Between the ages of 13 and 33, the young Ballard suffered the kind
of experience that perhaps only the 20th century could provide. The
child of expat parents in Shanghai, he was interned in a Japanese
prison camp in 1943. Having survived, and even thrived, in some
gruelling conditions, he came home to a country devastated by the war.
Here, in late adolescence, he was packed off to school (where, he
notes, ‘the food was worse’ than in camp), studied medicine at
Cambridge, dropped out, joined the RAF, was stationed in Canada and
married Mary, settling down to family life in Shepperton. He was just
beginning to make a name for himself as a new-wave science fiction
writer, while raising three young children, when Mary died prematurely
abroad, from a savage and inexplicable pneumonia.
That, in summary, is the meat of this autobiography. Vanity is the
curse of successful writers, but Miracles of Life is impressively free
from all forms of show (no name-dropping; no index; scarcely any
photographs). Moreover, what this brief, modest and occasionally
shattering book only glances at is the extraordinary body of work that
has flowed from this remarkable life.
For many readers, Ballard is the author of the controversial novel
Crash (1973), a surreal exploration of sexuality and the motor car. But
before Crash, and before his wife’s death, Ballard’s novels had begun
to shape a unique suburban dystopia. In its time, this vision was
categorised as science fiction. Now we can see it more clearly as
deeper, darker and more prophetic.
To fans of this early work, Miracles of Life will be at once
disappointing and fascinating. The disappointment is intrinsic to
Ballard’s achievement. He has mined this material so often and so
brilliantly in the past that he can hardly have much that’s new to say.
Read the 30-odd pages devoted to Lunghua Camp: remarkable enough, but
not a patch on Empire of the Sun, the bestselling novel that
transformed that experience into art.
Still, there are numerous compensating fascinations. Successful
writers in old age are often reluctant to discuss their inspiration for
fear of betraying the mystery of their art. Ballard, the former medical
student who loved to dissect and has always stood out as an iconoclast,
has no trouble with exposing some of his secrets.
Growing up in Shanghai, ‘the wickedest city in the world’, he
admits: ‘I would see something strange and mysterious, but treat it as
normal’, a juvenile manifesto for his surreal imagination. Ballard
writes that his boyhood project was ‘to find the real in all this
make-believe’. But then, as a young man in Attlee’s Britain, he found
himself in ‘a world that was almost too real’. Hence, he says, his
adult determination to treat England, ‘as if it were a strange fiction’.
A few years later, now at King’s College, dissecting cadavers in the
Fifties Cambridge of Crick and Watson, Ballard decides that
‘psychoanalysis and Surrealism were a key to the truth about existence
and the human personality and also a key to myself’.
In the battle to make sense of things, the ‘preposterous society’ of
England was no help. To save himself from ‘the suffocations of English
life’, Ballard seized on the great modernists, ‘Hemingway, Dos Passos,
Kafka, Camus, Joyce and Dostoevsky’. Slowly and painfully, he began to
dissect the pathology of his early life, from Shanghai to Shepperton.
His ‘entire fiction’, he says, explores a psychic terrain that runs
from ‘the threat of nuclear war to the assassination of President
Kennedy, from the death of my wife to the violence that underpinned the
entertainment culture of the last decades of the century’.
There, indeed, is the bank at which Ballard has cashed his literary
cheques. But, because Ballard is never less than ruthlessly honest
about what he sees and feels, Miracles of Life also tells quite another
story, unconscious and inadvertent, perhaps, but finally brave in a way
that elevates it to a level of greatness.
In this book, we discover a little boy who grew up with ‘patriotic
newsreels, suspicious of all British adults’, a nine-year-old steeped
in GA Henty, Dickens and Charles Kingsley, who transcribes pages of
Westward Ho!, and for whom ‘home’ was the England of AA Milne, Just
William and Chums . To this child of the British empire, ‘reality was a
stage set that could be dismantled at any moment’. A lesser character
might have been overwhelmed, but that was no problem for ‘a 12-year-old
who thrived on change’. Shanghai Jim, as he was known in camp, made the
most of internment. It was, he writes, ‘a prison where I found
freedom’. When the war was over, he was the boy who ‘knew that
childhood had passed for good’.
But, of course, it hadn’t. When Ballard began to write, he would be
shaped by his inheritance. ‘At heart,’ he confesses, ‘I was an
old-fashioned storyteller with a lively imagination.’ This, perhaps, is
the key to Ballard, an outcast of empire who found self-expression
scavenging the fertile wasteland of 20th-century modernism. Tellingly,
however, as an Anglo-Saxon narrator, he cannot conceal from his readers
at the end the devastating news that this may be his last book. (via)
Download Torrent- 4 CDs as MP3- 642 mb.