Martin Amis: Or is that Keith? (Getty images)
In The Metamorphoses — one of the crowd of tutelary presences which throng the margins of The Pregnant Widow — Ovid's tales tend to be aetia, that is to say fables which explain how something came about — for instance, how echo became a disembodied voice, or how mulberries acquired their deep red colour, or why magpies are such chatterers.
The Pregnant Widow is also an aetion, and — in the first instance — the metamorphosis whose cause it narrates is the shift when "sex divorced itself from feeling". Keith Nearing and his on/off girlfriend, Lily, are spending the summer of 1970 in Italy, in the castle of a friend of a friend. On to this well-defined stage enter a cast of miscellaneous young adults — Scheherazade, with her improbably large breasts, Gloria with her voluptuous rear, the exuberantly common Rita, Kenrik the Olympian alcoholic in training, Adriano the dwarfish embodiment of Italian machismo, Jorquil the comedy upper-class Englishman. As the sentimental entanglements of their summer unravel and reravel, Keith — who has been transparently lusting after Scheherazade — is initiated into the sexual future, as he thinks he wishes it to be. But his introduction to that future happens by an unexpected hand, and in an act of deep but disguised violence: "It was the opposite of torture, yet it twisted. It ruined him for twenty-five years." Keith falls victim to the secret clauses in the manifesto of sexual modernity, those "written in fine print or invisible ink".
The Pregnant Widow stands apart from Amis's earlier fiction in the thickness and insistence of its literary reference (one can easily imagine a future doctoral project: ‘An Annotated Edition of Martin Amis's The Pregnant Widow'). Ovid, as we have seen: but also Shakespeare (Tempest, King Lear, Much Ado), Kafka, the Arabian Nights, Jane Austen (especially that favourite for modern retelling, Emma, but also Mansfield Park and Pride and Prejudice), Milton, Keats, Hardy, George Eliot — the novel is a literary whispering gallery. Partly this results from the fact that Keith is studying for a degree in English, and seems to have brought to Italy a copy of every major pre-20th-century English novel, through which he is ploughing his way with incredible speed.
The speed is explained by the fact that poor desire-addled Keith is clambering up the towering summits of English literature with his eyes fixed on a very limited range of issues: "It sometimes seemed to Keith that the English novel, at least in its first two or three centuries, asked only one question. Will she fall? Will she fall, this woman?" So, when he is debriefed by Lily at the end of each novel, Keith's executive summary focuses single-mindedly on the timing and frequency of the fictional sex acts. Clarissa had been, as you might imagine, a particularly trying read for Keith, especially coming as it did in this chronologically-organised grand tour of the English novel after the (in Keith's scale of value) encouragingly incident-rich Tom Jones:
...Clarissa's a nightmare. You won't believe this, Lily," he said (and he had, incidentally, decided to swear more), "but it's taking him two thousand pages to fuck her."
"But honestly, listen to you. Usually, when you read a novel, you go on about things like, I don't know, the level of perception. Or the depth of the moral order. Now it's just fucks."
"It's not just fucks, Lily. One fuck in two thousand pages. That's not just fucks."
"No, but it's all you go on about."