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The everyday surreal
A review of Miracles of Life: Shanghai to Shepperton: An Autobiography by J. G. Ballard
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In the late 1930s, James Graham Ballard (1930–2009) was prone to go traipsing around Shanghai without his parents’ permission and was proud to be identified as “the biggest heathen” in his class by his scripture teacher. As punishment for one infraction, whose details have now been lost, Ballard was required to copy pages out of Charles Kingsley’s Westward Ho!, a fairly common penalty at his school. Ballard decided that the chore would be more interesting if he made up the story as he went along, and he wrote a swashbuckling adventure about pirates instead. The following day in class his teacher called him out, saying, “Next time Ballard, don’t copy your lines from some trashy novel.” This was the renowned science-fiction writer’s first review.
Despite this early start, Ballard’s rise to success didn’t happen quickly or easily. In the first American printing of Miracles of Life, Ballard’s autobiography, the author explains his struggles, living in a Japanese internment camp, working numerous dead-end jobs, losing a wife to a sudden infection, and being rejected by fellow sci-fi writers.
Growing up in the modernizing metropolis of Shanghai, Ballard quickly became aware of the surreal nature of the city in which he lived. Western immigrants built houses in the style of their respective homelands, eschewing Chinese architectural offerings. Wealthy foreigners would play tennis, attend dinner parties, and celebrate nightclub openings while countless Chinese peasants died of poverty and disease. Soldiers and gangsters, tourists and beggars, businessmen and prostitutes all mingled openly on the streets, themselves a swarm of rickshaws, bicycles, American cars, and food vendors. This dreamlike atmosphere had a profound effect on Ballard the child and proved an important influence on his writing as an adult:
In Shanghai the fantastic, which for most people lies inside their heads, lay all around me, and I think now that my main effort as a boy was to find the real in all this make-believe. In some ways I went on doing this when I came to England after the war, a world that was almost too real. As a writer I’ve treated England as if it were a strange fiction, and my task has been to elicit the truth.
After the outbreak of World War II, expat optimism quickly gave way to a recognition of the decline of the British Empire. The Japanese dominated the Pacific theater, seizing control of the International Settlement, sinking the HMS Petrel, arresting hundreds of British and American civilians, and taking Singapore. Needless to say, life in Shanghai became very different from Ballard’s early years: business closed, social life disappeared, and the city was more dangerous than ever. While he continued to attend the Cathedral School, he was no longer free to roam the city.
One morning, while biking to school, he and his father encountered a closed checkpoint and were forced to sneak over a fence and through an abandoned casino to get back to the road. Ballard was struck by the overturned roulette tables, shattered glasses, and scattered betting chips. Gilded statues and ornate chandeliers threw glimmering light everywhere, “transforming this derelict casino into a magical cavern from the Arabian Nights tales.”
This casino served as inspiration for a number of his later works:
I . . . felt that the ruined casino, like the city and the world beyond it, was more real and more meaningful than it had been when it was thronged with gamblers and dancers. Abandoned houses and office buildings held a special magic and on my way home from school I often paused outside an empty apartment block. Seeing everything displaced and rearranged in a haphazard way gave me my first taste of the surrealism of everyday life, though Shanghai was already surrealist enough.
Ballard remained a fan of the deserted urban setting throughout his career as is evidenced by the abandoned, underwater London of The Drowned World, and the isolation in the middle of a roadway intersection of Concrete Island. The vacant city was so integral to who Ballard was as both a writer and a person that the last short story he published before his death featured a man who wakes up to find his home city of Shepperton—and indeed the entire world—deserted. Ballard titled this “fictional” work The Autobiography of J. G. B.
During the war, Ballard was interned with his family at Lunghua, a time he remembers with mixed emotions. While he was constantly hungry and frequently witnessed the guards’ brutality, he also remembers the camp as “a prison where I found freedom.” He would later write a fictionalized account (that hews closely to the truth) about his time at Lunghua in Empire of the Sun. The greatest discrepancy between the novel and Ballard’s reality is the former’s omission of his parents—a telling fact about the loneliness he felt growing up.
In 1946, Ballard repatriated to England with his mother and sister (his father stayed in China) and moved to Southampton. He was instantly struck by the grim outlook of the British, who had been shaken by expansive bombings, a people who “talked as if they had won the war, but acted as if they had lost it,” and despised the English class system. He attended The Leys School, which he says, “reminded me of Lunghua Camp, though the food was worse.” Disenchanted with The Leys, he made friends with the university students at nearby Cambridge, read with an insatiable appetite, and enjoyed spending time in the local cinemas. It was at this time that he began studying surrealism and psychoanalysis and, hoping to go into psychiatry, decided to study medicine at Kings College, Cambridge.
By 1951, he realized that he had no desire to be a doctor and left Kings to pursue writing. He enrolled at Queen Mary College at London University to study English literature (“the worst possible preparation for a writer’s career”), dropped out, and wrote an experimental novel—a complete flop. He took various jobs as a copywriter, a porter, and a door-to-door encyclopedia salesman, and eventually joined the RAF. Flight training was in rural Canada and, with little substantial reading material available, Ballard dug through the dime novels at the local bus depot and eventually discovered science fiction. He was less interested with novels about outer space than he was with those stories that looked at the present or near future and examined political trends that were present after the war. While he viewed “writers of so-called serious fiction” as primarily concerned with the self, he wanted to focus on “the everyday world, which was just as much a psychological construct, and just as prone to mysterious and often psychopathic impulses.”
Ballard had trouble selling his new brand of science fiction. Sci-fi publishers weren’t particularly numerous, and were adamant when it came to the homogeneity of the content they published—a laughable irony for a genre touting “alternative” and “original” stories. Finally, in 1956, Ballard had his first story published and quickly gained momentum as a writer. The Wind from Nowhere was published in 1961—his only foray into commercial fiction—and, following the success of The Drowned World in 1963, he quit working to pursue writing full-time. The next year, his wife Mary died of pneumonia, leaving Ballard alone with their three children.
In response to her death, Ballard’s writing took a dark turn as he began The Atrocity Exhibition, a fragmented attempt to cope with both the loss of his wife and various global manias, ranging from Kennedy’s assassination to infatuation with celebrities. The book was eventually published in 1970, after being dropped by Doubleday after Nelson Doubleday read a passage entitled “Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan.” It turned out that then-Governor Reagan was a close friend of the publishing house’s namesake. Crash, similarly controversial though more linear, was published three years later. A series of lesser known novels soon followed, and Empire of the Sun was published in 1984.
Fans of Ballard will enjoy this autobiography, both for its elucidation of the author’s life and its unsurprisingly Ballardian prose—lucid, honest, and matter-of-fact. Ballard is refreshingly open when dealing with myriad controversial subjects: on the Arts Council: “Why the taxes of people on modest incomes (the source of most taxes today) should pay for the agreeable hobby of a north London children’s doctor, or a self-important Soho idler like the late editor of the New Review, is something I have never understood”; or, his feelings on the use of nuclear weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki: “I have long supported the American dropping of the bombs.” He also speaks freely about his devotion to his family (the flexible hours of full-time writer meant that Ballard was a dedicated father) and his partner Claire Walsh. The book also covers his return to Shanghai in the early ’90s and various anecdotes about the people who he’s encountered through the years—everyone from Kingsley Amis to Eduardo Paolozzi to the Queen. If Ballard’s goal in life was to elicit the truth from the surrealism of the everyday, his autobiography is an engaging account of a life that often seemed more fiction than truth.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 31 November 2012, on page 78
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