Monday, October 05, 2015
The Pregnant Widow
The moniker might be a nod to Keith Talent, the antihero of Amis's last wholly successful novel, London Fields, but Keith is a homecoming for Amis in more than this sense. Keith Nearing is the most proximate a fictional alter ego he's written since Charles Highway in The Rachel Papers. This Keith is nearing 21 (his birthday, when our tale begins, is days away), he's nearing normal male height, like the author, "in that much disputed territory between five foot six and five foot seven", and he's inching toward a statuesque 20-year-old blonde named Sheherazade, with whom he is sharing a fabled summer in an Italian castle, along with several friends (including his semi-platonic and semi-liberated girlfriend, Lily).
Amis starts with a typically arch disclaimer, the suggestion that his tale – like the murder story in London Fields – is another "gift from real life". "Everything that follows is true," he drawls, blowing smoke at the reader. "The castle is true. The girls are all true, and the boys are all true. Not even the names have been changed. Why bother? To protect the innocent? There were no innocent…" He has said elsewhere that the novel is "blindingly autobiographical" and, though names obviously have been changed, you half believe him.
We're mostly in 1970, at the moment when Amis himself started to find his voice. Few writers have ever been more conscious of ageing – like all prodigies he seemed totally undone by the creeping knowledge that even his dazzle would die – and having looked back on his lost youth first as crisis (in The Information), then as hard-won wisdom (in the memoir Experience), Amis finally, at 60, gives it a go as what it no doubt mostly was: romantic farce. The Pregnant Widow reminds you of those medieval epics in which the hero, Troilus, or whoever, observes from a heavenly vantage, free from earthly care, his teenage self tortured and dying for love, and permits himself more than a wry smile.
The version of his youth that Amis gives us here is a fleshed-out reincarnation of the narcissist he described briefly in Experience, "short-arseing along the King's Road" in green velvet flares, sending letters to Kingsley that concluded "Kafka is a fucking fool" or "Middlemarch is fucking good". "Aren't they nice, the young?" Keith's older self observes, here: "They have stayed up for two years drinking instant coffee together, and now they are opinionated – they have opinions…."