Saturday, 1 January 2011

Miracles of life

I have just read J. G. Ballard’s autobiography Miracles of life — published shortly before his death in 2009 — in a matter of hours. Ballard’s extraordinary life unfolds before your eyes as he weaves together intimate details of his private world in the London suburb of Shepperton with dramatic incidents from his childhood in Japanese occupied Shanghai. Despite witnessing terrible cruelties and also experiencing domestic tragedy — his wife died in 1963 leaving him to bring up his three children alone — he gathers inspiration from the power of science, medicine and the human imagination. Ballard is a late-modern Orwell conveying his thoughts and observations with clarity and precision. Vivid motifs emerge such as the drained swimming pool, a “mysterious empty presence”, which he first encountered in Shanghai but which becomes a marker of a certain kind of social and architectural dislocation. Ballard develops a powerful attachment to American post-war optimism and technological exuberance which he contrasts with a dilapidated, shabby and class-divided Britain. Arriving back in Southampton in 1946 he is shocked to find a broken country quite unlike the steady stream of patriotic bluster he encountered among the ex-pat communities of Shanghai. “Even allowing for a long and exhausting war,” writes Ballard, “England seemed derelict, dark and half-ruined”. During the1950s Ballard discovered another England, more intellectually vibrant and internationalist in its outlook, and describes the exhibition This is Tomorrow held at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in 1956, as “the most important event in the visual arts in Britain until the opening of the Tate Modern”. Ballard reveals a longstanding fascination with psychoanalysis, surrealism and what he sees as the innate irrationality of human beings, that challenged conventional parameters of modernist art and literature. “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”. Ballard drew inspiration from everything around him and revelled in the proximity of his suburban home to the strange landscapes of Shepperton Studios where abandoned props were left in open fields: “figureheads of sailing ships, giant chess-pieces, half an American car, stairways that led up to the sky and amazed my three infants. And their father: days of wonder that I wish had lasted for ever”. The complex and evocative world of Ballard has sometimes been dismissed as a fatalistic science fiction oeuvre of dystopian decline but these types of critiques advanced by Fredric Jameson and others miss both the historical context for his work and also the centrality of science and technology to his “cinematic” style of writing. In some ways Ballard forms part of an English literary triumvirate with his younger colleagues Will Self and Iain Sinclair: all three writers combine close observations with flights of imagination to produce radically unsettling accounts of the everyday. Above all, Ballard conveys the wonder and fragility of life; rather than wallow in the past or escape to the future he forces us to see the “now”.

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