? Will she fall, this woman?” So, when he is debriefed by Lily at the end of each novel, Keith’s executive summary focuses single-mindedly on the timing and frequency of the fictional sex acts. Clarissa had been, as you might imagine, a particularly trying read for Keith, especially coming as it did in this chronologically-organised grand tour of the English novel after the (in Keith’s scale of value) encouragingly incident-rich Tom Jones:

Clarissa‘s a nightmare. You won’t believe this, Lily,” he said (and he had, incidentally, decided to swear more), “but it’s taking him two thousand pages to fuck her.”
“I know.”
“But honestly, listen to you. Usually, when you read a novel, you go on about things like, I don’t know, the level of perception. Or the depth of the moral order. Now it’s just fucks.”
“It’s not just fucks, Lily. One fuck in two thousand pages. That’s not just fucks.”
“No, but it’s all you go on about.”

In The Pregnant Widow, great literature is the language of a world we have lost. Scheherazade having been rude to Gloria, Keith (having just finished Emma) maps the language of Austen on to the sensibility of the 1970s. How, Keith muses, would Mr Knightley, having seen how badly Emma treats Miss Bates during the picnic to Box Hill, chide Scheherazade?

Were she your equal in situation — but, Scheherazade, consider how far this is from being the case. She is poor; she has sunk from the comforts she was born to and, if she live to old age, must probably sink more. Her situation should secure your compassion. It was badly done, indeed! But Keith didn’t say that. He said,
“Hates you? Not at all.”
“Everyone hates me. And I deserve it.”
If Keith paraphrased Mr Knightley, would Scheherazade realise, at last, that she was in love with him? No, because things were different now.”

The difference of now is that the flexible, plural, capacious language bequeathed to us is embarrassed by the fewness and coarseness of our objects. We are the inheritors of linguistic, and therefore conceptual and moral, riches which we finger with barbaric stupor and cupidity.

This is not the first time that Amis has used the idea of a failure of powers of reading as a proxy for what is more generally wrong with modern culture. In Money, the chastened, beaten-up, John Self resorts to the public library once the self-defeating nullity of his high-octane media life has literally smacked him in the face, and as a direct result of his inability to read his own experience:

I’m trying. I read quite a bit. It’s the only diversion I can still afford. Reading’s cheap, I’ll give it that. I’ve read all the financio-sexual thrillers on Georgina’s shelves. I hang out in the Library. The Library is a good place when you’re unemployed. It’s warm and free. There is shelter.

In this novel of what went wrong in the Seventies, Amis is repeatedly obliged to revisit his own earlier fiction as a partial stranger, since in those early novels Amis was as much the celebrant as satirist of his own generation. Of course, that generation had all the obvious failings: vain, vicious, cruel, cowardly, etc. But at least (so Amis’s line seemed at moments then to be) they weren’t in thrall to some exploded, oldster set of values. If the rising generation was bad, that was because there was nothing better that one could authentically be. 

But as Amis returns to his earlier work in The Pregnant Widow, it seems that his stance is shifting. A few examples. Here is Keith Nearing preparing for a hot date:

At six o’clock he climbed out of a hot bath, did ten press-ups, and stepped into a cold shower. He shaved, and brushed his teeth and tongue. He clipped and filed his nails, upper and nether. Maintaining a stern expression, he blow-dried and — with formidably steady fingers — tonged his pubic hair.

And here, 37 years ago, is Charles Highway preparing for his own hot date in The Rachel Papers:

Press-ups, knee-bends, and further sexual callisthenics. Complete body-service (sorry about all this): pits clipped, toes manicured, pubic hair permed and styled, each tooth brushed, tongue scraped, nose pruned.

Sometimes one can hear the rhythm and timing of an earlier Amis riff now organising different words but in a similar dramatic situation. Here is Keith Nearing teasing Gloria on the subject of religion, and unable to stop himself from going just a bit too far:

“Tell me, Gloria, do you happen to believe in Father Christmas? No. Of course you don’t. You grew out of it. Of course you did. You know, it’s a pity Father Christmas isn’t featured in your holy book. Because you could’ve grown out of scripture too. Yes, a great shame Santa wasn’t at least foretold in the New Testament.”

And here is Charles Highway being unadvisedly candid with Derek, a student at the same Oxbridge crammer, on the sensitive subject of facial hygiene, and unable to resist stepping over the line of self-preservation:

“Yes. Why don’t you give washing a whirl one of these days? It can’t be much fun walking around with all that crap, all the greaze, all over your face. But — got to keep the spots fed, I suppose. Tell me, Mr Sebum, tell me, Monsieur Têtes-noires, how does it go down with the girls? I bet they…”

Here is Keith on the eradication of chastity from the modern world:

What’ll they write about, he wondered, when all women fall? Well, there’ll be new ways of falling…

And here are the more repletely euphuistic, yet parallel, thoughts of Terence in Success as he riffles through the top shelf at his local newsagent, and ponders the ruinous rate of consumption implicit in industrialised pornography:

I flicked through six or seven magazines, all of which were evidently still in the business of showing men what the insides of women’s vaginas and anuses look like. There are hundreds of these girls in every magazine, and there are hundreds of these magazines in every shop, and there are hundreds and hundreds of shops. Where do these girls come from and how do they get hold of them and make them show us what the insides of their vaginas and anuses look like? They must have asked every girl in the world to do it by now. Have they asked Jan yet, or Ursula, or Phyllis at Dino’s? Pretty soon they’ll run out of girls who will do it. Then they’ll have to find ways of making the girls who won’t do it do it. Then we’ll know what the insides of every girl’s vagina and anus look like. That’ll be good too.

Is there an element of recantation here, a sense of penitential return to subjects previously explored with too light a heart? One of the most vivid clashes of perspective in The Tempest, a play Amis explicitly positions in a significant relationship to The Pregnant Widow, comes when Miranda, enthralled by the men shipwrecked on the island, memorably exclaims: “O brave new world/That has such people in’t!” To which Prospero — jaded? saddened? resigned? envious? — replies: “‘Tis new to thee.” The sober correction of youthful enthrallment is the dominant theme of Amis’s novel, as well as of Shakespeare’s play, and the final metamorphosis to which they both glance forward is the ultimate metamorphosis of life into death.

The Pregnant Widow is artfully constructed, then. But, to pose a more radical, or perhaps just more flat-footedly factual, question, is its basic premise true? Did the 1970s really see the first female rakes? One thinks of the antics of the Empress Theodora in the theatre of Byzantium, or the activities that we are told went on the precincts of the temple of Diana at Ephesus. Was Amis’s generation really the first who had to cope with, as Keith puts it, girls who are cocks? Whatever the qualifications suggested by a longer historical perspective, the sexual metamorphosis of the 1970s was no doubt felt as a great change, and The Pregnant Widow gives that experience a satisfying literary shape, as the cockiest, rangiest author of the 1970s exchanges Scotch for Sanatogen, and Quaaludes for glucosamine.

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