A few of the twentieth century Russian history books that I’ve read have touched on a detachment of Czech soldiers who were stranded in Russia after World War I. The Bolshevik Revolution soon followed and the soldiers remained stranded, thousands of miles from home. The soldiers who numbered as many as 40,000 and were stretched out along the length of the Trans-Siberian were, according to John Keegan in his history of World War I under the sway of an anti-Bolshevik officer and were “both in a position and soon in a mood to deny the use of the railway to anyone else.” In his novel, The People’s Act of Love, James Meek drops into to the town of Yazyk amongst a stranded group of these Czech soldiers. In a book of many protagonists, the point of view of Lieutenant Mutz, one of those Czech soldiers, is the most reliable. Mutz, who mostly wants to return home after years in Siberia is surrounded by a collection of eccentrics. Anna Petrovna, the woman who Mutz would like to escape with, is restive and noncommittal. Mutz’s boss Matula is a vicious young man drunk on the power he wields over the small backwater that his soldiers occupy. Yazyk is also home to mystical sect of castrati who lurk through the town like ghosts. But the catalyst for much the book’s action is Samarin, an escaped prisoner who claims he is being chased by a cannibal. Meek ably handles these characters and many others as he crafts a story that feels both otherworldly and historically accurate. The novel was longlisted for the Booker and is engagingly dense and action-filled – worthwhile for any reader but a must for anyone interested in Russian literature or history. Meek himself is not Russian. He’s British, formerly a journalist, the Guardian’s Moscow correspondent for many years.
Anyone who has made a living sitting in a cubicle has at one time or another wondered if there is more to life than pushing the proverbial pencils. These second thoughts are central to our existence as working folk. Often, when that meeting has dragged on an hour to long or when the boss is peppering you with inane suggestions, you wonder what it would be like to do something that really matters. Absolutely American by David Lipsky is about a group of people, West Point cadets, who have decided to or been thrust into a profession that, in the eyes of the government and much of the population, really matters. Their concerns are not the cubicle but of hewing to countless regulations, eight-mile road marches in full gear, and ultimately sending people into battle one day. According to Lipsky’s introduction, he went to West Point, the military academy that trains army officers, to write an article for Rolling Stone, and he eventually found himself fascinated by the enthusiasm he found there. Lipsky ended up spending four years following the cadets. The book reads like a magazine article, and Lipsky’s writing rarely falters. He presents a West Point that is infinitely more complicated than the typical stereotype of the army. It is an Army that is at war with itself internally, as it tries to become more diverse and progressive. The book covers the years 1998 to 2002, so we get to see the transformation that September 11 causes in both the cadets and the army itself. Lipsky’s greatest feat is to make the reader realize that behind the “high and tight” haircuts, the uniform, and the stern demeanor, those who are called to the military are as complicated and conflicted as the rest of us.
It is the summer of 1970, a “hot, endless, and erotically decisive summer,” and Keith Nearing—twenty-year-old University-of-London-student (English Literature), occupying “that much disputed territory between five foot six and five foot seven”—takes up residence in an Italian castle, accompanied by his girlfriend Lily—“5’5”, 34-25-34,” also a fellow student (law), on-again after a brief but fraught respite initiated by Lily’s desire to “act like a boy”—and Lily’s best friend, the nobly-born and enticingly-named Scheherazade—“5’10”, 37-23-33,” only very recently transformed from an unremarkable, bespectacled do-gooder into a swan-necked, amply-bosomed goddess. And because vital statistics, as Keith well knows, are destiny, his own fate seems already determined: he will feel bound to Lily, bound by gratitude and compatibility and history; he will desire Scheherazade, desire her madly, greedily, recklessly.
This is the basic premise of Martin Amis’s The Pregnant Widow, and it is a simple premise really: a love triangle powered by youthful lust and a suitably exotic locale. Then again, maybe not so simple, for Keith is, of course, “a K in a castle,” which lends the proceedings an air of ominous possibility. And there is the matter too of the time, the historical context, the summer of 1970, portentous beginning of the Age of Narcissus, the self-reflective, self-absorbed, seemingly endless “All and Now” follow-up to the Age of Aquarius, whose tentative stirrings have given way to full-on revolution. (You know how sexual intercourse began in 1963, sometime around the release of The Beatles’ first LP? Well, by the time we get to our castle in Montale, The Beatles have broken up.) And revolutions, well, revolutions are…complicated, cutting a swath of collateral damage, and The Pregnant Widow—subtitle: “Inside History”—chronicles the sublime chasm between world orders new and old, the “long night of chaos and desolation” that must pass “between the death of the one and the birth of the other.” (This vision of destruction comes courtesy of the philosopher Alexander Herzen, whose observation that “the departing world leaves behind it, not an heir, but a pregnant widow” also lends the novel its title.)
Here then are the clauses of the Revolutionary Manifesto, as documented after-the-fact (though the bulk of the book focuses on the crucial summer, the narrative reaches into the present-day):
“There will be sex before marriage.”
“Women, also, have carnal appetites.”
“Surface will start tending to supersede essence.”
Sex will be separated from feeling, much like feeling was long ago detached from thought, and sex will also be separated from thought.
How Keith will navigate the new normal, find his footing on terrain much longed for but little understood, furnishes the narrative’s true interest. This is not so say that The Pregnant Widow is preoccupied with Big Ideas at the expense of development and action; there is, in fact, much by way of plot.
The castle—property of Scheherazade’s thirty-year-old uncle, Jorquil (“it was that kind of family”)—is equipped with wings and turrets and a pool, where the newly beautiful, newly liberated Scheherazade sunbathes topless and learns to love her own reflection, but it quickly grows crowded. As the summer gets underway, Keith, Lily, and Scheherazade are intermittently joined by Whitaker and Amen, an older English expat and his eighteen-year-old Libyan boyfriend; by the Scheherazade-admiring Adriano, a dashing aristocrat, who also happens to be 4’10”; by the Dakotan divorcee Prentiss, who has in tow her recently adopted twelve-year-old Mexican daughter, Conchita, and her grossly obese helpmate, Dodo; by the Sphinx-like Gloria Beautyman—“5’5”, 33-22-37”— whose riddle is concealed behind a body joining a dancer’s upper half with a bottom that earns her the nickname “Junglebum;” by Timmy, Scheherazade’s erstwhile boyfriend, returning from a stint in Jerusalem, where he had gone to convert the Jews; by Rita, known as “the Dog” (because “she reminds you of a dog”), a proud warrior of the Sexual Revolution. These interlopers lend the novel a Dickensian texture, an impression further abetted by their tendency towards resonant if improbable names (though this is of course also quite consistent with Amis’s typical style) and memorable quirks. They take in the sights and the swimming, the splendid dinners and the lovely grounds, and, in return, they full-heartedly immerse themselves in castle life, sometimes aiding, sometimes impeding Keith’s schemes to seduce Scheherazade without hurting the suspicious Lily.
Will Keith succeed? Perhaps the more pertinent question is, will Keith survive? Will Keith—literally the orphaned son of a pregnant widow, his father having died in a car accident on his way to the hospital, his bereaved mother quickly following in childbirth—emerge intact, integrated in thought and feeling? Will he master and navigate and accept the new ideology, the new world order his moment in history makes him heir to? Armed with nothing more than the English literary canon, Keith at first seems to stand little chance. Clarissa, he surmises, is boring, with its “one fuck in two thousand pages,” its heroine who must die of shame. But Keith’s reading and Keith’s experiences finally prove that revolutions in sex, like revolutions in literature, change only the surface, the wording, not the import, and though The Pregnant Widow could never be confused for, say, an Austen novel, there is something old-fashioned about it. Perhaps it is its sincerity, a real attempt to tell some essential truth, a truth at once of its time and timeless. Perhaps it is its investment in its characters and its worldview. Or its quiet humor, funny and cutting and sly. Or its intelligence, its knowingness, which never seems pretentious or irrelevant. Which is a long way to say that there is much to recommend it.
A great deal has been said, in recent reviews of The Pregnant Widow, about Amis’s return to form, his artistic success after a series of disappointments. (Indeed, there was some surprise when the book was conspicuously left off the Man Booker Prize longlist.) Like Philip Roth, to whom he has been compared since the beginning of his career, Amis seems to be initiating his sixties by embarking on an ambitious, historically-minded project with keen insight and masterly sentences. But this is, of course, speculation. Something more definitive then: The Pregnant Widow is a stunning book; it contains within it all that is best in the English novel.