To say that The Pregnant Widow is Martin Amis’ best review in years is an understatement. The Pregnant Widow is Martin Amis’ best book. With his earlier, more popular work, what you got were insightful, fun (in a scathing way), and clever novels that all too often felt fragmentary. Some of his later work became more moralizing, and less fun. With The Pregnant Widow, he blends his youthful inventive quality with a mature outlook.
Amis has always been a writer who has incorporated deceitful/despicable narrators, similar to Henry James or more appropriately Nabokov. This tendency though has made him unpopular and even hated in America, since we as a people take things very literally, whereas other countries, especially Britain, are more accustomed to figurative or metaphorical language. For instance, his character Charles Highway in The Rachel Papers stands out in my mind as one of the most reprehensible narrators in all of literature (imagine Holden Caulfield with an active sex-life), while his narrator in The House of Meetings is among the darkest. The Pregnant Widow though finds Amis creating his most nuanced narrator: Keith Nearing. He’s scheming, manipulative, and obsessed with sex like Charles, but has a life that’s not so shallow or hollow. He’s a narrator you’ll find yourself alternately liking and disliking.
The plot is a funny update of the kind of story the English put out a lot of during the Georgian and Victorian years. Several unmarried young people go on a vacation to Italy, and stay in a castle of all places. Once there, their romantic allegiances shift and shift back. They have a lot of funny conversations. It’s a modern update of the kind of stories Jane Austen (a huge influence on Amis) produced. That it seems like a classic comedy of manners is on purpose. The novel is as much about English Literature as it is English morals. Keith Nearing is an incredibly fast reader. While at the castle, he speeds right through the works of many of England’s most famed novelists, from Samuel Richardson (his giant novel Clarissa) to D.H. Lawrence. This is somewhat autobiographical to Amis himself, who said in his younger years that he read one novel a day.
It’s important to note that this is a modern update of the comedy of manners. It’s not a rehashing or a nostalgic look back, like all of the Jane Austen fan fiction that was popular two or three years ago. It’s an update, complete with modern topics for discussion, like birth control and women’s rights, raunchiness (some parts are highly explicit), and swearing. It centers around the sexual revolution in Britain, something Amis was a big part of. His sexual frankness in his novels made him a celebrity. The Pregnant Widow is a look back on that era, but it’s not without wincing. Amis is both proud of the advances civil rights made in that era, but also ashamed of some of the after-effects.
The main draw of the novel is the prose. His writing is absolutely superb. Each sentence and each paragraph is a pleasure. The book was delayed several times over the years, and you can tell that he spent the time editing it. It’s some of the sharpest, clearest, and wittiest writing I’ve ever come across. There’s hardly a dull sentence. He ranks somewhere alongside Cynthia Ozick and Saul Bellow as writers who know not only how to write a good sentence, but how to string good sentences together.
If you like Amis, you might also like…