I “read” this on audio CD. The performance by Steven Pacey is terrific. His reading is light, energetic, breezy, engaging. His ability to switch between Keith Nearing’s horn-dog point of view and the voices of the many women in this story—Lily, Scheherazade and Gloria—is astounding. There are many men, too, and each receives their own cadence, lilt, accent—their own bit. Pacey’s reading is carefree. He breathes life into every moment.
The fat start of this book takes a long time to take shape. Okay, well, Keith Nearing is plenty revved up throughout the book, at least sexually, and that creates a certain familiar tension. But not much happens. There’s lots of sex in the air, but not on the page. We’re in Italy. It’s 1970. The women are young and beautiful and frequently topless. There’s sun, swimming and everything that goes with youth and skin. There’s a fair amount in “The Pregnant Widow” about sex—but it’s more suggestive than detailed. Mostly, it’s Keith’s yearning. Compared to Philip Roth, for instance, “The Pregnant Widow” is all froth. Not much sweat.
“The Pregnant Widow” is both agonizing at the outset and increasingly powerful at the end. The last few chapters redeemed the whole book for me and I was glad I stuck with it, but it’s hard to recommend to others (again, unless you have Pacey as your narrator). Even then, it’s a bit of slog.
The undertow theme is change. In eras. From youth to old age. From innocence to cynicism. From trust to disbelief. From controlled romance to free love. “Under the old regime, love preceded sex; it wasn’t that way ‘round any more.” And, later, a change in how cultures once seen as innocent and exotic are viewed suspiciously, post 9/11.
I’m no Amis completist, but it’s hard to argue with his lively style:
On the west terrace of the castle: “So the four of them are arranged out there, their faces averted in the private trials of digestion. The usual sunset colours, with a shading or grading of turbulence, as Jupiter’s stomach rumbles, in some other valley, under some other mountain.”
Keith lying in bed: “Around noon he raised his head and saw that Lily was staring at him through the French windows. Her face wore a much more distilled version of the forensic look he had seen often enough the night before; and Keith could tell by the sharpness of her movements, as she opened the glass doors, that she came to him with a case much fortified by research. He felt reasonably frightened; but he somehow hugged it to himself, the airy clarity of doom.”
And Keith looking at Lily while they are out on the town: “Lily kicked him again. A movement of her head now directed his eyes, not to Gloria, but to the colourless face of Scheherazade. She had changed, altered. Do you know what she looked like? She looked like the photograph of the girl who distinguished herself on the harpsichord, or clocked up five thousand miles for Meals on Wheels, or rescued a cat from the great oak behind the guildhall.”
“The Pregnant Widow” spends most of its time with Keith in a state of pure self-absorption—to the point where he contemplates drugging girlfriend Lily in order to meet up with lust-object Scheherazade.
Throughout the book, Keith is reading classic English novels where physical relationships are left off the page, though Keith tries to decode literary euphemisms for what’s being implied. “The Pregnant Widow” is an updated version of nearly the same feint. There are plenty of raunchy words throughout (and the inside of Keith’s mind takes the term “one track” to new definitions of intensity) but the coupling is mostly implied or referenced.
Much later in life, Keith is forced to recalibrate his thoughts and his life’s arc “like a Rubik’s cube” and it’s here, in the final few pages, where Amis’ poetic touch really pays off. The summer of 1970 fueled Keith’s imagination for a lifetime. The fuel was valuable, but it doesn’t alter the inevitable. “We live half our lives in shock, he thought. And it’s the second half. A death comes; and the brain makes chemicals to get us past it. They numb you, and the numbness is an identifiable kind of calm: a false one. All it can do, numbness, is postpone.”
I’m not sure I would have felt the weight of the ending if Amis had made the opening scenes of self-absorption any shorter. Maybe. I’d recommend it—with cautions. Better yet, get the audio CD and go for a long, long drive with Steven Pacey as your narrator.