Martin Amis' Sexual Revolution
England’s favorite politically incorrect novelist has a new book, The Pregnant Widow, about the summer of 1970. He spoke with Olivia Cole about the recent British election, his take on the sexual revolution, and the awfulness of the press.
It’s the day after the British election in intermittently leafy and tough Regent’s Park (won by Labour) and Martin Amis’ 10-year-old daughter, Clio, has Sky TV tuned to the Disney Channel. After our interview, Britain’s pre-eminent novelist is more likely to have a game of pinball than be glued to the status of Britain’s first hung parliament in decades.
His point isn’t flippant though: British politics is “sort of a soap,” he argues, with only personalities to get hung up on, because none of the questions are big enough. In slightly amused fashion, he admits, “I voted for Clegg…”
“I did have such a summer, in a castle in Italy, with a girlfriend, who did have an incredibly beautiful friend… and nothing happened, I mean nothing... It was an outrage,” he jokes.
The Clegg moment is fascinating, he says, and almost as fascinating, the fact that it “just burst like a bubble.” He’s less ambiguous on the other choices: “I mean, Labour need to get out of power. That power corrupts is not a metaphor... It corrupts you and, 13 years is too long." David Cameron’s Big Society is not for him though: “I could never in my life vote Conservative. They talk about politics being tribal, and for me that’s just out of the question. I couldn’t do it...”
“I want to say it has been an interesting election but it’s a huge effort to get excited about British politics because it doesn’t matter,” he says, expanding further. He recalls his time shadowing Tony Blair (recounted in The Second Plane) and his flunkies, comparing the planes and staff necessary for George W. Bush and Blair to travel. “When Bush goes somewhere it was 1,700 assistants and 500 bodyguards. He goes in his own plane and there’s a backup military plane.... There was a silence and then the English guy said, ‘You make our lives seem very simple,’ and that’s one way of putting it. The other way of putting it is, is that America is incredibly more important.”
To turn to The Pregnant Widow, his twelfth novel, there are no governments to be found shaping the social upheaval of the sexual revolution. Class still dictates whether you are “fast,” and how long a 20-year-old like Martin, or his antihero Keith, might “wait for a proper kiss.” Set in the summer of 1970, if you take Amis at his comic, elegiac word, there’s less the point that history happens from below, than that it happens solely in the bedroom. Or in the kind of pants girls wear: “Cool pants” cover what social histories have explored in thousands of pages.
Published in the U.S. Tuesday, his new novel started life as a “blindingly autobiographical” 600-page baggy monster, yet ended up a taut meditation on the sexual revolution focused on a would-be love/lust triangle in “this hot, endless, and erotically decisive summer.” As well as cool pants, it’s haunted by Ted Hughes’ Tales From Ovid. The transformations contained in The Pregnant Widow (as in "The Metamorphoses") are sexual, physical, and philosophical, too.
Set in a castle in the Italian town of Montale, the novel is mostly something of a sunburnt idyll by the pool. The action centers on 20-year-old Keith Nearing, his perfectly appealing university girlfriend Lily, and the dizzying vision of “her friend” Scheherazade. Keith lusts for Scheherazade and Lily provokes and even encourages him toward her. “’I often wish,’ said Lily in the dark, ‘I often... You know, I’d give up some of my intelligence for a bit more beauty. He believed her and he felt for her. And flattery was futile. Lily was too intelligent to be told she was beautiful."
With his monster draft, something of a late developer itself, as he tells it, Amis came to the tough conclusion that there were only “60 pages that I liked, the section set around Italy.” Having been working on the book for years, “it was a horrible moment,” he recalls. He chose instead to focus in on this section and to expand it. As far as Keith and Lily are concerned, they’re already on shaky ground after she broke up with him in the spirit of her generation ( The Female Eunuch, had, after all, just been published) with the immortal line: “I want to act like a boy for a while. And you can just go on as you are.”
But Amis’ fiction has echoes of his own life only up to a point. “I did have such a summer, in a castle in Italy, with a girlfriend, who did have an incredibly beautiful friend… and nothing happened, I mean nothing... It was an outrage,” he jokes. The rest is invention. Of the abandoned attempt to write about his own sexual coming-of-age, he says (grimacing) that writing about your own sex life is “icky….”
As a novelist, experience, he argues, matters less than “ordering, symmetry, and imagination.” Once he forgot recounting the past, out went the stultifying “obligations.” This idea of catching the time when the girls decided to act like boys is at its heart; Gloria Beautyman (a character he insists he invented), famed for her J.Lo-style bottom, goes as far as proclaiming with Warholesque pithiness, not only that she “has a cock,” but that in the future everyone will have one, too.
Amis, seemingly inured to his power to enrage post-feminists, points out that this transformative pretense—that there were no differences whatsoever—didn’t last terribly long. And as for the girls: “Most of them, after a while, went back to being girls.” In the meantime, for Keith, there is free fall. Keith, scarred for life by the summer’s events, has much the same epiphany in the 50-year-old contemporary part of the novel (where the genuine desolation creeps in) when the sold-out, successful adman still turning over the question of what happened to all of these pretty girl/boys (not least himself) and to all of the poetry.
Despite what some critics (and, most worryingly, his biographer) have claimed, the only part based on fact concerns Keith’s wayward sister Violet, based on Amis’ own sister, Sally. “I never said that the sexual revolution was responsible for the death of my sister at 46,” he says of the storm this fact has provoked. “It simply provided the setting.” If anything, Violet, he says, is a toned-down version. As Keith thinks to himself in the novel, “In any kind of shame-and-honor arrangement, Violet would have been murdered long ago—by Keith himself, and his brother Nicholas, and his father, Karl, with the moral and logistical support of Uncle Mick and Uncle Brian.” Despite the harsh comedy, he adds now, quite serious, “the only way in which she would have stood a chance, is if she had converted to Islam instead of Catholicism.”
So for all the sexual comedy of bad manners (witness the Pride and Prejudice sex game; Keith’s attempt to drug Scheherazade; Adriano, a handsome Italian dwarf count), there’s a genuinely elegiac take on this revolution and its thwarted heirs. I ask him if he thinks 1970 was a comparable moment in the U.S. “I think it was fiercer,” he says. "In Europe, every 21 years there had been a war, and the same wasn’t going to happen again.” In the U.S., thanks to Vietnam, as he points out, the young were still going off to die.
Women will again be the heart of his current fiction project, a novel based on the lives of three writers: Saul Bellow and the British poets Philip Larkin and Ian Hamilton—and what he terms “their tremendously different attitudes to women.” He has also recently finished State of England, the aforementioned, much heralded, state of the nation comedy featuring an ASBO—a British term; when you are a total lout, and get a citation called An Anti Social Behavior Order—who wins the lottery, Lionel Asbo, a young teenager sleeping with his grandmother, a violent dog, and Threnody, a glamour model partly inspired by Jordan, not to mention Danube, a girl who would like to be Threnody and who is jealous of Threnody’s terrific poetry sales.
Having got one, it seems a bit much to end all this by asking, a couple of glasses wine on, if he ever thinks the baroque nature of his version of comment means that he should just not give interviews. “Yeah,” he says. “I think I’ll try it when State of England comes out. Just to see.” That said, it’s hard to imagine him taking very much notice. “What is rich,” he admits, “is the way they say that I do it on purpose. Say something controversial to me? You can’t do it, can you? You can’t do it, unless it’s actually something you’ve thought about.”
We return to the same theme: “Power corrupts. With the press, when you think that the press does many of the functions that the state used to do, it’s become drunk with power, with the real thing. It’s a sort of moral rot that comes over you through power. And by the way, I’m greatly vulnerable to that...” He says he hopes for everyone’s sake that The Pregnant Widow doesn’t win any big prizes. I’m not sure he’s safe yet.
Olivia Cole writes for the Spectator and the London Evening Standard. An award-winning poet, her first collection, Restricted View, was published this fall.