As I started reading Martin Amis's new book, The Pregnant Widow, I was excited. It was funny and meretricious. In a way, its characters, summering in an Italian castle, are like contestants in a reality TV show. But by page 100 it felt like it wasn't really developing, and I wondered whether I was in the midst of Mr Amis's greatest mistake?
How daft of me - the book is an extraordinary triumph. If, in The Information he argued that death is the only subject worth writing about, then here he argues that sex and love are the only subjects worth writing about. Naturally these cannot be divorced from death. At a public reading once, Martin Amis said that the perfect novel should be 'the perfect host' like The Pregnant Widow. Although The Pregnant Widow is puzzlingly slow - almost nothing happens from page 1 -100 and, from page 101 - 200, nothing happens again, even slower - we do know where the story is taking us. As with the Jane Austen novels which are reviewed as the book goes, this is a story about which man and woman will marry. But this time, because of the sexual revolution, the choice is likely to be impeded, trapped and tested by just about everything that has become part of 1970s life.
The book is done in two sections. The first is the holiday, which, as is observed, obeys the unity of time, place and action. The second is a 'and since then, this is what happened to everyone'. The overall provocative effect of reading this for the first time is hard to describe. But the point of a novel, as opposed to any other form of entertainment, is that it works with all that is already within your heart. In spite of the content, the novel is a tribute to the amazing resilience of the human being: the capacity to look back over crazy events and poor decisions and sort of shrug and say, you know, I'm still here. It's ok.
Maybe that doesn't make much sense but if you read the book, it would. The Pregnant Widow is a wonderfully subtle success. Let's hope nobody tries to turn it into a movie. I have found the reviewers on Radio 3 and 4 somewhat mean to Martin Amis, as if they are unwilling simply to be given an entertaining book to read. Either that, or they think he loathes women or Islam or something, but such accusations are simply not levelled at other writers. Nobody would accuse Marian Keyes of hating men, although the terrible behaviour of men tends to be what produces her fiction!
Few writers can compete with Martin Amis in terms of his use of stories to take you into the unfathomables of life - sex, death, love and nuclear war. I don't know what more anyone could want from a novel.
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