The Pregnant Widow
To title a novel about a bunch of English expats lounging poolside at an Italian castle after a quote by the founder of Russian populism, Alexander Herzen, concerning “[t]he death of the contemporary forms of social order” could be construed as asking for it. After all, Herzen’s revolution(s) sought the fundamental restructuring of Europe on social, economic, and political levels, and Amis’s revolution, or at least that of his protagonist, Keith Nearing—20 years old, a fledgling literary something—is sexual in name and nature. Even so, Amis is arguing that it is a revolution as capable of destroying a poet as any other. “The revolution was a velvet revolution, but it wasn’t bloodless.”
It is 1970, “a fairly mild year—so long as you weren’t Cambodian, or Peruvian, or Rhodesian, or Biafran, or Ugandan.” Keith Nearing, his girlfriend Lily, and her girlfriend Scheherazade have taken up residence in aforementioned Italian castle. They don’t do much besides drink, sunbathe, read, and have sex or not have sex. Lily, having left Keith to “act like a boy,” (the novel’s sole attempt to address anything like feminism), has come back to him just before the Italian sojourn. Their love-making is now familial; an adopted orphan, Keith’s relationship with his foster sister Violet, a 16-year-old nymphet, stalks his and Lily’s congenial, passionless affair. Scheherazade, previously plain, has metamorphosed into a stunning beauty, her physical presence coupled with an unsure, hesitant benignity that has absolutely nothing to do with the insane attraction she exerts on Keith. As various visitors come and go, bringing with them the history of Italy’s ‘45, the violent orphanings of Latin America, and the easy idiocy of the English upper-class, Keith begins to devise methods of Scheherazade-seduction.
This is Amis strangely restrained, more Turgenev than Nabokov, featuring a bare minimum of narratorial messing around; the result is human, luxurious. It would be easy to surrender to the tidal swell of Amis’s style, to become distracted by the incessant nattering on about literature (including Keith’s attempts to analyze “the English novel” based on how many “fucks” there are in each), or to get lost in the quick comedy of give and take between people privileged enough to hate. As much as Amis the story-teller attempts to entertain and enliven, however, the novel’s undercurrent of darkness emerges as its primary concern. Interspersed are flash-forwards to 2003 and 2009 (neither of which, we can safely say, were “mild years”), where Keith, three wives in and, though a respected literary critic, no heir to Belinksy, traces the destruction he has both witnessed and wrought, including his failure to metamorphosize into a poet, to the summer of 1970. Mirroring Keith’s moody reminiscing is the tale of Echo from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, based on Ted Hughes’s translation/reworking (“Now I am ready to tell how bodies are changed/Into different bodies”).
For a writer who is often portrayed as a venomous hate-monger, Amis is not given due credit for his emphasis on tenderness, often immediate and regretted, as the only succor in ugly worlds. Don’t let the soft haze fool you: The Pregnant Widow’s Italy of 1970 is just as grotesque as Amis’s more famed stomping grounds, London’s 1980s. The deformity of landscape has been replaced by a deformity of time; the bad behavior remains, though significantly more subtle. There is, however, more than the usual tenderness here, between Keith and his brother Nicholas, between Keith and a young Pakistani named Dilkash (continuing Amis’s obsession with current Islamic “issues”), but hardly ever between Keith and the women he sleeps with.
Does The Pregnant Widow fail to measure up to the challenge of its title? This depends on whether or not you agree with the following quote: “People doing it when it’s not in their nature. When they don’t want to. It’s worse, isn’t it, than people not doing it when they do. Want to. Somehow.” Lily says this, giving voice to Amis’s highly contentious, inherently conservative statement of purpose. Herzen’s times gagged, exiled, and suppressed him; one hundred years later, Keith’s times transmute him into a body that was never meant to be his. Keith’s nature is located in Scheherazade’s beauty; after all, poets are defined by their attempts to possess beauty. But, as we are often reminded, it is the summer of 1970, and this is not what defines Keith Nearing.