For context: the story is split between Keith’s summer at a castle in Italy (when he was 20) and his reflections on that summer, and on life, as a grown man. The words themselves are brilliant, but they’re even better when read alongside Amis’s own reading below:
“Rule number one: the most important thing about you is your date of birth. Which puts you inside history. Rule number two: sooner or later, each human life is a tragedy, sometimes sooner, always later. There will be other rules.
Keith settled in the usual café with his Americano, his unlit French cigarette (a mere prop, now), his British broadsheet. And here it was, the news, the latest installment of the thriller and tingler, the great page-turner called the planet Earth. The world is a book we can’t put down… And he started reading about a new mental disease, one that spoke to him in a haunting whisper. It affected children, the new disease; but it worked best on grown-ups — on those who had reached the years of discretion.
The new disease was called Body Dysmorphic Syndrome or Perceived Ugly Disorder. Sufferers of BDS, or PUD, gazed at their own reflections and saw something even worse than reality. At his time of life (he was fifty-six), you resigned yourself to a simple truth: each successive visit to the mirror will, by definition, confront you with something unprecedentedly awful. But nowadays, as he impended over the basin in the bathroom, he felt he was under the influence of a hellish hallucinogen. Every trip to the mirror was giving him a dose of lysergic acid; very occasionally it was a good-trip trip, and nearly always it was a bad-trip trip; but it was always a trip.
Now Keith called for another coffee. He felt much cheered.
Maybe I don’t actually look like that, he thought. I’m just insane — that’s all. So perhaps there’s nothing to worry about. Body Dysmorphic Syndrome, or Perceived Ugly Disorder, was what he hoped he’d got.
When you become old…When you become old, you find yourself auditioning for the role of a lifetime; then, after interminable rehearsals, you’re finally starring in a horror film — a talentless, irresponsible, and above all low-budget horror film, in which (as is the way with horror films) they’re saving the worst for last.
Everything that follows is true. Italy is true. The castle is true. The girls are all true, and the boys are all true (Rita is true, Adriano, incredibly, is true). 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.
This is the way it goes. In your mid-forties you have your first crisis of mortality (death will not ignore me); and ten years later you have your first crisis of age (my body whispers that death is already intrigued by me). But something very interesting happens to you in between.
As the fiftieth birthday approaches, you get the sense that your life is thinning out, and will continue to thin out, until it thins out into nothing. And you sometimes say to yourself: That went a bit quick. That went a bit quick. In certain moods, you may want to put it rather more forcefully. As in: OY!! THAT went a BIT FUCKING QUICK!!!… Then fifty comes and goes, and fifty-one, and fifty-two. And life thickens out again. Because there is now an enormous and unsuspected presence within your being, like an undiscovered continent. This is the past.”
From the prologue of Martin Amis’s novel The Pregnant Widow.
A large part of the genius of these paragraphs stems from Amis’s phrase-making ability. Brilliantly, the news of the world becomes “a book we can’t put down”; adulthood becomes “the years of discretion”; the past becomes “an undiscovered continent”. Amis works these playful witticisms into his somber opening to an often fun and funny book. Critics panned The Pregnant Widow as a disjointed meditation on… everything. And it sort of is. The book is the story of the transformation of women’s rights during the 1960’s and 70’s, the sexual revolution, the Islamization of Europe, and, most of all, the often-thwarted romantic efforts of its young protagonist, Keith.
To see Amis discuss the novel and its themes, watch (one of my favorite interviews, by anyone, ever) Martin Amis on Charlie Rose.
To see how I incorporated his idea of the presence of the past into my own writing, read my speech College, Life.