Saturday, January 1, 2011

The Pregnant Widow by Martin Amis

This is a book that would be a very tough read without knowledge of the bulk of Amis' fiction and memoirs, especially in the sense that it is a pseudo-autobiography. The title refers not to The Pregnant Widow's own prolonged gestation, but to an altogether vaster theme: the phrase is taken from the Russian intellectual Alexander Herzen, who argued that "the result of a revolution is like a pregnant widow: the father is dead but the child has not yet been born." According to Amis, this is the case with feminism and the sexual revolution of the 1960s and 1970s: they are epochal events whose consequences have even today only entered their "second trimester." Ariel's song about "sea change" in Shakespeare's The Tempest plays throughout the novel:

"Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes:
Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea change
Into something rich and strange.
Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell" (p.91).

On the surface, the book is structured like Dead Babies. The story is set in a castle in Campania, Italy, where Keith Nearing, a 20-year-old English literature student; his probationary girlfriend, Lily (34-25-34); and her friend, Scheherazade (37-23-33), all at the Univ. of London, are on holiday during the hot "summer of 1970" (p. 9). Davidson (The Second Pass) comments that one naturally thinks of the heroine of One Thousand and One Nights, who staves off death each dawn by telling the King a story that can only be completed the following night. Here, Amis himself plays an unlikely Scheherazade, somehow keeping the pages turning despite the absence of incident.

The castle is owned by a cheese tycoon (Jorquil, Scheherazade's uncle). These three are soon joined in their idyll by: Adriano, a young Italian count as full of virile confidence as he is lacking in stature; the spectacularly dissolute Rita (32-30-31), referred to as "the Dog" (p. 172); the adolescent Conchita (who reappears in the Coda) and her enormously fat caretaker, Dodo; Scheherazade’s boyfriend, Timmy, an obliviously earnest evangelist; and Gloria Beautyman (Jorquil's girlfriend, 33-22-37, with the "farcical arse" (p. 107)), whose ladylike veneer conceals a nature far stranger and more deceitful than anyone could ever guess. Classic Martin Amis prose sets the stage for these twentysomethings:

"The Me Decade wasn't called the Me Decade until 1976. In the summer
of 1970 they were only six months into it; but they could all be pretty
sure that the 1970s was going to be a me decade. This was because all
decades were now me decades. There has never been anything that
could possibly be called a you decade: technically speaking, you decades
(back in the feudal night) would have been known as thou decades. The
1940s was probably the last we decade. And all decades, until 1970,
were undeniably he decades. So the Me Decade was the Me Decade,
right enough - a new intensity of self-absorption. But the Me Decade
was also and unquestionably the She Decade" (p. 49).

The narrator is Keith's superego (we don't explicitly learn this until near the novel's end), or conscience, in 2009. It isn't until late in the book that the narrator becomes overtly apparent: "...Wait. Is this the time to clear up the question of who I am ? Not just yet, I don't think" (p. 348). and 16 pages later "...I ? Well, I'm the voice of conscience which made such a dramatic comeback between his first and second marriages), and I perform other duties compatible with those of the superego" (p. 364).

Keith's sister, Violet, is based on Amis' own sister, Sally, described by Amis as one of the revolution's most spectacular victims. Richard Bradford, whose The Biography (of Amis) is due this March, opines that most of the characters are stand ins for figures from Amis' life: Nicholas (his brother Philip), Kenrik (Rob Henderson, Amis' best friend), Gloria Beautyman (Tina Brown), Neil Darlington (Ian Hamilton), Scheherazade (Mary Furness). Graydon Carter (The New York Times) reveals that Lily is Gully Wells (editor). Brendan Bernhard (New York Sun) opines that Nicholas is a Christopher Hitchens surrogate, based on the lines "[he is] perfect for television...Very well informed. Handsomer than any man has the right to be. And more left-wing than ever" (p. 302). Bradford observes that the book's closest counterpart is his most significant non-fictional work, Experience. What would a novel by Amis be like if written in the manner of his memoirs ? Now we have it. Bradford suggests Amis has invented a new sub-genre: beneficent autofiction. On top of this, there is an absence of anything resembling a plot (notwithstanding narrator's comment on p. 310).

Pollitt (Slate) is elegant in her description of the protagonist's tribulations. Keith plows through all the canon of Western literature (including Samuel Richardson's Clarissa (1748)), each book about women's virtue: "It sometimes seemed to Keith that the English novel, at east in its first two or three centuries, asked only one question. Will she fall, this woman ? What'll they write about, he wondered when all women fall ? Well, there'll be new ways of falling..." (p. 269). Keith makes a bumbling pursuit of of the voluptuous but straitlaced Scheherazade, taking almost as long as Lovelace's siege of the virginal Clarissa - and similarly anticlimactic. It takes 1200 pages before Lovelace drugs and rapes Clarissa, whereupon she kills herself, leaving him with endless guilt.

Keith's girlfriend Lily is like a sister to him. She is listed on his "chart" (p. 163) of sexual conquests. When having sex with her, he has to fantasize that she's someone else - she's all too glad to help (p. 214). At one point she pretends to be Scheherazade. "Making love to Lily was no longer repetitive, exactly, because it got more treacherous every night. Men have two hearts, he thought, the over, the under. And as Hansel applied himself to Gretel, his overheart was full, it beat, it loved, but his underheart was merely (and barely) functional - anaemic, insincere" (p. 142) and later - "Men have two hearts - the upper, the nether" (p. 259).

Keith is reading 2 novels which plant a sinister scheme in his head: drugging as a means to achieve consummation. In Austen's Northanger Abbey, Isabella is "drugged on money" (p. 112). In Smollett's Peregrine Pickle, "Peregrine had just attempted (and failed) to drug (and ravish) Emily Gauntlet" (p. 55). Keith fumbles his attempt to drug Lily (p. 213) so she'll sleep through what he hopes will be the great assignation, but Scheherazade changes her mind at the last moment. Keith consoles himself with the uninhibited Gloria. The conjunction of these two events - rejection by Scheherazade and glorious sex with kinky Gloria - plunges Keith into a trauma of sexual befuddlement that lasts for 25 years. Men can dish it out but they can't take it. After Gloria "Keith already knew that he was in another world; knew, too, that he was in quite serious trouble - but only psychologically" (p. 251). Stated simply, the 21 year old Keith experienced incredible sex from an older woman (p. 276 if you must do the field work) and will have a tough time experiencing that with other women.

Rodwan (Open Letters Monthly) makes the observation that Amis treats lives as though they were texts. He describes lived experience in terms of fiction, and the real owes its realness to its correspondence to literature. We have explored this in my post below (10/9/10) on The Rachel Papers, where we see that few of Charles Highway's experiences are direct ones, they tend to be lived through his literary "experience," as in the hilarious "Celia shits" (Swift) episode with Rachel. "Walking in his studio, and getting out of bed, and all the rest of it - this was no longer a Russian novel" (p. 182), he writes of Keith's evolving middle-aged despair. "It was an American novel. So, not much shorter, but with perceptible gains: a general increase in buoyancy, and far less stuff about everyone's grandfathers" (p. 182). Referring to Scheherazade's tardy boyfriend "Timmy'll be along in a chapter or two" (p. 40). In his pursuit of Scheherazade, he borrows from the classics: Keith takes a page from Jane Austen's Emma "If Keith paraphrased Mr. Knightly, would Scheherazade realise, at last, that she was in love with him?" (p. 158).

Keith's whole summer experience is literary: "The Italian summer - that was the only passage in his whole existence that ever felt like a novel. It had chronology and truth (it did happen). But it also boasted the unities of time, place, and action; it aspired to at least partial coherence; it had some shape, some pattern, with its echelons, its bestiaries" (p. 310). Edmund White (The New York Review of Books) observes that by contrast, life - the life he goes on to live - "is made up as it goes along" (p. 310). This contrast between the rare, well-made, already novelistic experience and the more common, messy, improvised shapelessness of ordinary experience explains the shift from the tidy social comedy of youth to the baffling weirdness of age - and the exploded shape of this book (which abruptly changes into a Coda beginning in 1971, bringing the reader to the present).

Keith exhibits multiple parallels to the author, "he occupied that much-disputed territory between five foot six and five foot seven" (p. 10). "The bit of his body that Keith hated was the bit that wasn't there. He suffered for his height" (p. 72). "And he wrote to the Lit Supp, asking for a book to review on trial. He wanted to become a literary critic" (p. 75). Amis also wrote for the Times Literary Supplement. That comment notwithstanding, it is interesting that Keith "knew he could never become a novelist. To become a novelist, you had to be the silent presence at the gathering, the one on whom nothing is lost" (p. 75). This quote is from Henry James' The Art of Fiction (1884). Amis left out some of the quote "Therefore, if I should certainly say to a novice, "Write from experience, and experience only," I should feel that this was a rather tantalizing monition if I were not careful immediately to add, "Try to be one of the people on whom nothing is lost!" Of course, "Experience" was the title of his memoirs. The narrator opines: Keith "was a minor exponent of humorous self-deprecation" (p. 315), a trait for which Amis is revered. Amis' love of Nabokov, novelist and lepidopterist (see Visiting Mrs. Nabokov) is lyrically represented in butterfly imagery (pp. 33, 40, 42, 58, 203).

Rodwan (Open Letters Monthly) observes that Lily notices degeneration in Keith's thinking when he believes he's found the key to visualizing the bodies of Jane Austen's characters. He theorizes that when Austen says in Northanger Abbey, that Catherine Morland's figure gains consequence that consequence is "code for big tits" (p. 128). As Lily observes: "First it was all moral patterning. And felt life. Then it was all drugs and fucks. Now it's all tits and arses" (p. 128). Alert readers will recognize that these evolutionary descriptors correspond to Amis' first 3 novels (The Rachel Papers, Dead Babies, and Success). Keith's way of looking at books, and at life, does follow the pattern of reducing everything to the base and elemental: "Pride and Prejudice, Keith could have said, had but a single flaw: the absence, toward the close, of a forty-page sex scene" (p. 219). Ironically, at least one reviewer had the same complaint about Amis' own book !!

Throughout the book, there are many references to Shakespeare's comedies, recalling Shakespeare's games with androgyny "boys playing girls playing boys" (p.). In the Coda, Keith suggests to Gloria "You could go as Viola or Rosalind and dress up as a boy. She's pretending to be a boy. Passing as a boy. Wear a sword" (p. 329). At one point Rita says of her aggressive sexuality "It's because I'm a boy. I'm a boy. I'm a boy, me. I'm a boy" (p.175). Later, it's Gloria "I'm a boy. I've got a cock too" (p. 241). "I'm secretly a cock...In the future every girl will be like me. I'm just ahead of my time" (p. 281).

Ovid's tale of Narcissus and Echo echoes (excuse me) through the book. The narrator says "point three in the revolutionary manifesto...was this: Surface will start trending to supersede essence. As the self becomes post-modern, how things look will become at least as important as how things are. Essences are hearts, surfaces are sensations..." (p. 182). Gloria is a triumphant narcissist and chimes to Keith (naked in front of a mirror) "Oh, I love me. Oh I love me so" (pp. 240, 282). Self-love is missing in Lily: "The thing that mattered was whether Lily loved Lily. And she didn't" (p. 282). Keith surmises, in his relation with Gloria, transitioning out of his summer idyll: "In this new world he had entered (it was very developed, very far advanced), thinking and feeling were rearranged" (p. 260). Later "Love (he knew) made the world expand; this (whatever it was) reduced the world to a single point" (p. 266). The narrator observes: "Gloria Beautyman, at least, will be giving us something that Life badly needs. Plot" (p. 310). "Gloria was a visit from outside history. She was a visit from another clock" (p. 359).

"Something was churning in the world of men and women, a revolution or a sea change, a realignment having to do with carnal knowledge and emotion" (p. 23). Pollitt (Slate) makes the case that feminism and the sexual revolution are not the same thing, which Amis claims make "nice" girls like Lily and Scheherazade act against their nature (which is to be girls, not boys), while leaving the bad girls like Gloria, too old to have babies when the music stops. The removal of social constraints puts women at risk. Amis believes this is the reason for his sister's tragic downfall, Sally (Violet in the novel): "the revolution was a velvet revolution, but it wasn't bloodless" (p. 309). "Violet died in 1999, at the age of forty-six" (p. 357). Ultimately, Scheherazade becomes a born-again Christian and Gloria (who boasted she was "a cock" (p. 281)) wears a hijab (p. 357). None of the male libertines who populate the book is punished by the author for having sex.

More than anything else, this book is about aging and death. The subtitle to the book is Inside History. Keith ponders "the most important thing about you is your date if birth. Which puts you inside history" (p. 4). "Keith was always eccentrically stirred and moved by birth certificates (and Violet's was a talisman to him, because he was there to issue it and receive her). Your birth certificate was your BC - before Christ, before anything - and your proof of innocence. It was your ticket of entry; it put you inside history" (p. 162). "Old age wasn't for old people. To cope with old age, you really needed to be young - young, strong, and in peak condition, exceptionally supple and with very good reflexes" (p. 136). Also, "Governance, for at least a generation, Keith read, will be a matter of transferring wealth from the young to the old. And they won't like that, the young. They won't like the silver tsunami, with the old hogging the social services and stinking up the clinics and the hospitals, like an inundation of monstrous immigrants. There will be age wars, and chronological cleansing..." (p. 183). Keith reflects on his own aging "From the Me Decade to the ME Decade. From Club Med to Club Med. Great" (p. 244), ME being myalgic encephalomyelitis, and "Med" being medical. A partner to aging is boredom: "Keith, in 2009, felt that boredom was as strong as hate" (p. 362).

Readers familiar with Amis' life will know what a huge influence the poet Philip Larkin had on both Martin and his father. Larkin was famous for his general displeasure with life, especially sexuality. It is relevant that a Larkin poem takes center stage in chapter 1:

"Sexual intercourse began
In 1963
(Which was rather late for me)-
Between the end of the Chatterly ban
And the Beatles' first LP" (p. 9).

After Keith's summer in Italy "For forty months, beginning with that September when his eyes were very clear, Keith lived in Larkinland - fish-grey, monkey-brown, the land of sexual dearth. The most salient feature of Larkinland is that all women, after a few seconds, can tell that that's where you live - in Larkinland" (p. 311). The author has obviously been in the Larkinland of sexual inadequacy himself !

The narrator sums up the book in these terms: "It is the fate of all of us to fall out of love with our own reflections. Narcissus took a day and a night to die - but we take half a century...It isn't vanity, it was never vanity. It was always death. This was the true and universal metamorphosis: the agonising transfiguration from one state to another - from the state of life to the state of death" (p. 364).

Edmund White concludes "At one point close to the present Keith wonders if beauty has gone out of the world [p. 137]; if it did, it has just reentered literature through this strange, sparkling novel."

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