I may have been a bit disappointed by High-Rise, but that didn’t put me off wanting to read J.G. Ballard’s autobiography, which has been pretty widely acclaimed since its publication last month. I also wasn’t put off – not precisely – when a trusted source read it and pronounced it disappointing; in fact, this may have been crucial in my experience of it, for as a result I approached Miracles of Life with a mixture of trepidation and obligation. Would it have seemed quite so wonderful if I had higher expectations? Who knows? (Who cares?)
The subtitle of Miracles of Life is Shanghai to Shepperton, and those who have both read Ballard and read around him will know the central role these two places have played in his writing. Ballard, born in 1930, grew up the son of an English businessman in Shanghai, and after the Japanese invasion of China in 1937, life changed. Gone was Shanghai as “the media city before its time, celebrated as the Paris of the Orient and the ‘wickedest city in the world'”, and in 1943 the Ballard family were moved along with other westerners into the Lunghua Camp holding centre, where Ballard witnessed Japanese brutality against the Chinese, but managed to tackle even the more grotesque elements of life in wartime with a child’s insouciance:
In the last eighteen months of the war our rations fell steeply. As we sat at the card table in our room one day, pushing what my mother called ‘the weevils’ to the rims of our plates of congee, my father decided that from then on we should eat the weevils – we needed the protein. They were small white slugs, and perhaps were maggots, a word my mother preferred to avoid. It must have irritated my mother when I regularly counted them before tucking in lustily – a hundred or so was my usual score, forming a double perimeter around my plate and visibly reducing my portion of boiled rice.
Life in the camp also taught Ballard an intimacy with others he had never known before – his parents were of a generation and a class that lived almost separate lives from their children, even when they were all crammed together in a room for two and a half years (“I remember my own parents in the camp, unable to warn, chide, praise or promise … I regret the estrangement, and realise how much I have missed”). This also contributed to what Ballard expresses most enthusiasm for in the book: not his work, but his children, who he raised as a single father from the age of 33 after his wife’s sudden death. The emotional coldness of Ballard’s parents – representatives of a whole stratum of the English middle class – extended to his later professional life:
I went on my own way, ignoring [my father] when he strongly urged me against becoming a writer. I had spent five years learning to decode the strange, introverted world of English life, while he was happiest dealing with professional colleagues in Switzerland and America. He telephoned me to congratulate me on my first novel, The Drowned World, pointing out one or two minor errors that I was careful not to correct. My mother never showed the slightest interest in my career until Empire of the Sun, which she thought was about her.
The “strange, introverted world of English life” came as a culture shock to Ballard when he came to England after the war at the age of 16. “The whole nation seemed to me deeply depressed … It is hard to imagine how conditions could have been worse if we had lost the war.” It is here that he realises that his upbringing in Shanghai was closeted and cocooned, and suddenly “it was clear to me from the start that the English class system, which I was meeting for the first time, was an instrument of social control, not a picturesque social relic.”
Here then is the genesis of Ballard’s fiction, and the reader comes to realise that even when he spends 100 pages recounting life in wartime Shanghai, almost everything on these pages goes in some way to explaining his often bizarre fiction. It comes from his experience of the swift breakdown of normal social codes during wartime – as paralleled in many of his novels where self-contained settlements become savage – and his feeling in England of being a “lifelong outside and maverick. It probably steered me towards becoming a writer devoted to predicting and, if possible, provoking change.” The direction he needed (“most English novelists were far too ‘English’) was provided by “Freud and the surrealists, a stick of bombs that fell in front of me and destroyed all the bridges I was hesitating to cross.”
There is no denying that Ballard knows what he likes, and it is on the subject of literature that the tone goes occasionally from avuncular to curmudgeonly. He – historically at least – dismissed much modernism and formalist experiment as easily as he did poetry (“a sad little cult”), literary fiction (“too earnest”), popular fiction (“too popular”) and his contemporaries in the 1960s (“most of them were still locked into a literary sensibility that would have been out of date in the 1920s”). In the end he settled for his style on science fiction – “the true literature of the 20th century” – with a particular emphasis on “inner-space, in effect the psychological space apparent in surrealist painting, the short stories of Kafka, noir films at their most intense, and the strange, almost mentalised world of science labs and research institutes.”
The book ends on a somber and generous note – explaining why the press release announced it as Ballard’s “last book” – and the whole, for me, succeeds in making me want to scuttle off and reconsider even those novels of Ballard’s that I have recently half-dismissed, better than any review could. But first: Empire of the Sun.