No one would be allowed to have J. G. Ballard’s career nowadays. When you consider the life of the average English novelist, what Cyril Connolly called the poverty of experience seems almost overwhelming, as the budding writer moves from school to university to a creative writing MA and on to the two-book contract. It is as thin a body of lived experience as the average Labour Cabinet minister possesses.
Reading J. G. Ballard’s autobiography, you sometimes need to pause to remind yourself just how young he was at the time of many of the atrocious events described. At the point where most English autobiographies are just beginning, as the subject leaves university, enough horror has been lived through by Ballard to supply a lifetime’s imaginative transformations.
Ballard must always have seemed something of a puzzle throughout his grotesque and glorious high period. He was said to live in Shepperton, of all places, in a small suburban house with three children — his wife was known to have died suddenly and young. Occasional lady journalists were dispatched to the respectable outer suburbs, to return with sardonic views of the bourgeois setting and Ballard’s vagueness about household matters.
But only the most foolish journalist would presume that imaginative writing is conducted exclusively in a double-doored salon in Hampstead. The way that literature continues to be written by people who live in perfectly ordinary houses, rather than by the sort Philip Larkin called the ‘s**t in a shuttered chateau’, ought to be no surprise.
Still, the publications that were regularly issuing from Shepperton were a surprise. Ballard’s often gruesome fantasies had the brilliantly simple conceit of taking a situation to its logical conclusion. They are horrid, but perfectly sensible. In Concrete Island, a man crashes his car on a gigantic round- about and cannot be rescued from the sea of traffic; he ventures into a savage community of similarly car-wrecked people. In High-Rise, civil war breaks out between the inhabitants of a huge, respectable block of flats, the war being conducted in the evenings and at weekends.
Most alarming of all was The Atrocity Exhibition (1969), an assault on contemporary news events as entertainment long before Jean Baudrillard’s The Gulf War Did Not Take Place. The American publisher, Nelson Doubleday, ordered the entire print-run pulped when he picked it up to find chapters entitled ‘Plan for the Assassination of Jacqueline Kennedy’ and ‘Why I Want to F**k Ronald Reagan’. ‘The governor of California,’ Ballard notes, ‘was a close friend.’
This outrage was followed by Crash, a psychological extravaganza postulating an erotic component to contemporary obsessions with car crashes. It was launched with an exhibition of crashed cars, while a topless woman interviewed the guests at the vernissage. Outrage and outbreaks of violence in Ballard’s direction then, and scandal when David Cronenberg’s film of the book, decades later, had the same effect. ‘All my suspicions had been confirmed about the unconscious links that my novel would explore.’
It seemed difficult to imagine such things emerging from the respectable streets of Shepperton. Some explanation was guessed at on the publication of Ballard’s wonderful 1984 novel, Empire of the Sun, about a boy’s wartime experiences in a prison camp in Shanghai. The origins of this extraordinary and wonderful writer are now set out in this pellucid, forgiving, tranquil autobiography.
Ballard’s boyhood was spent in a Shanghai already phantasmagorical — ‘the honour guard of 50 Chinese hunchbacks outside the film première of The Hunchback of Notre Dame stays in the mind’. Even in peace time, his upbringing in a mock-Tudor villa on Shanghai’s Amherst Avenue was far closer to the raw facts of life and death than any childhood spent in Weybridge at the same time would have been. The dead baby of a beggar left pressed against a heating grille and the torrential public defecations of rickshaw coolies suffering from cholera and dysentery are unforgettably present to Ballard even now.
When the Japanese took the city, Ballard and the rest of the British and Allied community were interned at Lunghua Camp. He calls it ‘my last real childhood home’ and even, amazingly, tells us that the years he spent there were largely happy. ‘The camp was, in effect, a huge slum, and in any slum it is the teenage boys who run wild.’ We’ve grown used to the prison-camp memoir, but Ballard’s stands out for its sheer oddity, and what is surely total authenticity. He was only 15 when the war ended, a fact occasionally brought home in a terrifying manner, as precious boyhood possessions attract the attention of torturers:
The Japanese soldier had cut down lengths of telephone wire and had tied the Chinese to a telegraph pole, and was now slowly strangling him as the Chinese sang out in a sing-song voice … I drew level with the platform and was about to walk past it when the soldier with the telephone wire raised a hand and beckoned me towards him. He had seen the transparent celluloid belt that held up my frayed cotton shorts. It had been given to me by one of the American sailors, and was a prized novelty that no Japanese was likely to have seen. I unbuckled the belt and handed it to him, then waited as he flexed the colourless plastic and stared at me through it, laughing admiringly. Behind him the young Chinese was slowly suffocating to death, his urine spreading across the platform.
It is a shock to move from this to post- war England and Cambridge, the familiar world of art movies and tea at the Copper Kettle. Ballard, by this time, was drawn to the grotesque, and if it was ultimately to emerge in monomaniac surrealist fantasies, at first it pushed him towards the study of medicine and the dissecting room. Evelyn Waugh remarked that the outbreak of war ought to be just the thing for a surrealist, what with all those spare limbs lying about. Ballard’s career shows just how accurate that gruesome joke was, and he was to make something overwhelmingly new out of it.
The novel thrived on static societies, which the novelist could examine like an entomologist labelling a tray of butterflies. But too much had happened to me, and to the boys sitting at the desks around me, in the wartime years.
Much of the boyhood behaviour, calmly described, would nowadays earn an Asbo without hesitation. But that, I suppose, is evidence of the comparative poverty of experience which has subsequently overtaken the profession of the writer. Plenty of novelists, however, have transformed quiet lives into works of major interest; and plenty of people have mistakenly thought that highly interesting experience was enough to justify the writing of a book. The fascination of Ballard is that the extremity of his youthful experiences was transformed, in the first instance, into a glorious flight of fantastical horror, and only 40 years later into anything resembling a factual account.
It is worth noting, too, that Ballard’s career would simply not happen in the same way now. His transformations of genre fiction were, in part, made possible by the existence of a market for genre short stories — science fiction magazines in the 1950s and 1960s published a remarkable number of stories by what now seem classic writers. Those have all disappeared today, and it’s hard not to think that the future of English literature will be poorer as a result. Many of the great masterpieces of the English short story are genre stories — by Conan Doyle, M. R. James and P. G. Wodehouse, for example — and one can’t imagine where they would be published now. Ballard is the last of this distinguished line.
This is a remarkable aut
obiography, treating events which most of us can barely imagine with tranquil dignity and exactness. It is, Ballard says, his last book; he is terminally ill with cancer, and it ends with a moving tribute to the doctor who has made this final work, with its highly un- Ballardian title, possible. It has been a great career, and despite the wildness and provocations of many of his books, Ballard has carried out Matthew Arnold’s imprecation to ‘see life steadily and see it whole’. This is an unforgettable farewell.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated February 9, 2008