There’s an unforgettable line in Martin Amis’s new novel, The Pregnant Widow: “The world is a book we can’t put down.”
Perhaps it is more operationally true to life than the famous observation of Socrates: “The unexamined life is not worth living.”
Sadly, The Pregnant Widow is a book you can put down easily. In both senses. The story of some young lovers and would-be lovers in an Italian castle for a spell in the 1970s, together with a rushed-through post mortem of their later years, it echoes Boccaccio’s Decameron, that classic of romantic and other sheltering, distracting tales by young refugees from the Black Death who flee Florence to a villa and amuse themselves by telling each other stories; Amis’s novel derives as well from other classic love literature (“Eros”) such as Madame de Lafayette’s The Princess of Cleves. For example, one of Amis’s prominent characters is a voluptuously beautiful and seemingly endlessly alluring young woman, “Scheherazade.” And Pandarus himself might have written The Pregnant Widow after a latter-day reincarnation and tour of our times, Pandarus fresh from his dubious haven in the courtly bowered gardens of romance and sexual intrigue in his doomed Troy besieged at its ramparts by the fierce, merciless Greek army stalwart in its long campaign far from home and hearth. But as to peril in Amis’s Mediterranean haven, probably more fitting is the compressed, coarsened analogy of the mob already on the outer grounds of Versailles.
Amis is welcome among some literary critics except when he writes about Stalin and Jihad and Cosmic Despair. To their disgrace, such critics would be entirely welcoming had Amis substituted Hitler and Colonialism and Capitalist Angst. But behind his arch man-of-letters manner, I’ve a hunch Amis hasn’t the self-confidence and orneriness to imagine he could stand out in, and rebukingly spoof, the crowd of Correct commentators here; and not being what lit-crits call a “major talent,” but wanting badly to be such, he has sometimes chafed and sought attention as a derivative contrarian–the impudent, outrageous youngster defiant for attention among the highbrows, his peers. It hasn’t worked, because the cosmopolitan ethereal have shunned or ignored Amis’s Stalin and Jihad and Cosmic Despair commentaries; and the shrinking reading public for literary fiction hasn’t been any more enthusiastic about Koba the Dread and Night Train.
Amis’s kind of intellectuals are comfortable with him now that he has “returned to form” with The Pregnant Widow in which the Enemy Beyond, classically Achilles, Diomede and fellow warriors, has become in the 1970s Cold War tensions, the torture corps of Saddam (the English translation of its name is “the instrument of yearning”), the ravages of time (“aging”), and the like, and, though duly noted, do not much trouble the youthful love intrigues within the sheltering castle walls during the She Decade. Amis is acceptable again. He seeks a respectable fame. It’s a disreputable shame.
The problem with Amis, it seems to me, is that he is timid. Mainly, he won’t try to create characters greater than he; except for Koba the Dread (Stalin)–and that isn’t a novel–he creates lesser, inferior characters and sneers at them.
Koba the Dread, I’m guessing, was written in part for the approval of a great friend of Amis’s father, Kingsley: Robert Conquest. Before Amis was grown up, the thankfully Incorrect Conquest unmasked Stalin and was widely made persona non grata.
But Koba the Dread, besides being a defiant literary commercial, is a valuable if highly derivative summary which might well help a younger audience not become frighteningly unaware of their shaping past and the dangerous nature they share with all humans.
Yet Amis has failed to write with memorable originality and power about these two essential questions he has joined many others in seeing must be raised: Why are there human monsters? Why is Pascal’s terror of the universe prevailing? But he has been at his best in exploring them.
If The Pregnant Widow takes dictation from Boccaccio and would turn its growing narrative exhaustion into a rushed and false postmodern post mortem (see below), Amis’s deepest novel, Night Train, takes dictation from Pascal and formal inspiration from Chandler, Hammett and friends. Done in a too-clever blend of the classic P.I. and police procedural styles, Night Train tells of a hard-boiled female detective solving the suicide of a beautiful, wealthy, brilliant young woman, a rising star in Cosmology, who kills herself by (figuratively) standing in front of the night train, that roaring, rushing, metaphorical monster standing in for all those barely imaginable, inconceivably scaled terrors in the exploding vastitude of the Cosmos seen by the naked eye in those most historical Hubble images which beyond the first-glance awe speed a second, frightful, dawning dejection upon reflection just as do the Escher drawings of a gray, maddening Endlessness of repetition, but the Hubble terrors are enormously more hellish than Escher’s infernal infinities. That we make Christmas-gift calendars of both these infernalities (this word deserves official acceptance) just means their dawning has started with what is often the first stage of human awareness, denial, says Amis, in his highest literary moment.
You can cite other responses than suicide to the dawning in history of the terror of the hurtling vastitudes of the Cosmos. The Plague sent Newton fleeing not to a villa or a castle but to the countryside where, casting about for intellectual challenge, his “idleness” let him focus on gravity, calculus, the prism: most of all, What keeps that barren, shining moon from crashing into us? And Hawking, bodily unlucky, might have been both unjustly imprisoned in a dark, wheel-chair-bound, solitary confinement and brave enough to contemplate out of it and, aided by communication technology customized for him by Silicon Valley geniuses, discover and inform us of black holes. Do allowing and confining Nurtures alike bequeath defining Futures? Hawking’s sickly entrapment may be a sobering analogy to the fortunately healthy out-and-about Einstein noticing relativistic clocks on historical streets and parsing a new physics paradigm while pacing ship decks.
But now Amis is back “in form” with The Pregnant Widow. Is a twenty-year-old male alone in a castle among some lovely females his age a situation interesting enough to justify the bulk of 366 pages? Not much suspense here. Not much range of attention, either. As the pages blur past, Jane Austen novels and Clarissa are seen open on Renaissance tables in vast chambers, so we know that with Amis’s main character, Keith Nearing, we’re dealing yet again with at least a pseudointellectual of at least some sensitivity to whom we can feel superior, and of course the talk and action is all of sex, fashion, eccentrics, dares, sex, fashion, and more eccentrics; and the grand suspense, for many, many pages, is whether Scheherazade and Amis’s carefully drawn middlebrow Keith will sleep together. That hoary storyline. Instead of current history or the rules of Courtly Love, Amis is up-to-date in dramatizing the Ascendant Female in the She Decade, the “pregnant widow” conveying a plight of Woman caught in our transformative times: the importance of Keith in this narrative is problematic.
The moral of the story is essentially that of Chaucer at the end of his great Troilus and Cressida:
O yonge, fresshe folkes, he or she,
In which that love up groweth with youre age,
Repeyreth hom fro worldly vanyte,
And of youre herte up casteth the visage
To thilke God that after his ymage
You made, and thynketh al nys but a faire
This world, that passeth soone as floures faire.
God isn’t in The Pregnant Widow, but Chaucer, politician and spy that he was, wrote within the constraints of his own time of Strong Theology. Cressida is “the ferfulleste wight that myghte be.” She is a widow, but not a pregnant one. The pregnant one is more familiar to us but Amis doesn’t make her nearly as smart, strong, dramatic and true as Cressida whose plight remains true to these times, even though the conventions have changed. If Pandarus might have written The Pregnant Widow, Cressida might well have starred in it. I think it would have been a much better book.