What Was Feminism Really Like in 1970?
You won't find out from Martin Amis' version.
The first thing I read about The Pregnant Widow is that I wouldn't like it. Amis said he had been told it would get him "in trouble with the feminists," wrote Alison Flood in a November pre-publication puff piece in the Guardian, "but he insisted that it was actually 'a very feminist book' and that 'they haven't got a case.' " It was touching, actually, Amis' belief that there is an army of book-reviewing harpies out there, chafing to make their "case"—and that book review editors would give them this plum assignment. (In fact, with the exception of Michiko Kakutani's pan in the New York Times, the only reviews I've seen in the British or American press have been by men. They liked it.) But never mind, I thought. Martin Amis is notorious for aggressively dumb publicity-generating remarks—all leftists are Stalinists, British Muslims should be strip-searched at random—that show none of the insight into modern life that he displays in his often quite wonderful novels.
The Pregnant Widow is mostly about sexual antics among a group of prosperous young Britishers spending a summer holiday in a magically well- appointed castle in Italy in 1970. Keith Nearing, authorial stand-in and nebbishy English major ("he occupied that much-disputed territory between five foot six and five foot seven") makes dutiful nightly love with his smart but not-quite-beautiful-enough girlfriend Lily while pining for her gorgeous blond friend Scheherazade. Will Keith get to sleep with Scheherazade? It's the sexual revolution, so theoretically, anything goes—and then, too, Scheherazade is rather frustrated, as Lily confides to Keith in graphic detail, since her boyfriend keeps prolonging his arrival in order to hunt yet more exotic beasts with Arab royals. Minor characters pop in and out, there's a lot of topless sun-bathing, a lot of discussion about how feminism permits girls to act "like boys," i.e. initiate no-strings sex, and a lot of reading, too. Keith is plowing through the classic British novels, which, from Richardson to Hardy, all seem to be about women's sexual virtue: "Will she fall? Will she fall, this woman? What'll they write about, he wondered, when all women fall? Well, there'll be new ways of falling …"
Indeed, Keith's bumbling pursuit of the sweet, surprisingly straitlaced Scheherazade takes almost as long as Lovelace's siege of the virginal Clarissa—and is, in a different way, almost as anticlimactic. After about 1,200 pages, Lovelace drugs and rapes Clarissa, whereupon she kills herself, leaving him with endless guilt. Keith fumbles his attempt to drug Lily so she'll sleep through what he hopes will be the great assignation, and Scheherazade changes her mind at the last moment. Keith consoles himself with the fantastically uninhibited Gloria Beautyman. The conjunction of these two events—rejection by the divine Scheherazade, glorious sex with kinky Gloria—plunges poor Keith into a "trauma" of sexual befuddlement that lasts for 25 years. Men can dish it out, is the joke here, but they sure can't take it.
Martin Amis can be a very funny writer—I laughed my way through The Information, another tale of a failed Lothario with a big vocabulary. The Pregnant Widow has some inspired bits—Adriano, an Italian count, whose exquisite courtliness and macho derring-do go for naught with the ladies since he's only 4 feet 10, is a comic character of considerable genius. ("I am the only Furiosi forward with an unbroken nose," he says of his superviolent rugby team. "The lock is blind in one eye. And neither prop has a tooth in his head. Also, both my ears still hold their shape. Not yet even calcified.")
The takedown of the great novels is clever—if only Keith had spent more time reading! The present-day sections, in which poor middle-aged Keith obsesses about his collapsing body and modest life achievements, are poignant and all too true: "As he opened his eyes that morning, Keith thought, When I was young, old people looked like old people, slowly growing into their masks of bark and walnut. People aged differently now. They looked like young people who had been around far too long. Time moved past them but they dreamt they stayed the same."
But The Pregnant Widow didn't really work as a novel for me. Except for Keith, the characters are pretty thin—some are little more than names (Prentiss? Dodo? Oona?)—which is not surprising since mostly what characters do in this book is illustrate some aspect of the title, Alexander Herzen's gloomy metaphor for modern society, caught between old mores and new ones. As far as I can make out, Amis seems to be saying that feminism and the sexual revolution, which he thinks, wrongly, are the same thing, made nice girls like Lily and Scheherazade act against their nature, which is to be girls, not boys, while leaving the bad girls, like Gloria, too old to have babies when the music stops.
Katha Pollitt is the author most recently of The Mind-Body Problem, a collection of poems.