The Life of J.G. Ballard: An Alien Among Us

The 'Empire of the Sun' author's memoir is slim but wonderfully luminous

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English author J. G. Ballard (1930 - 2009) at home in Aug. 30, 2000.

I’ve read plenty of J.G. Ballard, but I’m not really a Ballardian. I’ve met Ballardians, and I know when I can’t compete. I like Ballard in his relatively unchallenging apocalyptic mode: Vermilion Sands, The Drowned World, The Burning World, The Crystal World. I’ve never read his really difficult, spiky stuff, like The Atrocity Exhibition. I can respect a book with a chapter entitled “Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan” without necessarily wanting to actually open it.

But I’ve always felt drawn to Ballard, not just by his work but by his weird life, the story of which he told in lightly fictionalized form in Empire of the Sun, which then got turned into an excellent movie, possibly Spielberg’s best, starring a 12-year-old Christian Bale. (And there’s more of it in Ballard’s The Kindness of Women.) Now Ballard has told it again, in entirely unfictionalized form, in his last book, a slim but wonderfully luminous memoir called Miracles of Life (to be released in the United States Feb. 4).

Actually it’s called Miracles of Life: Shanghai to Shepperton, an Autobiography, which is approximately one subtitle too many for my personal taste, but it’s still a beautiful book. The best bits, not wholly surprisingly, are in the first half, and deal with Ballard’s childhood in Shanghai before and during WWII. His father ran the Chinese division of an English textile firm there, and he and his family were part of the small, louche, cocktail-swilling expatriate society, contained within the larger cocoon of the vast Chinese city.

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(This is clearly a good if extreme way for parents to produce writers. Mervyn Peake, of Ghormengast fame, was a child in the European compound in Tientsin.)

Ballard’s memories of Shanghai are vivid, seething crowd scenes of beggars and soldiers and servants and dragon-ladies and con-men. They spin by the boy Ballard as he pedals madly around the city—then all at once the action will grow still as he pauses on a single, indelible Ballardian image, like a drained swimming pool, or the wreck of a crashed, burned Chinese fighter plane in a field that Ballard used to climb into (that one made its way into Empire). Or one day, trying to make his way to school after the Japanese invasion, he had to slip through a destroyed casino, “through the silent gaming rooms where roulette tables lay on their sides and the floor was covered with broken glasses and betting chips.” It gave him “the sense that reality itself was a stage set that could be dismantled at any moment, and that no matter how magnificent anything appeared, it could be swept aside into the debris of the past.” As well it might.

There is not a whiff of self-pity in the account that follows, of his family being taken from their lavish house and interned in a single room in a concentration camp called Lunghua. It’s not even repressed: Ballard felt none. As a child he ran cheerfully wild in the camp, and saw nothing unusual or unpleasant in it, to the point where he cheerfully ate up the bugs that infested their food, for the extra protein.

The book’s strangest tableau comes when the war ended, and Ballard—unsupervised as usual—decided he was going to walk the five miles back to Shanghai from the camp, alone. Strolling along a railroad track, he passed a group of Japanese soldiers on a train platform who had captured a young Chinese man and were slowly strangling him with lengths of cut-down telephone wire. Ballard stopped. The soldiers took his belt and then lost interest in him. The Chinese man eventually died. Ballard walked the rest of the way to Shanghai. When he finally found his family’s house, which he hadn’t seen in three years, it was stripped and looted down to the naked bricks.

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Ballard finished his schooling in England, a country which seemed bizarre and downtrodden to him, at a boarding school where he was extravagantly and miserably alienated. He went to Cambridge, studied first medicine (dissection and anatomy fascinated him; he was unsurprisingly unsqueamish) then English (“the worst possible preparation for a writer’s career”), then he graduated and enlisted in the RAF. He had already decided to be a writer, but he was still trying to chart his own idiosyncratic path between the Scylla and Charibdis of high and low culture. “Popular fiction was too popular,” he wrote, “and literary fiction too earnest”:

Writers of so-called serious fiction shared one dominant characteristic—their fiction was first and foremost about themselves. The ‘self’ lay at the heart of modernism, but now had a powerful rival, the everyday world, which was just as much a psychological construct, and just as prone to mysterious and often psychopathic impulses.

Science fiction, Ballard felt, was the form that reckoned most effectively with that neglected exterior world.

Ballard would have been justified in feeling that he’d already had his life’s allotment of bizarre misfortune, but fate wasn’t done with him. When he was 33 his wife died suddenly from pneumonia related to an infection following an appendectomy. He was left alone with three young children. He raised them himself: “I made them breakfast and drove them to school, then wrote until it was time to collect them.” The difficulty must have been tremendous, and one does not begrudge him the “strong Scotch and soda” he downed after dropping off the kids in the morning, to kick off the day’s writing: “A friendly microclimate unfurled itself from the bottle of Johnnie Walker and encouraged my imagination to emerge from its burrow and test the air.” Often, when I feel like complaining about the demands that parenthood places on a writer’s life, I think of Ballard, and I shut the hell up.

Ballard becomes slightly less amiable company as he grows happier and more successful—success licenses him to be crustier and more judgmental and self-satisfied, to name-drop and settle a literary score here and there. There’s a generalization or two I could have done with out (“There are only two words in the Chinese bible: Make Money.”) But his love of his children runs warmly through the second half of his life—they are the titular “miracles”—and there are some entertaining glimpses of the London Literary Life. Once when Ballard was lunching with the increasingly angrily reactionary Kingsley Amis during the 1970s, a countercultural protest march passed by. “Amis began to tremble and shake. ‘Jim, what are they? What are they?’”

You can see why Ballard was interested in lost worlds: we all lose one or two in our lives, but he lost more than most. (One wants to paraphrase Wilde here: To lose one world may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose more looks like carelessness.) Ballard’s loss gained him power, the novelist’s power of making our comfortable, settled-seeming planet into something strange and temporary. Maybe it’s not a coincidence that Ballard wasn’t the only artist to emerge from the camp at Lunghua: there was an older boy named Cyril Goldbert, a wit who took roles in the camp’s dramatic productions, and who dreamed of a life on the stage. He and Ballard were friendly and saw each other intermittently in the years after, until Goldbert changed his name to Peter Wyngarde and became a hugely successful actor in TV and movies.

Ballard only met him once following his transformation. “I saw him in St. James’s Park,” he writes, “camel-hair coat stylishly slung over an elegant suit, a tilted homburg and dazzling teeth. I started to speak to him but he cut me dead.”