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Saturday, March 20, 2010

The Pregnant Widow by Martin Amis

Martin. Amis. Even typing those words makes my fingers tingle with excitement. Why? I’ve been madly in love with him since 1977.

That was when I first read The Rachel Papers, closely followed by his second novel Dead Babies.

Both are hilarious, fresh, naughty, wrong and baaaaad in all the right ways and gave me, above all, a sense that – although he is ten years older than me – I was reading someone from my own generation.

As well as the beaming joy of (slightly sexually excited) admiration I feel when reading his words, Martin Amis (Martin Amis!) also gave me my soulmate best friend, Victoria.

It might have been her gold Dunhill lighter and improbably long cigarettes which first impressed me when I met her on my third day at university, but it was our mutual love of MARTIN which bonded us for life.

We still quote passages to each other, a particular favourite being the moment in Dead Babies when the coolest of the dudes gets his cock skin caught in his zip: ‘Ooh, my snake, my fucken rig!’

Maybe you had to be there. We were. We still are and always will be the age when we first read Martin Amis. Those books are as much the accompaniment to my youth as Brass in Pocket and Rock With You.

(And I will never walk along Queensway without these words coming into my head: ‘There is a pub in the Moscow Road where they serve Particular Brew. After the first pint of Particular Brew…’)

So that’s just to give you an idea of the sense of anticipation with which I approached this book. Further heightened by it being lent to me by my other BFF – who back in the day actually had a bit of an ongoing scene with Mr Amis. I’ve got history with the guy, both personal and by proxy. Expectations were high.

So I was amazed to find that the first quarter of the book reads like an ill-edited mish mash of jottings, musings and quotes from favourite poems that he’d shaken up in a bin bag and randomly thrown together.

Where was the tight bitten prose I’m used to? Where were the one liners that make you squeal with (slightly sexual) excitement?

Instead there were quotes from Phillip Larkin and a running theme of snippets from the myth of Echo and Narcissus forfuckssake, which I found particularly self-indulgent and old person-ish.

Could this jumble of ill-assorted thoughts really be by the man who wrote Time’s Arrow? One of the most finely-crafted works in Eng Lit – it’s written in chronological reverse. Even some of the dialogue is backwards.

Yet it’s entirely comprehensible - and a meaningful re-visit of the Holocaust. Phewee. I read the whole thing with my eyes on stalks of (slightly sexually excited) amazement.

Where was Amis’s editor with this one, I wondered? Or was he too up himself to listen to one? It made me so distraught, I was going to give up before all my illusions were shattered, but the former Amis squeeze pal urged me to continue.

She also gave me some useful background, which I’d missed because I deliberately avoid reading about the books I’m going to discuss on here, because I want to come to them entirely fresh.

I had already picked up by osmosis that The Pregnant Widow is Amis’s comment on feminism – living through the process and the ongoing outcome of it – and had intuited that it is a return to the group summer holiday of his youth that inspired Dead Babies.

My BFF added that it had taken him years to write, and had been more of a memoir at one point, until he thought better of it and re-worked it again. It reads like it, I replied.

But out of courtesy to her I pressed on and I’m so happy I did, because I ended up loving this book almost as much for its faults than despite them.

This is an older, slightly beaten up Amis, still obsessed with short men, peri-psychotic sexual yearnings, unrequited love, money and the English class system, but a lot less cocky than he was.

He’s not hiding behind a hard carapace of style anymore. It’s much more personal than any of his other books and I found it deeply touching for that.

He’s put all the dopey bits of poetry in – and hero worship references to Jane Austen – because he loves them so much. Rather as I love him, so I get that.

As for his insights into feminism, he actually reveals a lot more about himself – and the men of his generation – than the women he alleges to be studying. Because Amis’s take on feminism is entirely sexual.

He clearly believes that womankind’s great leap forward of the past forty years is sexual freedom. There is not a single reference to any of the women in this book doing – or aspiring to do - any form of work. It’s extraordinary.

Gloria, the 1970s woman he dubs ‘the Future’ – what women will become after the feminist revolution (i.e. now) - is the one who has achieved a man’s separation of sexual desire and emotion.

Meanwhile, she is pursuing a series of rich men in pursuit of securing her financial situation. She has a lot more in common with a Jane Austen heroine, than a 21st century woman.

So if I ever got to sit with my hero in a pub in the Moscow Road – or even the Italian restaurant in the Moscow Road, which features in this book – this is what I would tell him: Feminism didn’t create sexual freedom. That became possible with the advent of the contraceptive pill. It was science which changed morality, not ideas.

The pill changed the lives of men for the better – they got to have a lot more sex a lot more easily – while it enabled women to plan motherhood around their careers (if embrace it at all), so they no longer had to be financially dependent on men.

But after the third pint of particular brew I wouldn’t care and I’d just want to snog him anyway. Because while this book is massively flawed in its structure and ideas, it is still shoutingly, adorably funny, insightful, clever and wonderful.

And I'm still in love with Martin Amis.

Reading satisfaction: 7
Un-put-downable-ness: 5
Recommend to best girlfriend (the one who hasn't shagged him): 9
Recommend to mother: 0
Recommend to niece (if she’s read early Amis): 8
Recommend to niece (if she hasn’t read early Amis): 0
Recommend to gay best friend: 6
Recommend to man pal: 8
Recommend to Helen Razer: 8
Read on public transport: 7


  1. The "hard carapace of style" is Amis' only virtue. The rest of him is celebrity talk.

  2. The Rachel Papers had all the velocity of teenage sexuality and hope and I loved it to bits. And I loved it so much that it had me sticking with the (aging) wunderkind through his abuse of post-modernism, The Information, and the famous renovation of his teeth. But not quite enough for The Night Train or anything that came after.
    He writes, it must be said, like an angel. And I’m presuming he still does. I imagine that if his talent for the arrangement of words into surprising nosegays had wilted, I would have heard about it. Either that, or he would have killed himself. To write like THAT and then not to write like THAT would simply be unbearable. So, I’m presuming, as he is still alive, his style remains inflexible and chic as Maggie’s favourite heels.
    But, it seemed that every novel (and I did love Money) following Rachel was informed by an increasing lack of meaning. What happened? Did he attend a Terry Eagleton lecture at an impressionable age and take the idea that post-modern literature was built on nothing to heart? (Is that why he and Eagleton had their famous blowout?)
    It’s a shame. He was once so deft in describing the conditions of the culture through the filter of the everyday. I remember vaguely a passage in Rachel where he’s describing his sister who, having married downwards, has taken to a sort of shabby chic interior decorating. He says something about a, “picked it up for thirty bob at a car boot sale, you know” style which presages the austere pretensions that still informs the habits of wankers today. Marvellous.
    And now, he describes the conditions of the culture on a much grander scale, But, as Maggie says, he really isn’t. It sounds as though in denying his trust in the little things, such as, for example, his own dick, he has lost his power.
    Should Helen Razer really read this, Mags? Call me when he begins to measure the world by smaller metrics, again. If I want BIG I’ll go to Don Delillo.

  3. I love love loved London Fields, and Martin became my number one man for a long time. So I keep snatching up new Amis titles as they come out hoping for that sort of high again. He pretty much lost me with Koba the Dread. It is factually incorrect, and the most self obsessed piece of clap-trap about Stalin imaginable. Amis manages to make the book more about himself and his crying baby than the real horror that Stalin was. So when I got a review copy of the Pregnant Woman I was ready to forgive and forget and love Martin again. He starts with a reference to the sexual trauma of the main character. After about 400 pages we finally realise that the source of the sexual trauma was unforgettable hot sex with a hermaphrodite. Please, if that's sexual trauma he should be forced to spend a week in a women's refuge. I wanted to throw this book at the wall after I'd finished it. Luckily I had The Lacuna to soothe my soul, and a review copy of Ian McEwan's Solar, which is everything that Amis is trying for but doesn't achieve.

  4. Hooo hoo hoo what marvellous comments. Thanks so much for taking the time to put them down.

    Helen - in the first 3rd I did begin to feel he has lost his ability to frame words which is why I was so freaked out.

    But then it comes back and there are sentences that made me nearly dance around the room with joy.

    You are spot on - once you get over the poetry shite - this book is a return to exactly what made Rachel so great. It's all about his knob again. And his insecurity about being short.

    Ann - I haven't read anything later than Time's Arrow, because I just didn't fancy them. So I am comparing to everything preceding.

    I knew I would have hated Koba, as you describe.

    Do you really think she was a herm? I wasn't sure if it was literal, or rather that she acted sexually as though she had a cock. I decided the latter.


  5. 1. Isn't this a book primarily for 60 year old men (I'm 58) rather than middle middle aged women?

    2. I enjoyed it, but it's far from being a great, lasting book--like, for example, Wolf Hall. I have it 3.5/5.

    3. Wasn't Experience the best thing he's ever written?

    4. Do you like Philip Roth as well? Amis aspires to be him but doesn't come very close.

  6. I loved loved the Rachel Papers all young and throbbing and smelling rank and feeling sticky. Wot is peri-psychotic though? I wAnt that adjective!

  7. Didn't mean to put anonymous! It's me, Sylvia

  8. Hi Maggie,
    Yes I think that Gloria Beautyman was absolutely a hermaphrodite (unlike Lady GaGa who started the rumours to sell more CDs). Remember she kept saying "we're very rare you know" and "look, I can make it hard like this" and I think that's why the big black guy had two hands down her pants at the party when she drank champagne. But I didn't really get the muslim thing, I think it was supposed to be a clever revelation, perhaps over my head (like spray 'n stay).

    However there were some very enjoyable sections and the language was back to form. Rating Jane Austen by how many fucks per book was pretty funny.

    I was only annoyed because I expect so much from Martin. Have you read Experience? That was so good, especially about raising boys and how they come in and jump on your head in the mornings. And that business with his cousin being taken by Fred West was quite shocking, he must have felt so bad about it as he'd offered her a lift that day but she wanted to get the bus...

    I'm sure I'll read any future titles hoping for the perfect reading experience I had with London Fields. I could go on about Koba and why it is such crap, but I'd be here all day.