Detractors of the controversial author won’t find much in The Pregnant Widow to change their minds. But this clever novel deserves a Booker prize
You have to hand it to Martin Amis. At a time when other writers seem content to leave real fame to the likes of Grayson Perry or Damien Hirst, he has done more than anyone else to restore the status of the novelist as hero or anti-hero of modern culture. Amis was one of a generation whose works seemed – when I was a student – to dominate the culture. In those days it was news when Salman Rushdie published a novel (and how); it was not news when Antony Gormley had an exhibition. How everything has turned on its head: artists became celebrities; writers became also-rans. I know this will annoy a lot of people who will list a whole host of exceptions, but Britain, long stereotyped as a literary nation, seems entranced by the discovery of post-literacy.
So I was glad that Amis struck a blow for literature this year with his book The Pregnant Widow. But does the novel live up, or down, to the noise it has made?
If you never liked Amis, you’re not going to like this. If you find his sexual politics obnoxious, nothing here will change your mind. And if you think he puts style before substance, well, you might be right about that too. The claim of his new novel, to deal with contemporary history in a serious way, is preposterous. But once all that is said, this novel easily deserves the Booker prize.
He is only a voice – but what a voice! There’s a full-throated energy to this book that makes perhaps more respectable contemporary novels look like turgid waffle. Maybe, for some people, Amis has nothing to say; but maybe those who look to art for a message or a reflection of their own worldview are wrong about what art is.
The Pregnant Widow is a magical mystery tour through the story of the English novel, with quite a lot of poetry thrown in. It examines literary history from a single, obsessive point of view. It also creates a parody gothic novel of sprawling comic proportions, with at least one great character and dialogue that makes some of our best dramatists appear clumsy. It’s funny, clever and if it all falls apart in the end – well, so does life.
Just for once, the Booker should go to a novel for the way it is written, rather than the worldview it adopts or the story it tells. Isn’t literature about the words? Amis seems to be the only author in Britain who knows that.