- Vintage International, New York, May 2011
Read from December 6th 2015 until January 2nd 2016
Martin Amis’s The Pregnant Widow is the first book I’ve finished in 2016 (I wanted to write “this year” then I remembered that once I had started a review with “this summer” and later, while re-reading it I had to investigate to learn what summer I was talking about J ) and what a good beginning it was indeed!
Maybe this is not Martin Amis at his best, but it was fun, despite the somehow gloomy title, inspired by Alexander Herzen’s dooming prophecy used as the first motto of the novel:
“The death of the contemporary form of social order ought to gladden rather than trouble the soul. Yet what is frightening is that the departing world leaves behind it, not a heir, but a pregnant widow. Between the death of the one and the birth of the other much water will flow by, a long night of chaos and desolation will pass.”
The quote not only unfolds the meaning of the title but, together with the other two mottos – the definition of the narcissism and two verses from Ted Hughes’ poem The Metamorphoses that allude to the changes of the human body, point out the central theme of the novel: the consequences of any social revolution (here, of the 70s) on the individual. Moreover, the quote from Hughes hints also to a secondary theme – the ageing.
Obviously, these themes are treated Amis way, that is by stressing either the tragi-comedy of the sexual revolution (which was already ripe, since, as Philip Larkin memorably informed us, it “…began in 1963 (…)/Between the end of the Chatterley ban/ And the Beatles’ first L.P.”), the role of the ego in the Me Decade (which was also a “She Decade” and which will continue in the following decades) and the inexorability of the physical changes due to the consenescence (diagnosed as “Body Dysmorphic Syndrome or Perceived Ugly Disorder”).
The main compositional technique is based on the well-known retrospection: some thirty-six years later, an oldish Keith Nearing discovers that the only way to overcome the dread of the age and the feeling that the life is passing by is to rely on memories:
As the fiftieth birthday approaches, you get the sense that your life is thinning out, and will continue to thin out, until it thins out into nothing. And you sometimes say to yourself: That went a bit quick. In certain moods, you may want to put it rather more forcefully. As in: OY!! THAT went a BIT FUCKING QUICK!!!... Then fifty comes and goes, and fifty-one, and fifty-two. And life thickens out again. Because there is now an enormous and unexpected presence within your being, like an undiscovered continent. This is the past.
Thus he keeps remembering a holiday in a castle in Italy (where, by the way he was going to meet all his three future wives), in a sunny summer of 1970. At that time Keith was twenty going on twenty-one and he thought of and spoke about and was interested mainly in sex. The obsession with sex was not only his: an entire generation of boys were in search of the much discussed sexual freedom that seemed to happen to anyone but to them, whereas the same generation of girls wanted to “act like boys” but to be thought conventional. The results were on the surface amusing (like Gloria’s pornographic scenarios based on Jane Austen’s novels or Sheherazade’s out of pity sexual offer, eventually aborted), but in the long run rather tragic (like the fate of Keith’s sister, the butterfly nymphomaniac Violet). All in all, sex seems the key word to define the young ego:
Sex is bad enough, as a subject, and the self is pretty glutinous, too. The I, the io, the yo, the je, the Ich: Freud’s preferred term for the ego, for the I. Sex is bad enough (but someone’s got to do it); and then there is the Ich. And what does that sound like – Ich, the Ich?
But this narcissistic attitude and apparent freedom had to be paid for, as I’ve already said, and the repercussions, sometimes a bit ridiculous and derisory, were sad nevertheless:
“Huw’s not keen on drugs. He’s a heroin addict.”
This makes perfect sense. Huw is tall, handsome and rich – so naturally he can’t bear it. He can’t bear it another second.
What is interesting and original in the novel is the narrative approach (but why be surprised, it’s Martin Amis, isn’t it?): although it is Keith who remembers it is not him who speaks about his memories. The narrative voice, announcing itself from the beginning as not only independent from the hero’s but also judgmental (“I used to have a lot of time for Keith Nearing. We were once very close. And then we fell out over a woman. Not in the usual sense. We had a disagreement over a woman”), identifies itself only in the end as the “superego”, with all the connotations Freud gave to this term, that is the consciousness that penalizes the ego either with remorse or guilt, for sins committed or only imagined.
In fact, on second thought, Martin Amis’s book brilliantly interprets the triangle ego – superego – society Freud defined in his “Civilisation and Its Discontents” (and not only there), for the book not only illustrates the characters’ struggle between Eros and Thanatos under the sanction of the society, but also (and this is where the laugh begins to grow bitter) the society’s ambition to develop its own “cultural super ego”, that baby in the widow’s womb that will finally gobble the individual too lost in his own private battle with Thanatos to beware.
And given that I’ll be fifty in a month or two myself, I can easily understand how you get distracted from the big picture while studying your body changes with the same fascination as Narcissus, but in reverse J:
Yeah. Fifty’s nothing, Pulc. 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.
It’s tricky this Amis’s book. Sometimes you don’t know whether to laugh or cry. Sometimes it’s overwhelming, sometimes the irony seems superficial. Not really a three-star (too little), neither a four-star (too much) book. But definitely worth reading.
And, to finish in style, if you are in need of some useful (J) information, here are two samples:
“…Why’s it called the missionary position?”
“Because the missionaries,” said Lily, “told the natives to stop doing it like dogs and start doing it like missionaries.”
*“Don’t you know anything? Fish makes ejaculate smell awful. There. You didn’t know that either, did you. Well then.