The Pregnant Widow by Martin Amis is a romp of an autobiographical novel with all the sex any young man could want. The hero, Keith Nearing, is an Englishman in his 50s looking back on an idyllic summer holiday in Italy when he turned 21 surrounded by permissive, pulchritudinous girls.
He can’t forget that glorious summer not only because of what they got up to but because of the thereafter. The girls are still there as he ages and so do they, pretty minxes sliding into middle age. This is a novel about youth and age that is naughty as a Restoration comedy or a bedroom farce.
To start with, Keith has a girlfriend, Lily, but gets the hots for her friend, busty blonde Scheherazade, whose family owns the castle where they are staying. She has a boyfriend, Timmy, but he is in Jordan while they are in Italy, and girls need attention. So she takes matters into her hands.
“How are your feelings? About me,” she asks Keith. (She then tells him:)
“I used to sense something coming from you. I liked it in a way… I didn’t return it but I liked it… Now I don’t know you very well. But I do know this about you. If we, if you and I started something, something open-ended, it wouldn’t be in you to disguise it from Lily. Would it?”
“So if it’s just once, there’s just a five per cent chance that Lily’ll find out… There’s a maid’s room beyond the apartment. She’d have to be awfully curious to find her way up there. So that’s my suggestion. Just once.”
What follows is pure slapstick. Keith spikes Lily’s drink during dinner so she won’t be up and about while he makes out with Scheherazade. But Lily, when she wakes up, knows what he had been to. He drugged her, she says, because he wanted to have sex with Scheherazade but couldn’t. And that’s exactly what happened. He offended Scheherazade with remarks about religion while they were having dinner together.
Keith gets lucky, however, with Gloria, the mistress of the castle owner, Jorquil.
Beautiful and amoral, Gloria Beautyman is like Becky Sharp in Thackeray’s Vanity Fair.
She seduces Keith on his 21st birthday when the others go on a trip to see some ruins. Keith, an undergraduate reading literature, can’t go because he has to review a book.
He doesn’t know she hasn’t gone, too, when he goes to the bathroom he shares with her. Her apartment is right next to it.
Naked, he pushed at the bathroom door. It was locked. He listened to the silence. Then he fastened a towel round his waist and rang the bell. He heard ticking footsteps.
“Ah there you are. Good morning,” said Gloria Beautyman.
With pinched thumbs and fingertips she was holding up a light-blue summer dress at shoulder height, as if assessing it for length in front of a mirror.
“You didn’t go,” he said.
“Mm. I pretended to be ill. I hate ruins. I mean they’re ruins.”
“Exactly,” he said with prescience. “You’re made-up.”
“Well I had to retouch it. I wanted to look all feverish. A bit of purple eyeshadow usually does the trick.”
“Mm. I even hid a rotten apple under the bed. For the tang of the sickroom. I’m airing it even as we speak.. I’m terribly good, you know. No one will ever guess.”
“Well. I’m sorry I kept you waiting. I was just saying my prayers before putting some clothes on. You see I always pray naked.”
“And why’s that?”
“For the humility. Do you have any objection?”
“I thought you might have some objection.”…
“What do you say in your prayers?”
“Well first I praise Him. Then I thank Him for what I’ve got. Then I ask for a little more. But it’s probably pointless, don’t you think?”…
“How far did you get?”
“Shoes,” she said.
They both looked down. White high heels. He said,
“So. Not very far.”
“No. Not very far at all.”…
He thought, I am in a very strange place. I am in the future. And this is the strangest thing of all: I know exactly what to do…
Stepping forward, he said, after a while, “So pale. So cold.”
She moved her feet apart.
His towel seemed to make a lot of noise when it fell – like a collapsing marquee. Her dress made no sound at all. The first thing she did, with her gaze on the mirror, was to attend to her breasts in a way he had never seen before. She said ardently,
“Oh, I love me. I love me so.”…
Neither blinked as thunder split the room. He went even closer in.
She brought her legs together. “Kadoink,” she said…
She was doing something with her right hand, that he had never even heard about.
It was then that he had his moment of vertigo. I’m too young, he thought, to go to the future. Then the vertigo passed and the hypnosis returned…
He listened carefully – as she issued a set of instructions. He had never heard about this either… He said,
“Are you sure?”
“Of course I’m sure… And afterwards, Keith, we’ll have a light breakfast and go to my room. Agreed? Then at last you can feel my breasts. And kiss my lips. And hold my hand… We’ll make a day of it. Or would you rather get on with your trial review?”
Amis, who is 61 now, makes fun of ageing, too. Here is Keith, more than 30 years after that Italian summer, talking to his third wife.
“My breasts are getting smaller,” said Conchita in the bathroom…
“But that’s all right,” he said. “Because mine are getting bigger.”
“… So it all works out in the end.
Yeah. Fifty’s nothing, Pulc. Me, I’m as old as NATO. And it all works out. Your hams get skinnier – but that’s all right, because your gut gets fatter. Your eyes get hotter – but that’s all right, because your hands get colder (and you can soothe them with your frozen fingertips. Shrill or sudden noises are getting painfully sharper – but that’s all right, because you’re getting deafer. The hair on your head gets thinner – but that’s all right, because the hair in your nose and in your ears gets thicker. It all works out in the end.”
There is a note of resignation there, a wryness. This isn’t the Martin Amis of London Fields and Money. He is sharp as ever but not as savage and cynical as he was in those earlier novels. He can still be naughty, writing about young men and women getting it on, but he can also write knowingly about old age.
Keith, as he grows old and loses his beloved sister Violet, has reason to linger over that Italian summer. Because of the girls who entered his life.
He marries Gloria towards the end of the novel and in the final pages we see him talking to Conchita, his third wife. But who was the second?
Amis ties the loose ends in the last two chapters.
So first Keith married Gloria, then he married Lily, then he married Conchita. He didn’t marry Scheherazade or Oona or Dodo. But he married all the others.
With Gloria it was just sex, with Lily it was just love. Then he married Conchita, and he was all right.