“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."
Sex is certainly much on the mind of Keith Nearing, the 20-year-old protagonist of THE PREGNANT WIDOW. It’s not surprising, really --- he’s spending the summer off from university at a castle in Italy. Every trip into town with his girlfriend Lily and their friend Scheherazade becomes like a lewd farce, as the sexually forward Italian men make no secret of their desire for the women, particularly the statuesque Scheherazade.
Scheherazade’s charms haven’t escaped Keith’s notice, either; far from it. The young woman has blossomed in the past year, a fact that’s impossible for Keith to ignore, given her propensity to sunbathe topless by the pool. Lily isn’t oblivious to Keith’s lust for Scheherazade, and she invokes her name to try to ignite passion, even as Keith internally confesses that sex with Lily is starting to feel more like making love to a sister.
Meanwhile, Scheherazade has made no secret of her increasing desperation for sex, as her boyfriend is far away in Jerusalem and the Italian count she’s seeing on vacation doesn’t quite measure up to her expectations. Keith’s desire and Scheherazade’s desperation collide during the hot summer, resulting in what Keith calls a “sexual trauma” that shapes the next 25 years of his life.
It’s significant, of course, that THE PREGNANT WIDOW is set in 1970 at the height of the sexual revolution. There is much discussion among the constantly shifting group of vacationing young people about girls “acting like boys,” i.e., being frank about their desire, seeking sex rather than romance, and taking charge in bed. Discussions of homosexuality seem cutting-edge and cosmopolitan, and frank displays of nudity are becoming commonplace.
Surrounded by this sexually-charged atmosphere, Keith spends his summer reading classic novels about love, romance and (heavily-veiled) sex, from Richardson’s 18th-century classic PAMELA to the works of Austen, the Brontë sisters, Eliot and Dickens. In each one, he absorbs something of the message of the sexual politics of years past, even as he tries --- and often fails --- to interpret those of his own time.
Amis opens THE PREGNANT WIDOW with a quote from Ted Hughes’s translation of Ovid’s METAMORPHOSES: “Now I am ready to tell how bodies are changed / Into different bodies.” The novel is intimately concerned with metamorphoses of all kinds, with Scheherazade’s transformation from humble girl to vixen, with Keith’s fear that he’s turning (a la Gregor Samsa) into some kind of animal, but most importantly with the transformation of their whole generation into one where sex before marriage became not only acceptable but also expected. Sexual intercourse might have come a long way since Jane Austen’s times, but, as Keith discovers to his ongoing befuddlement, it certainly has not become any less fraught with consequences, complications and confusion.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on January 19, 2011
The Pregnant Widow