While suffering from advanced cancer at 79, J. G. Ballard (Empire of the Sun, Crash, The Atrocity Exhibition and many other books), the fine British writer, summoned enough will and energy to put together a superb autobiography. It’s a model narrative of a certain winning British conservative prose style–Evelyn Waugh may have been its champion–in which subtly compelling verbal paintings abound; disciplined understatement pervades; one grand theme is dramatized; and every sentence is simple and graceful. The outcome is a narrative unity as tight as a well-built winter cabin.
Underneath all this is a secret, the mystery of “selectivity.” Who knows what that word really means when a narrative is being composed, but it must have a lot to do with how well the mind can do at least these two things: think easily and naturally of what to recover from riotous, clamoring memory; and, most mysterious of all, and once you have started recovering, think of a next ensuing event. The “ensuing” is very nearly the be-all and the end-all.
For example, Ballard talks midway through his journey of how Freud and the Surrealist painters helped him pursue and shape his until then largely felt need of dramatizing the “psychological space” in Homo sapiens, a great countryside surrounding each of us; but a scene shuttered from view by the old, strong, but restricted British culture in which he grew up, a space Out There and In Here he knew at the dawn of his awareness was a goodly part of life because of his youthful experiences in Shanghai as the son of a British factory manager during which, often unbeknownst to his careless parents, he explored on his bicycle the Laboratory of Life there from unimaginable wealth to barely believable poverty, cruelty and death to war and military occupation. Then came internment by the invading Japanese, ideological conflict in China, the passing of the British Colonial Era, and much more back home in burnt out Britain. The ensuing key influence? The British painter, Francis Bacon, whose portraits of screaming popes are, Ballard argues, the signature art of post World War Two, the most powerful and elegant dramatization of the most dreadful chapters of yet another dreadful century. Bacon is the perfect artist to seize upon after you talk about the Surrealists, the power of the latter diminished by Aushwitz and Dachau.
Ballard has many pithy insights. For example: The Pop artists such as Warhol were upset because no one in a Virginia Woolf novel ever fills up her car with petrol. In “serious” art, no one defacates or opens a can of tomato soup. Moreover, a surrounding world of consumer culture goes unseen in official art. Or was going unseen until Pop became, for a while, official art.
Ballard ranges interestingly through other regions of his times.
Ballard’s observations about the cinema of the 1940s are well worth the read. So are his accounts of his brief experiences in Hollywood flowing from the filming of his novel, Empire of the Sun.
He fell in love with science fiction and tried to invent a new form of it to replace the decline of the space-opera classics of the 1940s and 1950s. I’m not sure that what he ended up doing in novels like Crash is science fiction. Nor do I think he is in touch with later thrusts in science fiction.
Nor is he on a par with Philip K. Dick when it comes to imagining alternative history. Ballard writes a stunningly naive passage–at least so to me–musing about what better outcomes might have occurred in the 1940s had Britain, America and France not opposed Hitler when they did but waited for Russia to defeat the Nazis and then intervened.
Trying to make ends meet as a full-time serious writer, he chose the outrageous in his art as he got older; perhaps more often than not he indulged in shock schlock, i.e., a form of soundbite “narrative.”
Does it matter? He wrote some fine books.
Miracles of Life for me is a most valuable attempt to account for the twentieth century, and specifically how to continue being civilized and free while facing the worst threats yet, those in our time. Well worth the read.