Martin Amis’ The Pregnant Widow isn’t the type of dirty book designed to titillate American readers. It’s a coming-of-age novel set in the Age Of Coming—the 1970s, that glorious decade when everyone allegedly slept around guiltlessly. Yet early on, Amis’ protagonist, Keith Nearing, recalls a time browsing through brothel pamphlets, and imagines that the experience taught him “something literary: why you can’t write about sex.” And Amis doesn’t, really. His sex happens offscreen, and almost in code, draped in allusion and mannerism. The book is filthy, but only for those capable of visualizing something he calls “the sinister refinement.”
Pregnant Widow’s main action concerns the events of a summer in 1970, where Nearing, approaching his 21st birthday, shacks up in a castle in the Italian countryside with his girlfriend Lily, as a collection of couples and acquaintances come and go, all visibly frothing with the appetites of their youth and the epoch. Scheherazade’s breasts, Gloria’s backside, and all the novels of Jane Austen (plus the Brontës and Charles Dickens) vie for Nearing’s attention as his passion for Lily slowly declines into a doomed, sisterly love.
As his lusts get the best of him, Nearing woefully recognizes that his “chosen project was something like the opposite of self-improvement.” In other words, he would like to have illicit intercourse with Lily’s friend Scheherazade, but complications involving a midget, mixed signals, and role-playing (Dracula and Jane Eyre are inspirations) all conspire to bungle his most opportune moments. The summer fades, London calls, he loses Lily, and the book sticks around for a few too many codas.
Much has been speculated as to the autobiographical nature of The Pregnant Widow, which Amis has unconvincingly denied in recent interviews. There are periodic “intervals” spaced out between the chapters in which Nearing, in advanced years, attempts to impose meaning and perspective onto the events of that summer. In these segments, Amis drops anchor with philosophical weight, with Nearing musing “Why love anyone, when everyone could vanish?” But these are only intervals, restrained, and perhaps part of the autobiography that never was. The irony, of course, is that Amis honed in on a decade noted for its self-indulgence, then failed to pull the trigger himself. He’s left out the “practical narcissism,” as he calls it with a wink. For all the talk of free love, in the end, there’s an annoyingly anachronistic fig leaf blocking the full view.