If he really hated all that publicity, you say, why announce that there ought to be booths on street corners where the elderly can euthanize themselves? Why name his newest novel "The Pregnant Widow"? Why write a book in which the central character (not the protagonist but the focus of everyone's attention) is a 20-year-old beauty with very large breasts? Hmmm?
"The Pregnant Widow" (Alfred A. Knopf: 384 pp., $26.95) is set in the summer of 1970, at the apex of what is often called the sexual revolution. Keith Nearing, 20 (around 5 feet 7), an Oxford undergraduate, is invited to stay in a castle near Naples with his friend Scheherazade ("37-23-33") and his girlfriend, Lily ("34-25-34"). They are visited by Gloria ("33-22-37"), Keith's friend Kendrik (no measurements), his gay friend Whittaker and a very short count (a little over 4 feet) named Adriano. Older people come and go but they are, of course, irrelevant. Keith is twisted into knots by Scheherazade, who lies around topless by the pool most days. It doesn't help that Lily seems to feed his obsession; feeding her boyfriend juicy bits of information about her friend's masturbation habits (in the shower), for example, when they are making love. Keith plans his seduction, relying heavily, unfortunately, on his summer reading material — "Clarissa," "Tom Jones," "Pamela," "Tristram Shandy" and a smattering of Jane Austen. (It is rumored that D.H. Lawrence and his wife, Frieda, stayed in the castle; a reader wishes Keith had taken a Lawrentian approach, rather than Samuel Richardson's — attempting to drug Lily in the hopes that she would sleep through his tryst with her friend.)
Anyway, the kids are confused, and who can blame them? There are the things they are supposed to feel and the things they really feel. There is the raw and supremely unfair advantage that beauty gives its temporary minders. There is the promise of unshackled happiness and vivid living, a promise that turned out, for so many, to be a lie.
Perhaps the novel's most important character is Keith's younger sister, Veronica. Keith receives letters about his sister's sexual exploits from both his older brother and Veronica herself. He worries very much about her. Veronica is based on Amis' sister, Sally, who was, he has written, a victim of the same revolution. Sally died in 2000 at 46, and spent much of her short life battling alcoholism, depression and, Amis says, "promiscuity." "I remember helping her out of some relationship. I knew she wanted to thank me. 'Write about me, Martin,' she said. 'You can write anything you want.' " Russian writer Alexander Herzen used the phrase "the pregnant widow" to describe the period of chaos after a revolution before a new order or regime is put in place. The summer of 1970, for Keith, Scheherazade, Lily and countless others, was such a time.
The novel is "blindingly autobiographical," Amis said in early interviews. "By the way, the book is not autobiographical," Amis wrote to this interviewer, "though its [abandoned] prototype was."
"In 2003 I began to write an autobiographical novel," Amis, who is 60, explains. "I slaved and slaved with no end in sight. The whole thing was dead, without life. I blamed autobiography. It was a nasty couple of weeks. I tried to make it into two novels. One would be autobiographical; the other, which became 'The Pregnant Widow,' would have no fidelity to what actually happened."
Does Amis believe that the sexual revolution was a great mistake? "No. It was a great and necessary thing. I've concentrated on the negatives because there were casualties, like my sister. It was an amazing thing to bring off throughout the West; on the whole peaceful, but not yet finished," Amis says in a telephone interview. "I do believe in love," he adds, pausing to let that sink in. "But how difficult it is to get a decent deal!"
In spite of the focus on breasts in this novel (Scheherazade cannot walk down the street in Italy without being mobbed), Amis says that his "whole life has been a quest for smart women." He is interested in the continuing misuse of power and the kind of inequality caused by physical attributes — "in how many countries is the leading cause of death for women 16 to 45 murder by a male partner? Then there's the fruitless vanity, the idea that pole dancing is empowering. Notice there are no 60-year-old pole dancers. Beauty empowers the pretty. And it is not a democratic power."
The idyllic setting of the novel — Italy, summer, being 20 and away from home — gives the book the feel of a controlled experiment. "I wanted the sense of lives being suspended so that the characters could examine themselves — to see how equipped they were to live in a post-revolution future. Gloria, for example, leapfrogs through time into pornography." When the summer is over, Amis follows his characters into their lives, skipping through marriages, divorces and returning to memories of those hot days by the pool.
"Like Keith, I had a collapse after my sister died," Amis says. "There was a physical lethargy, needing too much sleep, a deadened feeling. It took me awhile to realize it was my sister's death. I felt the world let her down and it went right into my being. In many ways, she would have been a victim in any society. When she died I didn't react much, which meant it hit me harder later. I had these violent feelings of protectiveness. So often these feelings go wrong. Protectiveness becomes a desire to control, which becomes a badge of honor," Amis says. "I'm not keen on the idea of fiction as therapy, but I did feel relieved after writing this."
It has been much publicized and Amis the younger has written that his father was quite hard on the personal bits in his son's work (manuscripts were flung). Amis returns the favor — "his personal books were not his best," he says of his father's work. Amis has said that his favorite writers are Bellow and Nabokov; he admires Bellow's ability to make fiction from his life, "what didn't happen and what nearly happened." Strange, one might think, to write through it (as with any writer, there are recognizably autobiographical bits in many of Amis' books) as a way of running from it.
Amis has said that most writers lose their talent as they age; they "go off at about 70." "Your craft may improve," he explains, "but your pyrotechnic ability declines. Then again, Shakespeare died at 51; Jane Austen at 42. That said, since writing this novel I've been having an unprecedentedly lively time in my study. I've never wanted to do anything else." Unlike Keith, who veers off into advertising, Amis has remained true to his creative self, venturing only as far as literary journalism and cultural criticism. "Advertising would have been fatal."
As for his relationship with the press: "I don't do it on purpose. How can you be controversial on purpose? Our media culture is shot over here. It is one aspect of national decline. And I'm in a peculiar position —much of it has to do with my father. I write the books I want to read — don't think much about the reader, which doesn't mean I don't want to give my readers pleasure. A novelist goes off when he falls out of touch with his readers — like James Joyce and Henry James. First it's separate beds, then separate rooms, then separate apartments."
So far, "The Pregnant Widow" has gotten mostly good reviews. Amis is surprised that the novel has not been reviewed by women in England, as if the editors were afraid to assign it to females. Critics have long been awed by his writing, craft and pyrotechnics, his fascination with failure, descriptions that encompass an era, like the Italian boys who follow Scheherazade in the streets in their "sharp shirts and pressed slacks, whooping, pleading, cackling — and all aflicker, like a telekinetic card trick of kings and knaves, shuffling and riffling and fanning out under the streetlamps."
Amis captures a place and secures it in memory — a cache of Italy in the summer of 1970, imbued with medieval imagery, a landscape imbued with human fumbling: "The yellow birds laughed in the garish tenement of the elm. Higher up, the crows, with famished and bitter faces, faces half carved away (he thought of the black knights on the chessboard). Higher still, the Homeric strivers of the upper air, dense and solid as magnets, and in formation, like the blade of a spear, aimed at a land far beyond the horizon."
Salter Reynolds is a writer in Los Angeles.