Fiction Martin Amis The Pregnant Widow

ISBN 13: 9781400044528

The Pregnant Widow

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9781400044528: The Pregnant Widow

The year is 1970, and the youth of Europe are in the chaotic, ecstatic throes of the sexual revolution. Though blindly dedicated to the cause, its nubile foot soldiers have yet to realize this disturbing truth: that between the death of one social order and the birth of another, there exists a state of terrifying purgatory—or, as Alexander Herzen put it, a pregnant widow.

Keith Nearing is stuck in an exquisite limbo. Twenty years old and on vacation from college, Keith and an assortment of his peers are spending the long, hot summer in a castle in Italy. The tragicomedy of manners that ensues will have an indelible effect on all its participants, and we witness, too, how it shapes Keith’s subsequent love life for decades to come. Bitingly funny, full of wit and pathos, The Pregnant Widow is a trenchant portrait of young lives being carried away on a sea of change.

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About the Author:

Martin Amis is the author of eleven previous novels, the memoir Experience, and two collections of stories and six of nonfiction, most recently The Second Plane. He lives in London.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Book One

Where We Lay Our Scene

I

Franca Viola

It was the summer of 1970, and time had not yet trampled them flat, these lines:

Sexual intercourse began
In 1963
(Which was rather late for me)—
Between the end of the Chatterley ban
And the Beatles’ first LP.

—Philip Larkin, “Annus Mirabilis” (formerly “History”), Cover magazine, February 1968

But now it was the summer of 1970, and sexual intercourse was well advanced. Sexual intercourse had come a long way, and was much on everyone’s mind.

Sexual intercourse, I should point out, has two unique characteristics. It is indescribable. And it peoples the world. We shouldn’t find it surprising, then, that it is much on everyone’s mind.

Keith would be staying, for the duration of this hot, endless, and erotically decisive summer, in a castle on a mountainside above a village in Campania, in Italy. And now he walked the backstreets of Montale, from car to bar, at dusk, flanked by two twenty-year-old blondes, Lily and Scheherazade . . . Lily: 5' 5", 34-25-34. Scheherazade: 5' 10", 37-23-33. And Keith? Well, he was the same age, and slender (and dark, with a very misleading chin, stubbled, stubborn-looking); and he occupied that much-disputed territory between five foot six and five foot seven.

Vital statistics. The phrase originally referred, in studies of society, to births and marriages and deaths; now it meant bust, waist, hips. In the long days and nights of his early adolescence, Keith showed an abnormal interest in vital statistics; and he used to dream them up for his solitary amusement. Although he could never draw (he was all thumbs with a crayon), he could commit figures to paper, women in outline, rendered numerically. And every possible combination, or at least anything remotely humanoid—35-45-55, for instance, or 60-60-60—seemed well worth thinking about. 46-47-31, 31-47-46: well worth thinking about. But you were always tugged back, somehow, to the archetype of the hourglass, and once you’d run up against (for instance) 97-3-97, there was nowhere new to go; for a contented hour you might stare at the figure eight, upright, and then on its side; until you drowsily resumed your tearful and tender combinations of the thirties, the twenties, the thirties. Mere digits, mere integers. Still, when he was a boy, and he saw vital statistics under the photograph of a singer or a starlet, they seemed garrulously indiscreet, telling him everything he needed to know about what was soon to be. He didn’t want to hug and kiss these women, not yet. He wanted to rescue them. From an island fortress (say) he would rescue them . . .

34-25-34 (Lily), 37-23-33 (Scheherazade)—and Keith. They were all at the University of London, these three; Law, Mathematics, English Literature. Intelligentsia, nobility, proletariat. Lily, Scheherazade, Keith Nearing.

They walked down steep alleyways, scooter-torn and transected by wind-ruffled tapestries of clothing and bedding, and on every other corner there lurked a little shrine, with candles and doilies and the lifesize effigy of a saint, a martyr, a haggard cleric. Crucifixes, vestments, wax apples green or cankered. And then there was the smell, sour wine, cigarette smoke, cooked cabbage, drains, lancingly sweet cologne, and also the tang of fever. The trio came to a polite halt as a stately brown rat—lavishly assimilated—went ambling across their path: given the power of speech, this rat would have grunted out a perfunctory buona sera. Dogs barked. Keith breathed deep, he drank deep of the ticklish, the teasing tang of fever.

He stumbled and then steadied. What was it? Ever since his arrival, four days ago, Keith had been living in a painting, and now he was stepping out of it. With its cadmium reds, its cobalt sapphires, its strontian yellows (all freshly ground), Italy was a painting, and now he was stepping out of it and into something he knew: downtown, and the showcase precincts of the humble industrial city. Keith knew cities. He knew humble high streets. Cinema, pharmacy, tobacconist, confectioner. With expanses of glass and neon-lit interiors—the very earliest semblances of the boutique sheen of the market state. In the window there, mannequins of caramelised brown plastic, one of them armless, one of them headless, arranged in attitudes of polite introduction, as if bidding you welcome to the female form. So the historical challenge was bluntly stated. The wooden Madonnas on the alleyway corners would eventually be usurped by the plastic ladies of modernity.

Now something happened—something he had never seen before. After fifteen or twenty seconds, Lily and Scheherazade (with Keith somehow bracketed in the middle of it) were swiftly and surreally engulfed by a swarm of young men, not boys or youths, but young men in sharp shirts and pressed slacks, whooping, pleading, cackling—and all aflicker, like a telekinetic card trick of kings and knaves, shuffling and riffling and fanning out under the streetlamps . . . The energy coming off them was on the level (he imagined) of an East Asian or sub-Saharan prison riot—but they didn’t actually touch, they didn’t actually impede; and after a hundred yards they fell like noisy soldiery into loose formation, a dozen or so contenting themselves with the view from the rear, another dozen veering in from either side, and the vast majority up ahead and walking backward. And when do you ever see that? A crowd of men, walking backward?

Whittaker was waiting for them, with his drink (and the mailsack), on the other side of the smeared glass.

Keith went on within, while the girls lingered by the door (conferring or regrouping), and said,

“Was I seeing things? That was a new experience. Jesus Christ, what’s the matter with them?”

“It’s a different approach,” drawled Whittaker. “They’re not like you. They don’t believe in playing it cool.”

“I don’t either. I don’t play it cool. No one’d notice. Play what cool?”

“Then do what they do. Next time you see a girl you like, do a jumping jack at her.”

“It was incredible, that. These—these fucking Italians.”

“Italians? Come on, you’re a Brit. You can do better than Italians.”

“Okay, these wogs—I mean wops. These fucking beaners.”

“Beaners are Mexicans. This is pathetic. Italians, Keith—spicks, greaseballs, dagos.”

“Ah, but I was raised not to make distinctions based on race or culture.”

“That’ll be a lot of help to you. On your first trip to Italy.”

“And all those shrines . . . Anyway, I told you, it’s my origins. Me, I don’t judge. I can’t. That’s why you’ve got to look out for me.”

“You’re susceptible. Your hands shake—look at them. And it’s hard work being a neurotic.”

“It’s more than that. I’m not nuts, exactly, but I get episodes. I don’t see things clearly. I misread things.”

“Particularly with girls.”

“Particularly with girls. And I’m outnumbered. I’m a bloke and a Brit.”

“And a het.”

“And a het. Where’s my brother? You’ll have to be a brother to me. No. Treat me as the child you never had.”

“Okay, I will. Now listen. Now listen, son. Start looking at these guys with a bit of perspective. Johnny Eyetie is a play-actor. Italians are fantasists. Reality’s not good enough for them.”

“Isn’t it? Not even this reality?”

They turned, Keith in his T-shirt and jeans, Whittaker in his horn-rims, the oval leather elbow-patches on his cord jacket, the woollen scarf, fawn, like his hair. Lily and Scheherazade were now making their way towards the stairs to the basement, eliciting, from the elderly all-male clientele, a fantastic diversity of scowls; their soft shapes moved on, through the gauntlet of gargoyles, then swivelled, then exited downward, side by side. Keith said,

“Those old wrecks. What are they looking at?”

“What are they looking at? What do you think they’re looking at? Two girls who forgot to put any clothes on. I said to Scheherazade, You’re going to town tonight. Put some clothes on. Wear clothes. But she forgot.”

“Lily too. No clothes.”

“You don’t make cultural distinctions. Keith, you should. These old guys have just come staggering out of the Middle Ages. Think. Imagine. You’re first-generation urban. With your wheelbarrow parked in the street. You’re having a little glass of something, trying to keep a grip. You look up and what do you get? Two nude blondes.”

“. . . Oh, Whittaker. It was so horrible. Out there. And not for the obvious reason.”

“What’s the non-obvious reason?”

“Shit. Men are so cruel. I can’t say it. You’ll see for yourself on the way back . . . Look! They’re still there!”

The young men of Montale were now on the other side of the window, stacked like silent acrobats, and a jigsaw of faces squirmed against the glass—strangely noble, priestlike faces, nobly suffering. One by one they started dropping back and peeling away. Whittaker said,

“What I don’t get is why the boys don’t act like that when I walk down the street. Why don’t the girls do jumping jacks when you walk down the street?”

“Yeah. Why don’t they?”

Four jars of beer were slewed out in front of them. Keith lit a Disque Bleu, adding its smoke to the sulphurous snorts and sneezes of the coffee machine, and the ambient mist of superstitious distrust: the bar-goers and their cataract gaze, seeing and dismissing, seeing and not believing . . .

“It’s your own fault,” said Whittaker. “Not content with being naked—you’re blondes.”

The girls were still quietly colouring and bristling, and blowing the stray strands from their brows. Scheherazade said,

“Well we’re sorry about that. And next time we’ll wear clothes.”

“And we’ll wear veils,” said Lily. “And why blondes?”

“See,” he went on, “blondes are the opposite of their pious ideal. This gets them thinking. Brunettes are hopeless—they’re Italians. They won’t fuck you unless you swear you’re going to marry them. But the blondes. Blondes’ll do anything.

Lily and Scheherazade were blondes, one a blue-eyed, one a brown—they had the transparent complexions, the candour of blondes . . . Scheherazade’s face, Keith thought, now had about it a look of quiet surfeit, as if she had hurriedly but successfully eaten something rich and greedy. Lily seemed pinker, puffier, younger, the eyes inward, reminding him (as he kept wishing she wouldn’t) of his little sister; and her mouth looked taut and underfed. They were both making the same movement, beneath the brow of the table. Smoothing their dresses kneeward. But the dresses wouldn’t go.

“God, it’s almost worse in here,” said Scheherazade.

“No, it’s worse out there,” said Lily.

“Mm. At least in here they’re too old to leap up and down.”

“And too hoarse to yodel in your face.”

“They hate us in here. They want to lock us up.”

“They probably hate us out there too. But at least they want to fuck us.”

“I don’t know how to break this to you,” said Whittaker, “but they don’t want to fuck you out there either. They’re fruits. They’re all terrified. Listen. I’m friends with the top model in Milan. Valentina Casamassima. Also a blonde. When she comes to Rome or Naples and they all go crazy, she turns on the biggest guy there and says, Come on, let’s fuck. I’ll suck your cock here in the street. I’m going down on you right now.”

“And?”

“They quail. They back off. They crumple.”

Keith uneasily turned his head away. And felt a shadow cross the harlequinade—the harlequinade of his time. Near the centre of this shadow was Ulrike Meinhof, strolling nude in front of the Palestinian recruits ( Fucking and shooting, she said—they’re the same), and even further in there was Cielo Drive, and Pinkie and Charles. He said,

“That’s too high a price.”

“Meaning?”

“Well they’re not really trying to pull you, are they, Lily. I mean, that’s not how you set about it, is it. Their only hope,” he said, “is to stumble on a girl who dates football teams.” This was perhaps obscure (and they were staring at him), so he went on, “That’s what Nicholas calls them. My brother. I mean, there aren’t many of them, but they do exist. Girls who like dating football teams.”

“Ah,” said Lily, “but by pretending to like dating football teams, Valentina proves that they don’t even want girls who like dating football teams.”

“Exactly,” said Keith (who was in fact quite confused). “Still. Valentina. Girls outtoughing the boys like that. It’s . . .” It was what? Overexperienced. Uninnocent. Because the young men of Montale were at least innocent—even their cruelty was innocent. He said helplessly, “Italians are play-actors. It’s all a game anyway.”

“Well, Lily,” said Whittaker, “now you know what to do. When they whoop and leap, you know what to do.”

“Vow to go down on them.”

“Yeah. Vow to do that.”

“I was in Milan in the spring, with Timmy,” said Scheherazade, leaning back. “And you didn’t have to vow to go down on them. You got stares and whistles and that gurgly sound they make. It wasn’t a . . . a circus, like here.”

Yes, thought Keith, a circus—the highwire, the trapeze, the clowns, the tumblers.

“You didn’t get crowds. You didn’t get queues.

“Walking backward,” said Lily. Who now turned to Scheherazade, and said with a solicitous, almost a motherly urge, “Yes. But you didn’t look like you look now. In the spring.”

Whittaker said, “It isn’t that. It’s Franca Viola.”

So the three of them attended to Whittaker, with the reverence due to his horn-rimmed gaze, his fluent Italian, his years in Turin and Florence, and his unimaginable seniority (he was thirty-one). There was also the fact of Whittaker’s orientation. What was their attitude to homosexuals, around then? Well, they accepted them utterly, while also congratulating themselves, every couple of minutes, for being so amazingly tolerant. But they were moving beyond that now, and homosexuality had the glamour of the vanguard.

“Franca Viola. Incredible girl. She changed everything.”

And with a proprietorial air Whittaker told the tale. Franca Viola, Keith learnt, was a Sicilian teenager who had been kidnapped and raped by a rejected suitor. Which was one thing. But kidnap and rape, in Sicily, provided the alternative route to confetti and wedding bells. Whittaker said,

“Yeah, that’s right. What the penal code calls matrimonio riparatore. So, Keith, if you ever get tired of playing the guitar under the balcony with a flower in your mouth, and if the jumping jacks don’t work, remember there’s always another way. Kidnap and rape . . . Marry...

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Book Description Random House USA Inc, United States, 2010. Hardback. Book Condition: New. Language: English . Brand New Book. The year is 1970, and the youth of Europe are in the chaotic, ecstatic throes of the sexual revolution. Though blindly dedicated to the cause, its nubile foot soldiers have yet to realize this disturbing truth: that between the death of one social order and the birth of another, there exists a state of terrifying purgatory--or, as Alexander Herzen put it, a pregnant widow. Keith Nearing is stuck in an exquisite limbo. Twenty years old and on vacation from college, Keith and an assortment of his peers are spending the long, hot summer in a castle in Italy. The tragicomedy of manners that ensues will have an indelible effect on all its participants, and we witness, too, how it shapes Keith s subsequent love life for decades to come. Bitingly funny, full of wit and pathos, The Pregnant Widow is a trenchant portrait of young lives being carried away on a sea of change. Bookseller Inventory # FLT9781400044528

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