Vintage £7.99 (465pp) from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
The Pregnant Widow, By Martin Amis
Friday 08 April 2011
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.
Music Why this music festival is still the place to spot the next big thing
Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Finland schools: Subjects scrapped and replaced with 'topics' as country reforms its education system
- 2 The West has it totally wrong on Lee Kuan Yew
- 3 Watch: Man takes selfie every mile of 2,600 mile hike, creates amazing timelapse video
- 4 The day I starred in Only Fools and Horses
- 5 Scientists have discovered a simple way to cook rice that dramatically cuts the calories
Britain's first cinema flickers back to life following £6m refurbishment
Zayn Malik already working on solo material, just days after quitting One Direction
A historian gave the most British look of despair when someone screwed up Richard III's birthday at his reburial
James May hints Top Gear days are over following Jeremy Clarkson's BBC exit
Fifty Shades of Grey movie shows first sex scene 'after 40 minutes'
Ukip supporters are 55 or older, white and socially conservative, finds British Social Attitudes Report
JK Rowling responds to fan tweeting she 'can't see' Dumbledore being gay
Jeremy Clarkson sacked live: Alan Yentob 'wouldn't rule out' ex Top Gear host's BBC return
Revealed: Putin's army of pro-Kremlin bloggers
The West has it totally wrong on Lee Kuan Yew
Germanwings plane crash: Co-pilot Andreas Lubitz wanted to 'do something people would remember him for'