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The Pregnant Widow

Andrew Tate

Martin Amis
Jonathan Cape, ISBN: 9780224076128

'Human beings, atom-splitters and moon-striders, serenaders, sonneteers, they want to be gods, but they are animals, with bodies that once belonged to a fish'.  He can turn a phrase, Martin Amis.

The Pregnant Widow is replete with ambitious aphorisms, drunkenly swaying between brilliance and extraordinarily silliness.  

Despite his irrepressible linguistic chutzpah, the first decade of the 21st-century has not been one of unrivalled popularity for Amis. He has, apparently, offended a uniquely diverse range of people (including OAPs, Muslims and mother of his goddaughter Anna Ford) while his comments on Islam and the War on Terror prompted a public spat with the Marxist literary critic Terry Eagleton. Reviews of Amis' still prodigious literary output (he has published seven books since 2000) have been, at best, mixed. Is the world waiting for another near 500 page novel about the sexual revolution by this beleaguered figure of Eng Lit?

The action of Amis' twelfth novel takes place at an Italian castle, in which a moneyed clique squanders its youth during the blisteringly hot summer of 1970. The novelist identifies this sun-kissed season as a kind of Eden of possibility but, instead of a genuine emancipation, what the reader encounters is the beginning of the 'Me Decade', an era which signifies 'a new intensity of self-absorption'.

This is a loose and permissive world 'where everything was allowed and forgiven, where nothing was judged, except judging'. Our guide to this deliriously irritating cult of hedonism and privilege is one Keith Nearing, an awkward 20-year-old literature student who occupies 'that much-disputed territory between five foot six and five foot seven'; indeed, he could not be more like a typical Amis protagonist if he tried (which, in fact, he does).

Nearly a villain and certainly not quite a hero, less wealthy and class complacent than his peers, Keith's erotic misadventures initially echo those of the young Lucky Jim (the most famous creation of Amis père, Kingsley). But the narrative paints the consequences of Nearing's lust in a dark, moralistic shade: each of the novel's six books (the structure is elaborate and fussy) ends with a 21st-century 'interval', in which we encounter Keith, full of regret, mulling over 'the price he had paid'.  

The Pregnant Widow is one of the most confidently literary novels of the last 20 years: the title was inspired by the words of Alexander Herzen in his metaphor for the death of social order that, he claims, leaves not 'an heir, but a pregnant widow'.  

Amis' acknowledges, among several others, Ted Hughes' Tales from Ovid, Shakespeare, George Herbert and, perhaps most surprisingly of all, Jane Austen. And Keith's (somewhat unbelievably copious) summer reading is a clue to the novel's undercurrent of astringent moralism: he begins the canon, somewhat reluctantly, with Samuel Richardson's Clarissa (1749) and works his way through vast tracts of 18th and 19th-century literature.  

Amis's novel echoes the tradition of the narrative of awakening conscience. The religious dimension is more vivid here than in most of his previous novels. Some characters anachronistically ventriloquize elements of the New Atheist philosophy: Keith suggests that it's 'a great shame that Santa wasn't at least foretold in the New Testament' while his rationalist girlfriend, Lily, damningly refers to the 'fool in the sky'. Few of the novel's religious characters - who are either hazily vague or viciously punitive in their belief -  are represented as people of integrity.

Yet as much as Keith Nearing - and the novel - resist religion, they are haunted by its language and tropes: Keith has an intuition that the world of summer he has strayed into is 'Eden' but he feels 'very fallen'; he also struggles with his 'unforgiven, non-angelic status as a human being' and sees himself not as a 'lower order of angel' but as 'Adam, and after the Fall'.  

Keith and his friends face temptation: what looks like liberty is only 'the tingle of licence' - a sad pastiche of freedom. This might be Amis' first account of original sin - but it is an iteration of the oldest of stories that has no hope of redemption.  

Amis' fiction is less approachable than some of his peers such as Ian McEwan and Julian Barnes. And on the whole it's really good when he's not talking about 9/11 or anything connected with world religion. But he's a distinctive, brave voice in fiction and this is a riskily moral, if scabrous, piece of fiction.

Andrew Tate