Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Martin Amis' "The Pregnant Widow": Book Review

The last sixth of this novel entertained, and sometimes chilled, me. But, the action does not kick in until page 240, and the coda takes fire in a way that leaves the previous 300 pages rather limp by comparison. The denouement becomes the gripping plot, while the main story wanders with uninteresting, arrogant, privileged characters. It's mired in a meandering sense of place, time, and motive; for a book about the sexual revolution, almost all of the couplings are offstage. The few that merit detail do so in decidedly everyday language.

I understand intellectually what Amis does here. Maybe he wants to demystify the promise of this pivotal era that he was lucky enough and affluent enough to enjoy. But, as with "The Information" (see my review), it makes for a lopsided novel. That story started off brilliantly and then dragged into a roman á clef that left me feeling left out of an inside joke. "The Pregnant Widow" also leaves me cut off from the bedroom battles fought in this Italian villa.

Meanwhile, despite the temptations of his compliant companion Lily, Keith's always reading the canon, mainly of heroines who delay their consummation over hundreds (or in "Clarissa," thousands) of pages, until they too usually find their fulfillment off-stage, and post-nuptials. Amis through his protagonist starts to address Lawrence, Mussolini, the Pill, Milton, Austen, Shakespeare, Richardson, Kafka, Echo, Narcissus, and "Wuthering Heights." But this wobbly approach to whatever he's commenting on (Keith & Amis the same age more or less?) about this post-Philip Larkin realm where "sexual intercourse began in 1963," if not yet for Keith, "Between the end of the Chatterley ban and the Beatles' first LP" for these young folks from Europe and America feels limp. Keith may be callow, but Amis appears to forget that such a narrator leaves us with not much reason to keep turning so many pages.

But does this book jump. "Making love to a fragrant twenty-year-old girl, in summer, in a castle, in Italy." This is followed immediately by: "Christ, even in heaven they couldn't stand it." (103) "Paradise Lost," with its great rebellion against happiness, presages how this Italian interlude will crumble.

Sad to say, as the subject's promising. The "pregnant widow" caught between a future of joy and a past of mourning, the impact that middle age has on the body (at 45, death hints he will not ignore you; at 55, he edges a bit nearer, in between, one sinks to 50 in despair, and then comes out of this crisis filled inside with-- the now heavier sense of one's past), and the "sexual echolalia" of reverberating conversations in books and in person: all provide moments of insight. The first real encounter between Keith and one of the women at the villa is haunting, erotic, yet icy and disturbing in the way that fevered dreams may be, half-recollected.

This character, on the margins for two-thirds of the story, suddenly rears and dominates. I won't give her away, but as with Nicola Six in "London Fields" (see my review), she redeems the latter portion of this work. She is terrifying, seductive, maddeningly opaque, shape-shifting, and unforgettable. But I cannot fathom why Amis left so much of this novel so loose-- the etymological asides, the chapters that drift and mope, the story that seems so often to go nowhere, the supporting characters who barely register even after hundreds of pages.

Such distortion may be to highlight the character who occupies so much of Keith's attention even by her absence by the conclusion, but Amis's decision to construct this narrative in such a skewed manner either attests to his genius or his haste. As with Nicola Six, he's inspired again to fill the pages with this immense black hole of a feminine power, a force from the primeval, but I am not sure how this jibes with what otherwise seems a half-hearted take on the "Decameron," and the coming of age tale that for most of its telling rushes past everyone else except-- finally and long after some readers may abandon the effort-- this one woman.

(Posted to Lunch.com 11-3-10 & Amazon US in a rare conjunction of my predicted [three-star] rating and the average of the previous 26 reviewers there, on 11-2-10. Cover: Gérard Schlosser, "Il ne se plaignait jamais" 1976, Musée d'Art Moderne.)

1 comment:

Fionnchú said...

Great cover, for once better than the British version. You have to look at it carefully. Well chosen.