Thursday 25 March 2010

The possibility of love

The Pregnant Widow, by Martin Amis (Jonathan Cape)

Sexual intercourse began
In 1963
(Which was rather late for me) –
Between the end of the Chatterley ban
And the Beatles’ first L.P.

Philip Larkin, ‘Annus Mirabilis’.

According to Martin Amis, ‘Writers die twice: once when the body dies, and once when the talent dies.’ With The Pregnant Widow, Amis’s twelfth novel, there are not only signs of life – but of longevity, love and candour.

Martin Amis burst onto the seventies literary circuit, an ‘enfant terrible’, only twenty-four and yet apparently fully-formed – The Rachel Papers (1973), Dead Babies (1975) and Success (1978) showed exceptional prowess and were scabrous, sneeringly funny tales of young manhood. Yet Amis craved seriousness, the volume of Saul Bellow and the white glow of Vladimir Nabokov’s style, he compulsively pursued a butch sort of transatlantic novel – something resembling the teeming, socially concerned Victorian picaresque, dipped in the ‘life-junk’ of the 20th century: rapped with urgent, urban energy. Amis’s middle period saw him achieve such effects with Money (1984) and London Fields (1989) – those novels were glaringly up to date, mixing the demotic and the mandarin, exemplars of postmodern theory and a new type of genre, one that James Wood later called ‘hysterical realism’. But since those heights, late Amis was a story of decline, or apparent decline. With the publication of The Information (1995) focus was directed toward the big advance (£500 000), his dental surgery, and the sacking his long-time agent, as much as the novel and essays themselves. This pattern was to follow through into the next decade, with Amis’s work thinning out, his style losing vigour, the content not matching the grandstanding, the great novelist bravado. Yellow Dog (2003) was described as ‘not knowing where to look bad’ and Amis railed ahead as a public figure – sometimes adding valuable, uncensored comment to the national argument, but other times coming across cranky, Kingsley-esque.

The Pregnant Widow is about the Sexual Revolution. It’s a memoir of sorts, a higher autobiography, an echo back to a younger Amis, his life and work, except the sound now, the voice is not the high-octane, clever, boyish excess of his early ‘testosterone novels’; it has matured, his ‘compulsive vividness of style’ has relaxed into an easy-going wisdom. There is still the high laugh-per-page ratio. There is still the finger-clicking rhythm. Still the mode is tragicomic. But there is something different, something significantly different about the author of The Pregnant Widow from that of the lunatic Yellow Dog. Keith Nearing is a bookish, twenty-year old, wannabe poet, Literature student in a settled relationship with the dowdy, ironic and lovable Lily. He has much in common with the heroes of early Amis and Amis himself, smoking, frequent literary references and casual theorising not excluded. Though this being a novel of the sea-change, the shift in conventions and social attitudes – the liberation of sex, the realising of unfettered liaisons, Keith has his eyes on Scheherazade (vital statistics: 5’10’, 37-23-33).

Describing his female cast thusly has already angered feminists, who are not only unable distinguish between a fictional character’s perception in a satirical novel and an authors political assertion. In any case, all the characters are described in terms of their physical appearance, men included: ’[Keith] was the same age, and slender (and dark, with a very misleading chin, stubbled, stubborn-looking); and he occupied that much-disputed territory between five foot six and five foot seven.’ Who can ignore the ridiculous Adriano? The four-foot ten inch Italian, copter flying lothario is as funny as the dried up actors in Money, but also, crucially, a crushing satire on the old-style masculinity, of the retrograde macho hubris and idiocy men were permitted, before the Revolution. Like the anthropological milieu Michel Houellebecq describes in Atomised and Lanzarote, the sexual revolution replaced the old-guard, the ancien regime of stuffy monogamists and no sex before marriage bores, of macho men and fey women with a sexual free for all – a new aesthetic, a sexual hierarchy of beauty.

This obsession with beauty, and self-love that Amis hints at throughout the novel his many references to Ted Hughes’s Echo and Narcissus, and more blatantly through the gossip and actions of the main characters. Much of the action (mostly inaction, the cast languidly sunning themselves, on high-alert with the possibility of sex) takes place during the sea-change, during the epochal shift. Many in the novel lose their innocence. Most enjoy their new freedoms. Others are overwhelmed, or damaged. Much relies on the ability to divorce sex from love. Amis recognises a sexual revolution, it’s hopes and promises, would not be victimless, would not be without the collateral damage of the human heart. Amis understands the shift from love to self-love, in all its opacity:

And when [Keith] turned there was no one there, no Scheherazade, no Lily, no one at all, and he felt suddenly empty, suddenly alone under the sky. He stood at the poolside and stared. The water was motionless and for now translucent; he could see the copper coins and a single flipper. Then the light began to change, as a cloud hurried sideways to shield the modesty of the sun, and a shape like a dark starfish came writhing up from the depths. Only to meet its original – a falling leaf – as the surface changed from glass to mirror.

The experiences, the close calls, near misses and effects of sleeping with a girl who ‘acts like a man’ leaves Keith with a trauma in later life; where the novel is at its strongest, its most poignant is when the past and the present coalesce, innocence and experience, early and late Amis in a mutual, comparative dialogue. Again, the personal is political, as the fall of Keith’s sister Violet, demonstrates. The final scenes of The Pregnant Widow are touching, shadowed by an extended vulnerability we’ve not seen in Amis. Here regret, mortality and dark comedy fuse into a heartfelt finale. The descent of Keith into ‘Larkinland’ is especially funny, and an introduction to the creation of the modern, ironic, self-deprecating, dismembered twenty-something male.

The Pregnant Widow is not without faults; it’s overly long, the second book repeats much of the first; despite much of the dialogue being clever, chatty, parts are wooden and too expositional; and not every joke works. There are too many similar characters roaming in and out of Italy, the castle, crowding the pool-side. But these are minor criticisms of what may well be one of Amis’s best novels. In an earlier article for Culture Wars, previewing The Pregnant Widow, I wrote: ‘Martin Amis could offer his talent and style in service of literature; to break out of the postmodern insularity that has brought him such success, and allow his talent the jouissance of his perception, the full range of his uncanny eye.’ With The Pregnant Widow, Amis has achieved exactly that. Though the novel does suffer signature defects: Martin Amis at his best, still makes you think like a don and giggle like a schoolgirl. Really, The Pregnant Widow is not so much about the Sexual Revolution, or theory, as much as the possibility of love, and of life. There are intervals where Keith’s grizzled superego reports back on his state of affairs:

When you become old. . . When you become old, you find yourself auditioning for the role of a lifetime; then, after interminable rehearsals, you’re finally starring in a horror film – a talentless, irresponsible, and above all low-budget horror film, in which (as is the way with horror films) they’re saving the worst for last.

Beyond his early brilliance, the mid-career highs, distracting controversies and late slump, late late Amis looks as though he could be saving the best for last. The Pregnant Widow is by no means perfectly formed, but it may be a turning-point in the ascension of a great writer.


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Resources

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