The Pregnant Widow, By Martin Amis

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The Independent Culture

According to the Russian thinker, Alexander Herzen, after any revolution the departing world "leaves behind not an heir, but a pregnant widow." In this purportedly "blindingly autobiographical novel", Amis's 20-year-old protagonist, Keith Nearing, wants to tell us what it is to enter kicking and screaming into a new era.

The novel is largely set in the "hot, endless and erotically decisive summer" of 1970 in a castle above a village in Campania in Italy. Here Keith (a favoured Amisian name) and his rather grander university friends spend their poolside sojourn dipping their toes - and more - into the new sexual freedoms on offer. There are EM Forster-style day-trips to fishing villages and ruined temples, and a steady stream of diverting visitors. Keith, insecure about his looks and social standing, spends his afternoons speed-reading the English novel looking for clues. As he studies the old rules of romantic engagement, from Richardson and Fielding to Austen and Eliot, he nurses hopes of an erotic encounter with his girlfriend Lily's friend, Scheherazade - an aristocratic beauty with bikini-perfect breasts.

Yet also on his mind is his foster sister, Violet, a young woman who will eventually go under - one of the first casualties of a sea-change that will see the act of sex leeched of "all the ancient colourations of significance."

The mannered Italianate setting provides Amis with plenty of scope for comedy - much of it revolving around Adriano, a pocket-sized count under whom balconies crumble and tall women wilt. But life's biggest joke is the tragicomedy of ageing, and much of the book is told in retrospect as the middle-aged, thrice-married Keith looks back on this summer of "sexual trauma". Yet even at 20, the orphaned Keith is well aware that he will die, and that on his deathbed "the only thing that would matter was how it had gone with women."

While Amis's views on nascent feminism and the baby-boomers can be debated, the author's inimitable style and distinctive flair for description and metaphor still stand up proud. There are clever-boy quips about English Lit, visual gags about Adriano's increasingly gigantic lady escorts, ripe riffs about Italian plumbing and etymological explanations of significant nouns and verbs.

This is a simultaneously serious and entertaining novel about a seemingly sunny revolution that still casts long shadows.