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Older Fiction

New novels from the aging ‘enfants terribles’ of British letters.

Apr 19, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 29 • By TED GIOIA
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The Pregnant Widow

by Martin Amis
Knopf, 384 pp., $26.95

Solar

by Ian McEwan
Nan A. Talese/Doubleday,
304 pp., $26.95

In 2006 the Muslim writer Ziauddin Sardar coined the term blitcon—a compression of “British literary neoconservatives”—as a term of abuse leveled at three writers who irritated him with their belief that “American ideas of freedom and democracy are not only right, but should be imposed on the rest of the world.” The three guilty culprits: Martin Amis, Ian McEwan, and Salman Rushdie. Alas, Sardar was forced to admit that this same trio dominates the British literary landscape, even enjoying front-page fame in an era when most fiction writers find their name in the paper only if their publishers take out an ad. 

Now, two of the blitcons have released major novels within a few days of each other. Amis’s The Pregnant Widow and McEwan’s Solar are generating buzz on both sides of the Atlantic, and are likely to spur further comparisons between two literary lions of roughly the same vintage (McEwan is 14 months older). Both were born at the end of the 1940s, came of age in the fast and loose 1960s, and are now in their 70s as celebrity scribes. McEwan may have more clout with the literary establishment—perhaps best measured by his six appearances on the annual Man Booker Prize short list, compared with just one for Amis—but Amis takes more chances, both in his public persona and his published works. 

Indeed, few Americans can appreciate how “controversial” Amis has become in Britain, and how even his smallest actions undergo journalistic scrutiny. Recently the British press spun dozens of stories out of accusations that Amis had puffed on a cigarette at the deathbed of a friend. The matter got so blown out of proportion that Christopher Hitchens, the author’s longtime friend, was forced to enter the fray, calling the accuser “spiteful and false” and admitting that he, Hitchens, may have been the one to light up. In other instances, Amis has been called to task by the press for everything from his frank comments on radical Islam to his salary at Manchester University—$120,000 for 28 hours of work a year. 

Those looking for controversy may find an agreeable dose in Amis’s new novel. Even if the author didn’t repeat at several points that “all this really happened,” you would suspect that the story was drawn from true events. At the very start, the narrator announces:

Not even the names have been changed. Why bother? To protect the innocent? There were no innocent. Or else all of them were innocent—but cannot be protected. 

Despite the disclaimer, the names are changed here. The protagonist’s sister Violet clearly draws on Amis’s own sibling Sally, whose alcoholism contributed to an early demise, in 2000, at the age of 46. Elsewhere, we seem to encounter figures based on Hitchens, Ian Hamilton, and perhaps even fellow blitcon McEwan (is he the basis for a minor character here named Ewan?). And our main player, littérateur and aspiring writer Keith Nearing, is an obvious stand-in for the author in this story of young bohemians coming of age during the sexual revolution.

You could probably win some wagers with this book. During my college days, my friends and I played a betting game with The Sun Also Rises. The rules: You offered to pay two-to-one odds to anyone who could open up a random page and not find characters either eating or drinking. The Pregnant Widow promises to be an even bigger moneymaker on the literary betting circuit: I challenge you to find a page where the characters are not talking about sex. I suspect I could raise the odds to five-to-one and still end up raking in the cash.

Note that I said talking about sex, and not the dirty deed itself. Even when his characters decide to couple, Amis typically prefers to present the verbal prelude or the postgame wrap-up instead of calling the play-by-play action. The sheer amount of tawdry banter here is staggering, and even after 300 pages Amis is going strong with dialogue and observations that are a cross between fraternity bragging and advice from a Cosmopolitan how-to article: “The uniform, that of a French maid, was in many ways a success. But it left something to be desired.” Etcetera.

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