If anything it was The Pregnant Widow, the successor to House of Meetings, that was greeted as a return to form, but as a reader who constitutionally enjoys Amis I found the whole enterprise baffling, from title and epigraph on. The idea that forms of social order have been fractured, so that the modern person will have to live through a desolate interregnum before any viable alternatives are available, stranded between the no longer and the not yet, is almost a commonplace. In fact Amis was trying to get beyond it as long ago as 1980, when he wrote (reviewing Joan Didion’s The White Album for this paper) that Yeats’s ‘“The Second Coming” was written half a century ago. The centre hasn’t been holding for some time now; actually the centre was never holding, and never will hold.’
It’s the specific image of the pregnant widow, quoted from Alexander Herzen, that seems so clumsy: ‘The departing world leaves behind it, not an heir, but a pregnant widow. Between the death of the one and the birth of the other, much water will flow by, a long night of chaos and desolation will pass.’ The image is poorly handled, botched as a literary figure: ‘the death of the one’ can’t apply to the widow, or else the child she is carrying will die also, but presumably refers back to the departing world, and what is ‘the other’ that will be born? Perhaps Amis has chosen an indifferent translation. But since the book is seeking to identify the moment at which everything went wrong, in the West, between men and women, you’d think that the author might notice that his chosen image for the crisis is full of miscellaneous patriarchal baggage. Herzen will have taken it for granted that an heir is male, that a widow has the barest fingerhold on civil rights. The notion that using women’s bodies as sources of vivid imagery is a bad habit, which tends to make women disappear at the very moment they’re invoked, wasn’t available to Herzen, but Amis certainly got that memo. No obligation to read it, of course, though it would show willing when he decided to write a novel about the shifting ground between men and women.