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The Pregnant Widow
Philip Dickinson gives his take on Martin Amis's latest novel, The Pregnant Widow

The following review contains explicit language

The Pregnant Widow
, Martin Amis
408pp 
Jonathan Cape

Amis' first effort, The Rachel Papers, tells an egotistical story told by an egotistical narrator. Amis acknowledges the autobiographical nature of the smartarse protagonist. It's Amis demonstrating his literary flare: the book is clever and funny mainly because the plot is essentially frivolous; a young dandy wants some. Herein lies the problem of The Pregnant Widow (TPW), Amis seemingly cannot decide whether or not to be amusing or serious; the novel lacks any coherent teleology. Ah, you may loftily enquire, why does it matter what the purpose of the book is? Well, it's that Amis isn't particularly funny or provokingly thoughtful. 

Take a couple of reasons why Amis will never be as good as his favourite author, Vladimir Nabokov: dialogue and language. Nabokov's dialogues in, for instance, Lolita and The Defence are simple and generally not poetic in the slightest; they're inserted simply to move scenes along. Amis cares too much about dialogue, and novels are not plays. Look at this for example -

Lily said, 'You're not expressing yourself very clearly. Don't you mean,   Who the fuck is Adriano?

'No I don't. You're following a false lead, Lily. Who's Adriano? ...All right. Who the fuck is Adriano?'

'There. It goes better with your scowl.'

Forget Amis is a respected, or established, author. Imagine this dialogue was penned by a debut writer. The debut author would not see this published, and rightly so. Amis enjoys juvenile word-games (which admittedly do sound fun) with authors like Christopher Hitchens and Salman Rushdie - this is referenced in later pages. Here, it's as if Amis is writing this exchange giggling away like a schoolboy about to utter his first burst of profanity: it's embarrassing. It's awkward and reads awkwardly. It's a microcosm of one reason why this novel is difficult to appreciate: all of the characters are affectatious bores. Autobiographical? Perhaps. No mindreading abilities are needed to observe that Amis appears to have been so fixated on the idea of writing a potential parody of the sexual revolution that he has forgotten to scribble some notes on his dramatis personae. At no point does one find oneself pining to know more about a character, to demand an entire chapter dedicated to their innermost feelings - frankly, it is hard to give a damn.

The second reason was language. Read a mere sentence of Nabokov and with immediacy you grasp the innate prosody of the Russian. Amis lacks this rhythm; his lexicon is at times robotic. When he isn't giving you the Latin or Greek origin of a word, he can be found dropping in a big, fat morpheme in order to impress you: there's no doubting Amis' intellect, his ideas for the most part are interesting. It just isn't literary; he'd be better suited to writing a pamphlet on the matter. The Nabokovian influence screams at you when he deploys wonderful alliteration, "baronial banqueting" being a particular choice. This is why the novel is frustrating: Amis can be a great writer, truly great; perhaps it's the comfort of being an established author, the knowledge he is guaranteed a reputable publishing house. He isn't Orwell: he's not writing to pay for his next meal. Hell, he even wrote a memoir before this story. The sex scenes are delicately described, a real pleasure to read. Know a bit about Amis' private life, his bawdy outings with Hitchens and you'll see why - much of Amis' existence seems to orbit around the opposite sex. He writes the sex scenes, and most aesthetic bodily appreciations, with a fierce passion that is not evident in, say, the vast majority of conversations. Perhaps it is an irony that the carnal emancipation of said sexual revolution is Amis' strength in writing.

If the writing is not always thrilling, find refuge in the plot. Except, what plot? Much of the tome is Keith hesitantly shuffling around the Italian castle pondering on Scheherazade's jugs. A man is intimidated by a sexually powerful woman; revolutionary at the time, but how historically fine-tuned can Amis expect the reader's mindset to be? His writing simply is not evocative enough to truly transport us back to the repressive mentality of the pre-revolutionary sexual environment. A lot of pages are deemed fit to have characters speculating about each other in dry, superficial tones. There is no love, and no hate; there's a lack of passion in the novel. Perhaps a firm affirmation here - to pre-empt any rejoinder - is needed to Oscar Wilde's aphorism about the absurdity of calling a book moral or immoral. Amis however fits into the undesirable category Wilde ends on: only well-written and badly-written books exist. Well of course and surely a truism, but Amis fails the aesthetic test.

Not all of the content is dull: Keith poses the question early on of why do men gawp at girls and not vice versa, there is the evocative hypothesis of how terrified the men would be if one of the gawped-at girls "went down on them". Amis skillfully paints Keith as a thoughtful viewer of the events: women are essentially seen by him as a new species, hence perhaps his bodily obsession with Scheherazade; a nice contrast does run through the novel between the rather dull and haughty Lily versus the Sexual Revolution's chief representative Scheherazade. Cleverly, Amis at various instances reminds us that Scheherazade feels sexually isolated: she has the most lavish descriptions from Amis, surely intending to emphasise how anachronistic a character she is.

The subtitle is "Inside History". Amis allows us some darkened, excited glimpses inside history, but like Keith, you find yourself frustratingly shuffling around the border of the era, never truly experiencing the country. 

Phillip Dickinson is a journalist and blogger for the Hub. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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