Experiencing Amis
at The Oxford Union
Trinity, 2000

As author, reviewer, critic, and general literary celebrity, Martin Amis addressed the packed debating chamber at the Union on Wednesday night. Yet none of those who plied him with questions about his work, his family, and if he'd ever considered writing a Bond movie, asked him why he'd written 'Experience'.

For a man who once wrote, "[t]he narrative in human life is gone,' writing an autobiography might seem at first glance a strange thing to do. But casting an eye over Martin Amis's fiction - Money, Time's Arrow, and even London Fields - each is in some way the story of a life: of restless aspiration, domestic mundanity, and realisation.

In fact, the motivation behind all his writing seems implicit in something he said about novels as opposed to other kinds of writing: "You're the weather. You're God." The drive to order experience, of which he says, "nothing can compete with unanswerably authentic", seems to mean reordering his own life, playing God with his admittedly rather unique experiences as the son of a deeply literary family.

Reading excerpts from 'Experience', recalling, among other things, childhood dinners with Robert Graves and his father Kingsley's advice to Linda Hamilton while watching The Terminator, "Get your hair cut." His experience, recounted dryly from behind a curl of smoke, is framed by many such conversations with his father, which he treats with the same amused but emotive distance he uses in scenes from London Fields. The 'randomness' of life - children crying, benches creaking, and mobiles ringing - inferior to the intent of novels, certainly impinged throughout his reading, but he took it all in stride, joking and maintaining the audience's attention. Resignation is part of his humour, which probably explains why he feels that "[a]ll other genres have collapsed - epic and romance are not appropriate to our times. Comedy is all there is; it's sort of taking in refugees from all the other genres."

Perhaps the dance between life and art is best illustrated by his book jacket: a towheaded boy having what is almost certainly his first cigarette, icon of a 'first' experience; on the reverse, Amis himself, looking rather younger and more like his father than in real life, representative of the other end of the road. The role of the 'authoritative' voice is one he loves, and adopts both in relation to his own life in the memoir, and in real life before his listeners.

Amy Norton 31.5.00