For all its ambition and verbal pyrotechnics, Amis’s The Pregnant Widow is basically a book about boys and girls – or rather, one boy and many girls. It’s Amis’s most nakedly autobiographical novel since The Rachel Papers, and when the narrator says ‘everything that follows is true’, it isn’t difficult to believe that Amis himself passed – as the book’s Keith Nearing does – a transformative and traumatising summer in a castle in Italy on the cusp of the ’70s.
Keith is a sad young literary man reading his way through the canon of the English novel and having a dull time with his dull girlfriend, Lily, while mooning over her best friend, Scheherazade. The love-triangle setup is classic Amis, and it’s a measure of his skill that he prolongs the payoff as long as he does, making his book a study of anticipation enlivened by some slapstick scenes (dwarf, trampoline) and sparkling prose.
The structure creaks a bit as Amis stuffs The Pregnant Widow, self-referential and gravid with history as it is, with a shallow analysis of religious extremism. No one should read Amis for sociology. But one should read him for his descriptions (even characters’ teeth are attended to with fetishistic precision), and one must read The Pregnant Widow for its evocation of youth without innocence.