CLIVE JAMES AND MARTIN AMIS joined John McAuliffe in the Martin Harris Centre for a discussion about literature and ageing last week.

The two authors considered both how age affects writing, and the idea of age and ageing as subjects for prose and poetry.

Amis impressed the 100-strong audience with pithy aphorisms and anecdotes taken from the likes of Don DeLillo’s White Noise and made some sharp comments. When speaking about Nabokov’s work from his old age, he said that the Lolita author had a “failure of taste and judgement in writing about little girls.

“The crisis of the mid-40s is mortality: death cannot escape you. The crisis of the mid-50s is death: it is already intrigued by you,” he said.

Amis and James discussed many authors, from Goethe to W.B. Yeats. Amis argued that American author Philip Roth, who won the Pulitzer prize for his novel American Pastoral had recently lost his knack of giving spark to his characters. He blamed this on Roth’s age. “My stepmother said to me age is not for sissies. Old age is not for old people – you need to be a young person to be old.”

getty images/sunday times (c)
getty images/sunday times (c)

Clive James, who currently presents Radio 4’s Points of View, is a poet, novelist, broadcaster, and critic. He argued that age is no precursor to a weakened body of work. He said: “I actually feel within myself. At this age I have a lot more experience to reflect on. There is a privilege attached to having lived this long.”

He said that the first big novel shapes a writer’s career – age had little affect in comparison. James argued: “unless a writer changes direction quite obviously, they are usually confined by their first literary works.”

However, he insisted that it was important to revere the later years of life, or as Amis referred to them, “the last period.”

Towards the end of the discussion, both James and Amis agreed that certain vulnerability does linger with the process of ageing, although each had diverging views when describing this in personal terms. James said: “I’m afraid of running out of time,” and was wistful about missing the years he needed to fully understand the internet. “I wish I had another 30 years.” Amis continued with the light jest: “I’ve been terrorising myself…decline is inevitable.”

Martin Amis is a professor of Creative Writing at the University of Manchester, his appointment hit the headlines in 2008 after it was revealed he was being paid £80,000 for 28 hours of teaching time per year.

The event was introduced and chaired by John McAuliffe, Irish poet and lecturer from the Creative Writing department at the University. Peter Porter, Australian poet, due to attend the event, was absent.

“I’m afraid he got too old,” Amis joked.

//published in Student Direct, December 2009

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