on 19 April 2011
"Breaking the rules, buggering about with the reader, drawing attention to himself..."
Thus, according to an article in "The New York Times", referenced on en.wikipedia.org, Sir Kingsley Amis on his son's writing.
But of course Kingsley Amis was very definitely a pre-postmodern writer, and Martin Amis's fans, of whom, after reading the excellent "The Pregnant Widow", I have just become one again (after a period of agnosticism) are (presumably) all readers who will see qualities where his father could only see blatant defects.
It might be assumed that Martin Amis was more than happy to do without paternal guidance as far as his writing is concerned. Curiously, the metaphorical title (no, there are no literal pregnant widows in the novel) of his most recent work draws attention to the idea that a child, and by extension a whole generation, will in certain circumstances have to do without paternal guidance. We are dealing with a very specific, and highly problematic, form of the "generation gap", and the reader is guided by a quotation from Alexander Herzen which opens the novel:
"The death of the 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."
In stark terms, the child will not have a father. But what about the mother, widowed or not?
The bulk of the novel's action takes place over a couple of weeks of the summer of 1970, in a castle in Italy, where a group of people find themselves thrown together. There are comings and goings, there are complex sexual permutations, heterosexual and homosexual (it was slightly too early for anyone - or anything... - to be called gay...): the term "Iris Murdochy" has been used by another commentator, and it's easy to see what he meant.
However, the three main characters are Keith, through whose eyes the action is filtered, his girlfriend (sort of...) Lily, and Lily's beguiling and enigmatic friend Scheherazade, whom Keith has designs on (sort of...) But this is the beginning of a very specific kind of revolution, i.e. the sexual revolution, and the women here will play far less passive roles than that of the pregnant widow... Indeed, as far as Keith is concerned:
"This is the story of a sexual trauma."
"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."
Significantly, in a novel dealing so extensively with sexuality, neither the narrator nor anyone else ever tries to describe sex. But the novel, as a whole, deals with the birth of what has sometimes been referred to as "recreational sex": sex of the "What's love got to do with it?" variety.
Just as importantly, the novel's elaborate structure ensures that the whole 1970 episode is viewed retrospectively. There is an opening section entitled "2006 - Introductory", and a closing one entitled "2009 - Valedictory", and significant other portions of the novel give detailed answers to the question "What happened to them all later?" And the answers are not always pleasant ones.
Then there are the multitudinous and often dazzling intertextual references, to which the name Scheherazade is of course an immediate clue. Amis refers in the acknowledgements to Ted Hughes's translation of Ovid as "one of the most thrilling books I have ever read", and there are allusions to the Metamorphoses scattered everywhere. Keith Nearing, who is between his second and third years of reading English at university, is working his way through a rather daunting reading list of all the major 18th and 19th century novels. The most important of these influences, for both Keith and Martin Amis, is Jane Austen, and how much sex there may or may not be between the lines of her novels is one of the comic elements in a novel that also thrives on the linguistic inventiveness which, as always with Amis, bounces off every page.
It is difficult to think of any more brilliant wordsmith at work today. Sometimes the effect is startlingly poetic, in the strictest sense of "creative":
"The yellow birds laughed in the garish tenement of the elm."
And sometimes it relies principally on blatantly salacious doubles entendres:
" `Gloria wasn't topless. Not topless. Oh no. She was bottomless. She lost her bikini bottoms just before she nearly drowned. She said they got sucked off by the jacuzzi.' "
Equally characteristically, Amis manages to draw attention to his own inventiveness while attributing it to his characters. The above is immediately followed by:
" `... They got sucked off by the jacuzzi,' said Whittaker. `That's awfully good.' "
It is. And Amis - for, after all, it is him - can perhaps be forgiven for pointing the fact out. (But he cannot be so easily forgiven for a surprising lack of scrupulousness when it comes to drawing on other languages: it's "das Wirtschaftswunder", not "der Wirtschaftswunder", and the Italian for Parmesan (cheese) is "parmigiano", and not "parmeigiano".)
Most importantly of all, Keith Nearing is overtly Martin Amis, especially in the retrospective bits:
"Then fifty comes and goes, and fifty-one, and fifty-two. And life thickens out again. Because there is now an enormous and unsuspected presence within your being, like an undiscovered continent. This is the past."
"The Pregnant Widow" is, to a large extent, Martin Amis coming to terms, forty years on, with how he came to terms with coming of age (Keith turns twenty-one during the sojourn in Italy), and also coming to terms with the past. The parallels are very obvious, and the most touching one lies in the numerous references to Keith's sister Violet, who, like Amis's sister Sally, tragically couldn't handle the sexual revolution.
"The Pregnant Widow" will emphatically not be everyone's cup of tea. Many people will hate it - and by hating it they will be siding with Kingsley Amis. While others will agree with Jonathan Jones in "The Guardian":
"What a voice! There's a full-throated energy to this book that makes perhaps more respectable novels look like turgid waffle."
I'm in the second group. Having had serious reservations about "Yellow Dog" and having (consequently) skipped "House of Meetings", I came to "The Pregnant Widow" with a certain hesitation and scepticism. And I think it is absolutely brilliant. (And, as with all lingustically inventive novels, it will be an absolute nightmare for translators.)