The Pregnant Widow by Martin Amis
Pub: Vintage 2011
In a recent article concerning his terminally ill Best Friend Forever Christopher Hitchens, Martin Amis paraphrased King Lear, saying that every author knows how much "sharper than a serpent's tooth it is" to have "thankless readers." This was mentioned by way of criticising a couple of Hitchen's hatchet jobs on geriatric efforts by John Updike, Saul Bellow and Philip Roth, all of whom Amis felt to have earned gentler treatment on account of their earlier masterpieces. But Amis was also obviously alluding to his own personal experience as an (oft maligned) novelist. For reasons I will now explain, this left me feeling rather guilty.
The first Martin Amis I read was The Information, the 1994 novel that caused a tabloid furore on account of some of the personal relationships ruptured on its way to publication, as well as the relatively extravagant advance Amis finagled for it. Coming roughly off the back of what remain Amis's three biggest critical successes (Money, London Fields and Time's Arrow), and arriving in a storm of hype and controversy, The Information was ripe for a kicking, and a number of critics happily obliged. When I got to it, however, at eighteen years old, about six years after its publication, I was convinced it was a masterpiece, and set about reading every book Amis had written.
A decade on, The Information, which I have since read half a dozen times more, remains my favourite Amis book (one of my five favourite novels, no less), after which I would primarily celebrate the kaleidoscopically comic London Fields, and the brutally effective anti-Bolshevik historical polemic Koba the Dread. But besides this latter work (a work of non-fiction), I have had to feel like one of those kids that starts supporting a football team in a season when they are still garlanded in fresh glory, only to afterwards watch them plummet through the leagues in a blaze of bankruptcy: to my mind, Amis's fiction has been dismal (not to mention thin on the ground) for over fifteen years.
Granted that novelists decline with age (a natural law that formed the crux of Amis's aforementioned defence of Updike, Bellow and Roth), there was something a little abrupt and premature about the descent from The Information to its follow-up, Night Train, which was proceeded in turn by the artistic skid mark of Yellow Dog, a work of such obnoxious self-parody that was difficult to stomach for those readers (such as myself) who cherished Amis's abilities and preferred to defend him against the vitriol of his numberless detractors. Next up came House of Meetings, a book about Stalin's gulags, written, we were given to understand, in some South American villa. Things seemed to be going from bad to worse.
All of which brings you up to date with my feelings about Amis prior to reading that Hitchen's piece, and hopefully goes some way to explaining the little twinge of guilt engendered by that self-pitying snippet regarding readers' ingratitude. If nothing else, it reminded me how amazing those earlier works were: hilarious, profound, vivid and infinitely resourceful. I not only decided that he might be deserving of an easier ride, but that he might still be young enough to stage a renaissance, especially as he'd spent the last couple of years back in the UK.
The long and short of all this is that I approached Amis's latest novel, The Pregnant Widow, with an open mind and heart. Even without these, I think it would have been possible to hope that the novel proved the vehicle in which Amis completed his long awaited return to form. For a start, The Pregnant Widow is over five hundred pages long, whereas its four predecessors have been much snappier affairs - such a dramatic change in length, I speculated, might signify a general change of gear. The plot, wherein the protagonist, a budding young poet and critic called (familiarly) Keith goes to spend a summer in an Italian castle with some friends, where he is to receive an unspecified "sexual trauma," boded better as well. Also, it is set in the late sixties, and concerns characters drawn from Amis's own generation. We are back, in short, in a time Amis is actually qualified to comment upon.
This sexual trauma, incidentally, is not only something whispered about in the book's pre-publicity, but is presaged in the text itself in the opening pages. The reader is given to understand, in no uncertain terms, that a life-changing, nasty, humiliating event is going to happen to our relatively sympathetic male lead. Anticipating some such monstrosity, the reader finds themselves confronted with a profusion of potential elements. Mediocre-looking Keith is in Italy with his mediocre-looking girlfriend, whose best friend, the absurdly named Scheherazade (the couple's hostess), has recently blossomed into a rare beauty. The love-prone Keith promptly falls for her, of course, and embarks on a (we are led to anticipate) doomed campaign of seduction.
And so it goes for a few hundred pages. Which often work very well. There are naturally some cracking lines (World War Two is described as "the seven year earthquake that claimed a million a month") but for the first time in years the characters attain all three dimensions. In the case of Kenrick (Keith's witty and politically acute brother - based, Amis confesses, on Christopher Hitchens), Scheherazade and Keith himself, they even attain a balance of comedy and credibility that has eluded Amis for so long. There are lots of voluptuous quotations to chew on too, enigmatic chunks of Eric Hobswarm, Ted Hughes and Shakespeare that thrive in their fresh contexts. All the while, the interweaving themes of narcissism, the sexual revolution and youth continuously rearrange themselves in provocative new shapes. What makes it all hang together, though, is that promise, or threat, of peripeteia, a precise and tantalising focal point that everything bends towards. During this protracted build up, Amis seems to have discovered a new narrative rhythm, a more stately and measured tread that suits his burgeoning middle age, bestowing a precision that compensates for the lack of manic energy that came naturally to the classic earlier works (and seemed so strenuously affected in recent works like Yellow Dog).
There are still problems, of course. Such as the excessive influence of Nabokov, which sees Amis impose a lurid artificiality on his dense set pieces, as if in homage to what many readers in fact consider a weakness that the better Nabokov novels escape rather than wallow in. The Pregnant Widow, for example, introduces us to Adriano, a local aristocrat also courting Scheherazade (openly, unlike Keith). Adriano is, not to put too fine a point on it, a ridiculously suave and ridiculously athletic midget, whose amorous demonstrations become increasingly grandiloquent (including helicopters and the like). In an earlier Amis fiction, you feel, Adriano would have been funny, but over-the-top hilarity is something Amis has lost the knack of, so that he merely upsets the measured domain of the other characters with his cartoonish incongruity.
A similar flaw is discernible in the character of Gloria, another attractive inhabitant of the castle whose prudish, demure façade covers carnal proclivities as elaborately inordinate as Adriano's romancing is. And it is there that the book ultimately falls, because it transpires that the "sexual trauma" hinges upon Gloria rather than Scheherazade, and is more of a thematic than dramatic climax. This would be fine (anything else might feel a little too predictable for such a venerable story teller) were it not that the novel, after its false climax, spends another couple of hundred pages just petering out, during which Amis's prose is frequently at its most pompous and the reader's attention is so little arrested that I ended up leaving it four days before polishing off the last couple of pages.
Ultimately, by getting so much of the novel about right, Amis only highlights the flaws that have disfigured his copybook for so long. With the best will in the world, I finally finished The Pregnant Widow gasping for a different writer, doubly suffocated by Amis's style and personality. His precocious emergence as a novelist (The Rachel Papers was published when he was just twenty-four), has now been matched by his precocious decline, which is starting to look irrevocable.