The Pleasure Principle is Supreme

An interview I did with Martin Amis about his 2010 novel The Pregnant Widow.

the pregnant widow

For four decades now, Martin Amis has been an alert reader, a piercing phrasemaker and a trying storyteller. His major talent has produced a major reputation and a minor oeuvre, of which the critical writings remain fresh and energetic and have the best chance of lasting. Of late, he’s slowed down on literary commentary (a recent one on Nabokov’s posthumous novel was a rare delight) for more political themes, with mixed results.

His novels, though, remain vexingly arch. The latest, The Pregnant Widow, deals with the sexual revolution of the 1970s – a group of young Britons vacation one summer at an Italian castle, and most of the book anticipates their sexual shenanigans and records languorous conversations. It’s slow going. The studious Keith is at the castle with his prim girlfriend Lily, lusts for the stunning Sheherazade, and instead has sex with the animated Gloria – we’re asked to believe the summer haunts Keith for the rest of his life, more for Gloria’s witchy allure than for any sense of breach. All the while, Keith is distantly anxious about his alcoholic, sex-engorging sister Violet (based on Amis’s sister Sally). The book occasionally jumps to present-day Keith, morosely divorced and remarried. Amis’ fiction sinks in its familiar bathos, whether in hormonal, sunny Italy or contemporary, bleak England. Sexual revolution was a wearying joyride, says Amis – his emphasis is on the adjective, unfortunately.

You’ve called the sexual revolution “a necessary trauma” and the 1970s “the jokes decade.” Did one need the other?

Yes, it all was of a piece. It involved men giving up substantial amount of their power or diminution of patriarchy, and yet they did it without conditions and without resistance. Part of the bargain was that women would be more on display and more sexually active – men wanted that. But as I say in the book, ‘the costumes they wore reflected a clownishness.’ It did have a carnival atmosphere.

Well, you also say it was a velvet revolution in two senses. What about some of the pleasures of the revolution the aesthetics, the playfulness – do you miss them?

You can’t have much nostalgia for flared trousers (laughs). It’s essentially an undignified way of looking. It’s all moved on now [but] it was necessary at the time. That kind of innocence and light heartedness is gone.

Doesn’t it reside anywhere now?

It was very much tied up in the hippie movement, and that’s gone. That free love, summer of love – you don’t hear the word ‘love’ bandied about as we did then.

In The Pregnant Widow, why does Keith Nearing’s stepdaughter tell him that ‘the boys have won’?

Yeah, that’s what she thinks for the time being in 2006. It hasn’t gone away but it’s been slightly discredited [since then] – the idea that women should be whorish and pornographic, empowerment through pole dancing. It’s still with us a bit but it was at a preposterous stage in 2006. It’s in retreat now, I think – quite serious feminists were saying it then, they aren’t anymore. That empowerment only applies to the young – there are no 60-year-old women pole dancing. And it only applies to the pretty ones. So it empowers those who are already empowered by nature, and doesn’t do a thing for anyone else.

Do you think there’s hope for women to become equal with men – for 50-50?

It’ll take a minimum of a century, all else being equal – all else may not be equal, we don’t know what convulsions lie ahead of us. Let’s remember that it’s not just a reaction to Victorianism – the past has a weight and in this case the past is 5 million years, which is the point when humans separated from apes. Masculine bulk and superior physical force have always decided things, and shaped society. The idea of getting past 5 million years in a decade or two is ludicrous.

As we rush into it, how will men have to contort themselves?

Men will have to realise it’s not a question of the rise of women, it’s a question of the readjustment of the whole social body – and that it’s in men’s interest it be equitable and successful. Men shouldn’t regard women as rival power groups, they should see them as their sisters and their equals. It’s in men’s interests that women bring to bear their force in society. Men haven’t got a very good record in this regard. I think we can assume a society fully interpenetrated by women will not be as violent as what we have now.

By the end of the novel, the religious characters are the happiest and Keith wishes his sister had converted to Islam.

Yes he does, because she needed far more constraints than the society she lived in could impose on her. She would have struggled in any society, and she is based on my sister, but she would have been alive today if that were the case [if she’d converted]. So you can’t be blamed for thinking that, because he would like her to be alive.

But there’s a parallel irony today – Belgium just banned the burqa. That’s a parallel but opposite type of restraint, of control in the opposite direction.

Yeah, and it’s very easily distorted. One of the things I understood after I finished this book was that the desire to protect women is very natural, but it very soon becomes a desire to control them, and that’s not good or healthy. It becomes a very intense patriarchy where the woman represents your honour, and has to be not only protected but punished. It’s very ironical that he should think that because he thinks “religion is a failure of courage”, as he says.

Would Keith be okay with Europe’s antimony towards Islam and its restraints?

That’s a minor thing, you’d deal with it when you came to it. What Islam does offer is backup – you have people looking after your children. This is a very great strength of Islamic societies. I was in Dubai recently and had breakfast with a Saudi lady, about 55, unveiled but with the black abaya – a woman of the world who’d lived in England, educated in America and Paris. She said, “If I have a choice of any city to live in, it would be Riyadh.” When I asked why, she said, “I don’t have to worry about my children.” I worry about my children and I can barely imagine a life in which I don’t. To have that anxiety removed seems to me a great strength. Whether or not a Muslim enclave has to submit to the national mores in France is a secondary matter.

You write that the English novel in its first two centuries was preoccupied about whether the woman will ‘fall’. So what about now, when all women have ‘fallen’? What will the English novel in Larkinland be preoccupied with now?

As Keith says in the book, there will be many different ways of falling in this new world. All women will fall but they will fall in different ways. Some will survive it, some won’t. In fact, the sexual revolution was for both sexes a great multiplication of opportunities and possibilities. So I don’t think the novel is at all diminished by this. On the contrary, it looks when you put them all together – the preoccupation with the fall of precarious women looks positively morbid.

The Pregnant Widow has barely any plot and keeps circling around discussions of sexual equality and the toll it’s taking, but in the last chapters you suddenly speed up with pithy plot summaries across the decades. What were you trying for?

Well, I’m sure it works, and I think it’s quite original because the genre changes from kitchen sink – or country house weekend – into the genre I call Life. This is what I learnt when I was trying to write about life – it is utterly shapeless. I sort of cast off, insofar as I can being such a habituated novelist, all my colour schemes and all the lapidary stuff – and just enter this genre called Life where nothing is expected to add up. I think it’s a good contrast with the rather stylised, suspended arcadian body of the main story.

John Banville cautioned you about using autobiography in fiction and you’ve said that you came to agree with him – why?

I abandoned the book I was talking about with John Banville – it was an autobiographical book about the sexual revolution. I tried and tried for two or three years and seemed to get some of it but the whole thing was dead, I realised. When you write closely about life, life reveals an odd characteristic in the context of fiction – life is dead. In fiction, the thing comes alive with contrivance, patterning, imagination – not with fidelity to what happened. The only novelist in the history of the world who succesfuly did that [use autobiography] is Saul Bellow, who of course is a great mentor of mine. And I wasn’t trying to be like him, I was trying to do it in a slightly different way. But [once] I divested the book of autobiography, except the figure of my sister, it all came alive and was not difficult to write.

What about all the other Americans using autobiography like Roth and Updike? Is it an American vs an English thing?

I just think it’s impossible to get anywhere with it. I don’t think they did get as far with it as Bellow. Updike isn’t really very close to his existence – he is sometimes in the short stories. Even [his] Couples was a failure in my view – it’s not about writers, it’s about suburbanites.

Philip Roth’s best stuff is not autobiographical. In his most autobiographical fiction – and it’s never that autobiographical – there’s always contrivance and rearrangement. One’s characters are really Frankenstein’s monsters, composites of several different people usually. The closer to autobiography it is, the more constrained the writer is. Writing fiction is freedom – that’s its defining quality, and you diminish your freedom radically when you start using real people in real situations. Saul Bellow had a visionary eye that could burn through that and find the universe in the particular. No one else has been able to, in my view.

What happened to the autobiographical sections you removed from The Pregnant Widow?

That will be my novel after next, and it will be autobiographical. The technical term is ‘alobiographical’, which means it’s about other real people I knew: Philip Larkin, Saul Bellow and a poet called Ian Hamilton. And I will be in it but it will be the kind of static, essayistic novel that is no longer written. If you reread a novel like [Bellow’s] Humboldt’s Gift now, [you find] it’s an extraordinary thing but it’s so unlike a novel. It’s very difficult to believe it was in the bestseller lists for eight months. I don’t think it would sell more than a few thousand copies now. I think the audience has disappeared. Nonetheless, I’m going to write sort of that kind of novel.

Tehelka magazine’s 2010 readership survey showed a predominance of the utilitarian reader who seeks mainly information and instruction from books. How can literary writers cope in such a scenario?

(Pauses) I think the great confrontation with nihilism is over with the novel. I think that was a response to two world wars and mass death. It was felt, with some reason, that the novel had to start again in this new world. And then what resulted, in my view, is a literature of pleasurelessness. Starting with Becket, in my view. I think it’s a dead end. If it isn’t over then it should be. I think the novel should always be based on pleasure. The pleasure principle is supreme, and all this gloomy solemn stuff is an aberration. All the great writers of the past have given pleasure, and all of them have been funny, too. There’s a reason for that – whatever else life is, however dreadful and the rest of it, it is also very funny. Life by life, it is very funny. And fiction is being perverse as well as boring if it denies that.

|A shorter, edited version published here.|