There is always, reading Martin Amis, the feeling that the author is trying hard to be Significant. It is this trying hard which cripples his novels. So, in The Pregnant Widow (the title itself is an indicator that this is to be a novel of ideas, especially given the surreptitious, even coy, subtitle, ‘Inside History’) he takes a story of a young man, Keith (Amis’s third Keith, I believe) and three girls (a sexless beauty, a plain brain and a religious sexual deviant) on holiday in Italy in 1970, and makes of it the entire history of the sexual revolution. There are plenty of other girls in the book, having sexual relations of one kind or another, and with the exception of the hero’s sister, they are all, including the girls on holiday, “aware of a kind of wave”. They bend, in other words, to the author’s will. That’s not what he means, of course. He means they are “inside history”
This is fine, except that it robs them of character. Perhaps Amis is indeed writing a modern morality play, in which the persons of the drama are simply representatives of abstract vices and virtues. Anyone who has read a morality play knows how deadly dull they are on the page. How they need to be enlivened by flesh and blood.
The Pregnant Widow is full of erudition and cleverness and little bits of history and the ravages of age: “Fifty’s nothing… Me, I’m as old as NATO. And it all works out. Your hams get skinnier – but that’s all right because your gut gets fatter. Your eyes get hotter – but that’s all right because your hands get colder (and you can soothe them with your frozen fingertips). Shrill or sudden noises are getting painfully sharper – but that’s all right, because you’re getting deafer. The hair on your head gets thinner – but that’s all right, because the hair in your nose and in your ears gets thicker. It all works out in the end.” As a riff on one of the ages of man, this is exemplary, but it is also a cruel reminder that this book, purporting to be about history, is actually an ageing man’s memory of a golden summer (it is spent in a castle in Calabria, and the hero, when not either fantasizing or having sex with one of these beautiful bewitching women is reading the whole of English literature, from Fielding to D.H. Lawrence – not that frightful then).
The thing is curiously misshapen, too. Keith’s desire to have carnal knowledge of the beauty dominate the first half of the book, and then she disappears, as does the narrative drive (Will he? Won’t he? Will she? Won’t she?) For the second half, in place of the beauty, the deviant is his concern. Following the holiday we are offered a long series of postscripts, a coda, which take us swiftly (1970-1974, 1975, 1976, 1977 - blimey, we’re thinking, he’s not going to do a chapter on every year up to 2009 is he? – 1978, 1979, 1980, 1982 (ah!), 1994 (phew!), 2003, 2009. Perhaps this acceleration of time is supposed to indicate how quickly the years pass as we grow older. It doesn’t matter though, because it all feels tacked on. The brainy girl and the beauty have more or less vanished. In the end even the deviant disappears, significantly, don’t you think, given her religious passions, to Salt Lake City.
Amis is so obviously talented a writer and so evidently a clever man, but why does he have to keep reminding us all the time? The book should be half the length, the author should butt out and the sexual revolution should be allowed to take place on its own. The cast iron law: show, don’t tell. Wonderful writer, lousy novelist.