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Authors and ideas: Martin Amis and an Italian idyll

The British writer's 'The Pregnant Widow' travels back to the days of the sexual revolution.

May 09, 2010|By Susan Salter Reynolds, Special to the Los Angeles Times

They love to hate him, Martin Amis, the British literati's very own Princess Di. He can't go to the airport without the press commenting on where he stopped along the way and why, where he has his dental work done and whether a particular gesture or phrase is reminiscent of his famous father, Kingsley Amis, and why.

If he really hated all that publicity, you say, why announce that there ought to be booths on street corners where the elderly can euthanize themselves? Why name his newest novel "The Pregnant Widow"? Why write a book in which the central character (not the protagonist but the focus of everyone's attention) is a 20-year-old beauty with very large breasts? Hmmm?

"The Pregnant Widow" (Alfred A. Knopf: 384 pp., $26.95) is set in the summer of 1970, at the apex of what is often called the sexual revolution. Keith Nearing, 20 (around 5 feet 7), an Oxford undergraduate, is invited to stay in a castle near Naples with his friend Scheherazade ("37-23-33") and his girlfriend, Lily ("34-25-34"). They are visited by Gloria ("33-22-37"), Keith's friend Kendrik (no measurements), his gay friend Whittaker and a very short count (a little over 4 feet) named Adriano. Older people come and go but they are, of course, irrelevant. Keith is twisted into knots by Scheherazade, who lies around topless by the pool most days. It doesn't help that Lily seems to feed his obsession; feeding her boyfriend juicy bits of information about her friend's masturbation habits (in the shower), for example, when they are making love. Keith plans his seduction, relying heavily, unfortunately, on his summer reading material — "Clarissa," "Tom Jones," "Pamela," "Tristram Shandy" and a smattering of Jane Austen. (It is rumored that D.H. Lawrence and his wife, Frieda, stayed in the castle; a reader wishes Keith had taken a Lawrentian approach, rather than Samuel Richardson's — attempting to drug Lily in the hopes that she would sleep through his tryst with her friend.)

Anyway, the kids are confused, and who can blame them? There are the things they are supposed to feel and the things they really feel. There is the raw and supremely unfair advantage that beauty gives its temporary minders. There is the promise of unshackled happiness and vivid living, a promise that turned out, for so many, to be a lie.

Perhaps the novel's most important character is Keith's younger sister, Veronica. Keith receives letters about his sister's sexual exploits from both his older brother and Veronica herself. He worries very much about her. Veronica is based on Amis' sister, Sally, who was, he has written, a victim of the same revolution. Sally died in 2000 at 46, and spent much of her short life battling alcoholism, depression and, Amis says, "promiscuity." "I remember helping her out of some relationship. I knew she wanted to thank me. 'Write about me, Martin,' she said. 'You can write anything you want.' " Russian writer Alexander Herzen used the phrase "the pregnant widow" to describe the period of chaos after a revolution before a new order or regime is put in place. The summer of 1970, for Keith, Scheherazade, Lily and countless others, was such a time.

The novel is "blindingly autobiographical," Amis said in early interviews. "By the way, the book is not autobiographical," Amis wrote to this interviewer, "though its [abandoned] prototype was."

"In 2003 I began to write an autobiographical novel," Amis, who is 60, explains. "I slaved and slaved with no end in sight. The whole thing was dead, without life. I blamed autobiography. It was a nasty couple of weeks. I tried to make it into two novels. One would be autobiographical; the other, which became 'The Pregnant Widow,' would have no fidelity to what actually happened."

Does Amis believe that the sexual revolution was a great mistake? "No. It was a great and necessary thing. I've concentrated on the negatives because there were casualties, like my sister. It was an amazing thing to bring off throughout the West; on the whole peaceful, but not yet finished," Amis says in a telephone interview. "I do believe in love," he adds, pausing to let that sink in. "But how difficult it is to get a decent deal!"

In spite of the focus on breasts in this novel (Scheherazade cannot walk down the street in Italy without being mobbed), Amis says that his "whole life has been a quest for smart women." He is interested in the continuing misuse of power and the kind of inequality caused by physical attributes — "in how many countries is the leading cause of death for women 16 to 45 murder by a male partner? Then there's the fruitless vanity, the idea that pole dancing is empowering. Notice there are no 60-year-old pole dancers. Beauty empowers the pretty. And it is not a democratic power."

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