More clock-turning than anything else, however, is the central preoccupation of the novel: Sex. Amis makes this clear as he opens the novel proper:
It was the summer of 1970, and time had not yet trampled them flat, these lines:
Sexual intercourse began
(Which was rather late for me) –
Between the end of the Chatterley ban
And the Beatles first LP.
Philip Larkin, ‘Annus Mirabilis’ (formerly ‘History’), Cover Magazine, February 1968
But now it was the summer of 1970, and sexual intercourse was well advanced. Sexual intercourse had come a long way, and was much on everyone’s mind.
Sexual intercourse, I should point out, has two unique characteristics. It is indescribable. And it peoples the world. We shouldn’t find it surprising, then, that it is much on everyone’s mind.
Martin Amis was born in 1949, as was Keith Nearing, the central character in the book. I was born in 1948 — while I never summered in a castle in Italy, I was still part of the “revolution” that this book explores.
It is worth describing just what things were like for a 21-year-old in 1970. If you were a male Brit (or Canadian), you were very glad you weren’t American — men of your age were being sent off in the draft to die in a pointless war. If you were a student (as the characters here are), the previous decade had closed with sit-ins, occupations and violence — French students came that close to overthrowing the government. The feminist movement was gaining strength; the first gay activists were coming out (there is a gay couple in the book). Those Beatles that Larkin describes had also radically changed the whole notion of “music”. But it is also true that, at least at an individual level, the most “revolutionary” thing was sex. Yes, it had always been there, but the Pill had changed everything — both males and females were fully aware that there were no precedents to tell them what that change meant, they just had to learn through experience. This was different from all that had come before.
The novel’s title, drawn from a epigraph from Russian philosopher Alexander Herzen, acknowledges that:
The death of contemporary forms of social order ought to gladden rather than trouble the soul. Yet what is frightening is that the departing world leaves behind it not an heir, but a pregnant widow. Between the death of the one and the birth of the other, much water will flow by, a long night of chaos and desolation will pass.
Twenty-year-old Keith is at the castle with Lily, on a “trial reconciliation” which we know from the start is not going to go well. He is walking the streets of Montale with Lily (5’5″, 34-25-34) and Scheherazade (5’10″, 37-23-33). Keith himself is not quite 5’7″ but he is already obsessed by Scheherazade and Lily is full aware of that. This was not an unusual circumstance at that time; remember, both young males and females were trying to figure out what the new order was and they didn’t have much to go by, beyond hormonal pressure.
While these three are at centre stage in the opening parts of the book, Amis does indicate that the other residents of the castle are also on there own voyages of discovery. Everyone does have a partner of sorts, but that doesn’t get in the way of experimentation. A very rich Italian count, Adriano, wanders into the story and becomes even more obsessed with Scheherazade than Keith is — alas, his height (4’10″) puts him at a bit of a disadvantage but the bank account and his helicopter are offsetting factors.
The kids spend a lot of time at the pool in various states of undress or no dress at all. You can imagine the effect that Scheherazade, who favors a monokini, has on Keith. It is also where we first meet Gloria (nicknamed Junglebum by Lily), who will become the most threatening character in the book.
While the sex is always there, Amis does head off along some other avenues. Narcissism is a frequent theme — the 61-year-old author can look at his 20-year-old self with quite a critical eye. Keith is also an English student, working his way through the classics (Austen, Hardy, Eliot and Dickens, among others) as the summer progresses — he has a vague notion that he’d like to work for the Times Supplement. (I should note that the book has many literary references — Ted Hughes, Saul Bellow, William Blake and William Shakespeare are some others.)
Despite the book’s often absurd plot lines, if you lived through the time, it strikes a responsive note. Our generation was self-indulged to the point of narcissism, perhaps at its worst at the fully-developed, but not-yet-quite-adult age. The confusing and often damaging response to the sexual revolution which the 24-year-old Amis explored in The Rachel Papers is examined with a much more sceptical eye in this novel. And the curious removal of these kids from any aspect of the “real” world is a reflection of the times, which I am sure grates on any one who was not of that age (none of these people thought about preparing or applying for a job because when the time came that you had to have one there were lots of choices available — no wonder Generations X, Y and Z hate us).
If the strength of the book is the accuracy with which it captures that age for those of us who went through it, that is also its biggest weakness. I suspect a 35-year-old reader would cheerfully spit on all these characters. And it must be admitted that we males did not treat women very well then (and Amis is not very kind in his portrayal of women), so I also suspect a lot of women readers might equally find the book wanting.
Even this 62-year-old male (that hardly seems to be a fiction reading demographic likely to make The Pregnant Widow a bestseller) has some serious problems with the book. Amis tries to add weight and meaning to his story with “intervals” — observations from the narrator set in 2009:
They were the children of the Golden Age (1948?-73), elsewhere known as Il Maracolo Economico, La Trente Glorieuses, Der Wirtschaftswunder. The Golden Age, when they never had it so good.
What you could hear in the background, during this period, was progress music. The sort of music you heard, for instance, in Cliff Richard’s The Young Ones (1961). We don’t mean the songs. We’re thinking of that long sequence when, with a tap-tap here and a knock-knock there, and to the sound of progress music, the young ones transform a derelict building into a thriving community centre — a youth club, for the young ones.
In the Golden Age progress music was heard in the background by nearly everybody. The first phone, the first car, the first house, the first summer holiday, the first TV — all to progress music. Then the arrival of sexual intercourse, in 1966, and the full ascendancy of the children of the Golden Age.
(SPOILER PARAGRAPH) Perhaps the biggest shortfall of the book is that Amis chooses to end it with a 72-page “Coda” (I am all for codas, but 72 pages is a bit much) where he fast forwards through what happened to the characters between 1970 and 2009, with a couple of pages devoted to almost every year in between. While it seems to be intended to add weight and meaning to the first 80 per cent of the book (all that growing up behavior had consequences), it ends up achieving the opposite effect, almost as though the author lost confidence in the story he had just spent almost 400 pages on and now has to head in another direction.
Despite that, I found the book more than worthwhile (again, with the caveat that maybe you had to be there for it to land that way). This is what it was like — and as the last few decades and particularly last few years have shown, it will never be like this again. That did produce consequences in the current day — with or without the coda, I think most readers can grasp that and draw some of their own conclusions. If you were coming of age in 1970, it definitely rewards the read. I’ll leave it to younger readers to offer an opinion on whether, alas, that might be a necessary condition for it to be a worthwhile book.