Amis pulls unexpected new stunt: being boring


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The Pregnant Widow

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 15/05/2010 (4518 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

The Pregnant Widow

By Martin Amis

Knopf Canada, 400 pages, $33

FOLLOWING the 9/11 and 7/7 terror attacks, England’s Martin Amis wrote an essay describing his novel-in-progress, a study of sexual repression and revolution, in which an insanely misogynistic Muslim terrorist unleashes a horde of serial rapists on America.

Sadly, The Pregnant Widow is not that novel, though it springs from many of the same anxieties.

Focusing largely on a group of young Brits in Italy in 1970, it examines the tragic consequences of a revolution gone too far and presents Islam as a possible final destination for a soul-sick world made ill by too much freedom and hedonism.

It is also likely the least accessible book Amis has ever written, requiring a nodding familiarity with the British novel from Richardson to Lawrence and British poetry from the Metaphysicals to Larkin.

Critics have accused Amis of stunt writing before, noting his fondness for grotesques and multiple unreliable narrators, the reverse timeline of his Holocaust novel Time’s Arrow and his novel on Stalinism (House of Meetings) told from the perspective of a Russian rapist.

In large portions of The Pregnant Widow, he pulls the one stunt we’ve never expected from him: being boring.

Not that the prose doesn’t spin doughnuts across the page with phrases like "in the mirror that morning he was foetal with it, his face a foetus of crapulent self-pity" and aphorisms like "religion was the anti-Christ of eros."

But still, compared to the perverse brilliance of London Fields or the spectacle of House of Meetings, this effort is paved with speed bumps.

Most of The Pregnant Widow takes place in a castle in Italy, where summer guest Keith Nearing, having just reconciled with his pretty, upper-middle-class girlfriend Lily, is conspiring to have sex with the stunning and aristocratic Scheherazade.

Characters come and go, many of them Amis grotesques, like a four-foot-10 Italian playboy, a cheese-obsessed right-wing aristocrat and a sinister slightly older woman whose magnificent arse makes a gay character almost go straight.

There’s a great deal of playing with storytelling, especially storytelling about love and sex. A group of young people talking about who’s shagged whom in an Italian castle hints at Boccaccio’s Decameron.

And throughout the novel, English student Keith is reading Austen, the Brontes, Lawrence and other authors and discussing how they’ve handled sex and love. (And of course Scheherazade’s name conjures up The 1001 Arabian Nights.)

Amis’s last novel set in England, the critically reviled (though quite possibly great) Yellow Dog, focused on where the sexual revolution has led: to an ugly, porn-soaked England of women acting like men and men acting like beasts.

The problem, he suggests in The Pregnant Widow, lies not in the sexual revolution itself but in one of its platform planks: "the dissociation of sensibility … feeling was separated from sex."

Separating sex from feeling leads here to a tragic narcissism that nearly kills Keith and does kill at least one other character.

What might happen when the world grows tired of post-’60s narcissism?

Amis draws on a metaphor by the 19th-century Russian writer Alexander Herzen, who wrote that a departing world leaves behind not an heir but a pregnant widow. A series of references — to a castle guest in a burka, a biography of the founder of Wahabbism, a debauched poet’s conversion to Islam, men with whips on street corners — hint at what the new world might look like.

Bob Armstrong is a Winnipeg playwright whose latest work will be presented around Manitoba this summer by Parks Canada.


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