The Pregnant Widow by Martin Amis

Jul 23rd, 2010 in Books

Having just finished Martin Amis’s most recent book, “The Pregnant Widow,” we will add this book to a small list that we recommend you read, but only if you have an unflappable, omni-euphoric disposition.  We are not so disposed and are reeling around the fountain after finishing this fable.   Amis is, however, one of our favorite wordsmiths still extant so it pains us to have to append this warning.  Which leads to the definitive Amis gambit:  if, despite our warning, you pick up this book, and if you appreciate stellar prose, you will find yourself sucked in, laughing hysterically, admiring the pregnant prose, and unable to stop even though the subject matter is, ultimately, oppressively disheartening.  Side note: other books falling into this stellar-but-painful category are Kazuo Ishiguro’s “Never Go Away” (this book is inexplicably being made into a movie featuring Keira Knightley to be released in December–just says “Christmas” doesn’t it?), Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road,” and Richard Yates’ “Revolutionary Road.”

The main events of “The Pregnant Widow” are set in the summer of 1970 at a castle above an Italian village in the Campania region.  Amis’s narrator looks back on that time in the castle from a 21st century vantage and ruminates on the characters’ lives and society’s evolution or devolution.   College students from England have come to stay in the castle: the protagonist/narrator, Keith; his girlfriend, Lily; a captivating blonde with the suggestive name, Scheherazade, as a collection of couples and acquaintances come and go, all runwaying throughout the pages and flaunting the appetites of their youth and the era.  Despite the vitality of this time and these characters, towards the end of the book we discover that Keith’s life has been largely a professional and personal disappointment, and that he pinpoints that summer in Italy as the time when the wheels started falling off.

To this end, the title of the book is borrowed from the Russian writer, Alexander Herzen, and refers to an old order about to be upstaged by a new one: “The departing world leaves behind it not an heir but a pregnant widow,” Herzen wrote, “a long night of chaos and desolation” in which the old is gone and the new has not yet been born.

Regardless, Amis is one of the most unique, intelligent writers to come along in the last 30+ years, with his cunning linguistics, hilarities, etymologies, italicisms, and unique metaphors, all of which are paraded in “The Pregnant Widow.”

Interestingly, Amis has said elsewhere that the novel is “blindingly autobiographical” and, you can’t help but believe him.  We can’t help thinking of Martin’s father’s (Kingsley Amis’s) taunting observation:  “Aren’t they nice, the young? They have stayed up for two years drinking instant coffee together, and now they are opinionated – they have opinions….” Correspondingly, Martin remarks on the young and their nostalgia: Nostalgia, from Gk nostos ‘return home’ + algos ‘pain’ ‘the return-home-pain of twenty years old’.”  So take that, father.  We remember our nostalgia and feel it in our own.

We’ll leave it to you decide whether or not to read the book.  And with that we give you below some dips into Amis’s writing from the book.  You can then decide whether to dive deeper with the Widow or be satisfied with the sampling and instead sun in the shallow end.

“And the storms…were timed for his insomnias [a subject near to our hearts].  He was making friends with the hours he barely knew, the one called Three, the one called Four.  They racked him, these storms, but he was left with a cleaner morning.  Then the days began again to thicken, building to another war in heaven.”

“Keith lay in his bed, trying to understand [the Cold War].  What was the outcome of the dream war and all that silent combat?  Everything could vanish, at any moment. This disseminated an unconscious but pervasive mortal fear.  And mortal fear might make you want to have sexual intercourse; but it couldn’t make you want to love.  Why love anyone, when everything could vanish?  So maybe it was love that took the wound, in the Passchendaele of mad dreams.”

“And we [the Baby Boomer generation] will be hated too.  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….”

And though we disagree, this musing on the dangers of smoking set against the sarcastically characterized pains of a life long-lived (that “cool bit”) caught our attention:

“He thought, Yeah.  Yeah, non-smokers live seven years longer.  Which seven will be subtracted by the god called Time?  It won’t be that convulsive, heart-bursting spell between twenty-eight and thirty-five. No. It’ll be that really cool bit between eighty-six and ninety-three.”

“He left her there beneath the slow, creaking loop of the overhead fan.  And we don’t quite trust the overhead fan, do we.  Because it always seems to be unscrewing itself.”

Martin Amis reading an excerpt from “The Pregnant Widow”:

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