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J.G. Ballard

Was he “beyond psychiatric help” or the most significant English author of the past half-century?

tom graham | November/December 2014

“This author is beyond psychiatric help. Do not publish.” So wrote a reader on a manuscript of “Crash”. The writer, by contrast, called himself “a man of complete and serene ordinariness”. J.G. Ballard spent 50 years living in suburban London while imagining post-apocalyptic landscapes and fresh perversities.

His work has to be read in the light of his early life: visions from it bubble up, swamp-like. Born in 1930 in Shanghai, Jim Ballard spent two years, from the age of 12, in a Japanese concentration camp. Overnight, he went from comfy expat life to watching Japanese soldiers beat a Chinese coolie to death. He never took civilised pretensions seriously again. When he turned the experience into “Empire of the Sun”, Martin Amis said it “gives shape to what shaped him”.

Even in England, he retained an outsider’s eye. Shepperton, his home patch, he saw as “lunar and abstract”. He was a modern dad, raising three children after the death of his wife, but keeping an old-school routine: two hours’ writing in the morning, two in the afternoon, “then at six, Scotch and soda, and oblivion”.

Will Self rates Ballard’s oeuvre as “the most significant single contribution to English literature in the past half-century”. “Ballardian” has come to denote “dystopian modernity, bleak man-made landscapes, and the psychological effects of technological, societal, and environmental development” (Collins). Often accused of being humourless, he was tempted to plead guilty. “But then, existence itself is a very special kind of joke”.

KEY DECISION  Dropping out of medical school, but not forgetting it. There he tasted psychoanalysis and acquired his surrealist anatomist’s eye: “I held her dissected hand, whose nerves and tendons I had teased into the light. Its layers of skin and muscle resembled a deck of cards that she waited to deal across the table to me.” (“The Kindness of Women”)

ROLE MODELS The Surrealists inspired Ballard to explore the mythologies of the psyche. Drained lake beds haunt his work as melting clocks do Dalí’s. The landscapes of Ballard’s early books—the glutinous swamps and crystallised jungles—could be paintings by Ernst. Jungian psychology then helped him populate these worlds. The same archetypal figures recur in many of his works as the protagonist, not quite knowingly, seeks transcendence through some manifestation of Jung’s deep, collective unconscious: “a second Adam searching for the forgotten paradises of the reborn sun” (“The Drowned World”).

STRONG POINTS  (1) Fusing mood and landscape; collapsing inner and outer space. “The blighted landscape and its empty violence, its loss of time, would provide its own motives” (“The Drought”). (2) Capturing the subliminal. In “The Drowned World” solar instability has left a sun that “thuds” and “booms”, heart-like, and the book’s laconic first sentence hums: “Soon it would be too hot.” (3) Prescience. He was in tune with the “near-future” and arguably foresaw climate change, Reagan’s presidency, the growth of gated communities, even Twitter.

GOLDEN RULE  Make the protagonist a doctor, always diagnosing, or self-diagnosing, with a medical detachment.

FAVOURITE TRICKS  (1) Recurring motifs—drained pools, concrete passovers, abandoned airfields—a “whole private mythology” of collaboration between the conscious and unconscious mind. (2) Dissonant elements: colonial tics (“Capital!”, “Damn’ shame about old Bodkin”) mix with high-rises and malls to suspend time.

TYPICAL SENTENCE  “Dreams of rivers, like scenes from a forgotten film, drift through the night, in passage between memory and desire” (“The Day of Creation”). 

High-Rise is being filmed, with Tom Hiddleston in the lead

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