The Pregnant Widow

Jenny Turner writes:

It’s 1970, and Keith is 20, an English literature student at London University, on holiday at a rich friend’s castle in Campania. He’s gone for an evening stroll in the nearby village with Lily, his on-off lover, and Scheherazade, her second-best friend, both girls English and blonde and, for southern Europe 40 years ago, somewhat underdressed. ‘Swiftly and surreally’ they are surrounded ‘by a swarm of young men’,

whooping, pleading, cackling – and all aflicker, like a telekinetic card trick of kings and knaves, shuffling and riffling and fanning out under the street-lamps … The energy coming off them was on the level … of an East Asian or sub-Saharan prison riot – but they didn’t actually touch, they didn’t actually impede; and after a hundred yards they fell like noisy soldiery into loose formation, a dozen or so contenting themselves with the view from the rear, another dozen veering in from either side, and the vast majority up ahead and walking backward. And when do you ever see that? A crowd of men, walking backward?

There is much potential – hot girls, massed men, explosive sexual frustration – for the sort of ugly comedy Amis often enjoys, but it’s handled with a restraint that turns, almost, to earnestness, as a wise old homosexual pads on to caution that they should look ‘at these guys with a bit of perspective’. Italy, the man says, is just beginning to make the transition from ‘shame and honour. It’s like Afghanistan. Or Somalia’ And if looking at ‘these guys with a bit of perspective’ were not un-Amislike enough, here and elsewhere the book contorts itself to present these girls with almost bien pensant sympathy. Later, Eric Hobsbawm – ‘a distinguished Marxist historian’ – is cited, and so is the Equal Pay Act, and the National Organisation for Women. And ‘The Female Eunuch … Women’s Estate … Sexual Politics … and Our Bodies, Ourselves’, which ‘all appeared in 1970, back to back, and with perfect timing. It was official. It was here, and just for Keith.’

(LRB 22 April 2010)

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