Martin Amis's Sexual Trauma ; Book of the Week
Sexton, David, The Evening Standard (London, England)
THE PREGNANT WIDOW -- INSIDE HISTORY by Martin Amis (Cape, Pounds 18.99) IN 1970, Keith Nearing, a 20-yearold literature student, spends the summer in a swanky castle in Italy with his clever, slightly plain girlfriend Lily.
But Keith doesn't really fancy Lily any more and develops a crush on her pal Scheheradzade, a looker with amazing tits, as he can well see, since she has taken to sunbathing topless by the pool while waiting for her boyfriend to pitch up. Keith's attempts to get off with Scheheradzade end in humiliation but unexpectedly he scores, for a whole day at least, with another house-guest, Gloria Beautyman, who has a fantastic arse and lots of tricks in bed.
That's the story of this novel -- and, on the face of it, these are not worldhistorical events but Martin Amis wants to make them so. His thesis, in this "blindingly autobiographical" book, is that his generation lived through a revolution in which sex became detached from love and suffered from this "sea change" uniquely. "They were not like their elders and they would not be like their youngers. Because they could remember how it was before ..."
The confusing title The Pregnant Widow is taken from a quote from the Russian writer Alexander Herzen, in which he observed that when one social order dies, it is frightening because "the departing world leaves behind it not an heir, but a pregnant widow", and that between the death of one era and the birth of another, "a long night of chaos and desolation will pass".
That's poor little Keith. In the very first paragraph, we are told that his life is ruined for no less than 25 years by the "sexual trauma" he suffers on his summer holiday. It's not that the sex was scarringly bad. On the contrary, it was all too good, too pornographic. But it was without love. So feeling was separated from sex, catastrophically.
In the great sexual revolution, the thesis runs, women -- some women at least -- started acting like boys when it came to sex. They became, in the gamey Amis lingo given a full runout here, "cocks".
Gloria Beautyman is a prize cock, successfully self-adoring. "Are you secretly from another planet?" the awe-struck Keith asks her. "No. I'm secretly a cock ... In the future every girl will be like me. I'm just ahead of my time," Gloria tells him, the dialogue rarely declining into plausibility.
But Amis, never an erotic writer, doesn't quite make it clear why Keith's session with her is so overwhelming that he can't get love and sex back into proportion for a quarter of a century. As well as the usual, albeit performed with particular commitment, there's talk of uniforms, of dressing up as a nun, and as Elizabeth Bennet from Pride and Prejudice, and of a "sinister refinement", which turns out to be using bodily fluids as cosmetics. None of that seems convincingly lifechanging.
But then Amis has always been in the business of systematic overstatement. This novel is once again a most peculiar combination of broad farce and portentous significance. Amis's true vein remains low comedy delivered in a highly disdainful mock-heroic style and there's plenty of that here. …