May 2008

Arts & Letters

‘Miracles of Life’ by JG Ballard

By Chris Womersley

In the same way that Gabriel Garcia Marquez downplays elements of the fantastic in his work, JG Ballard's autobiography demonstrates how the 77-year-old's surreal fiction has consisted of the writer unpacking memories of his Shanghai boyhood in the years before, during and after World War II. This opening section of the book - familiar to readers of Empire of the Sun - is packed with arresting images: abandoned pools and submarines; the fatal beating of a Chinese man by Japanese soldiers; the media-saturated landscape of "the wickedest city in the world". The memoir loses its way slightly when Ballard, after a period stationed in Canada with the RAF, relocates to England for the second time, in 1960. Without the backdrop of the war, its violence and privations, the narrative slows and we are left with an ordinary man leading a suburban life.

Ballard has taken the pulse of the twentieth century as well as anyone - not surprisingly, since his obsessions with the consumption of technology, sex and violence mirror those of the age - and his talent for juxtaposing eerie landscapes and extreme pathologies is on display here, along with what is perhaps his weakness, namely an inability to convincingly portray people's inner lives. In oddly textureless prose he tells of courting his wife, Mary; of her sudden death, at age 33; and of his subsequent life as a father of three and writer of subversive fiction.

Where this book - likely, Ballard says, to be his last - is strongest is in outlining the attractions of science fiction ("where the future survives") and his first attempts at the genre. He derides modernists as self-obsessed and disconnected from the real world ("No one in Sartre or Thomas Mann ever paid for a haircut"), and takes a swipe at government-funded arts, the literary establishment and the occasional literary editor. He relates his encounters with the works of Sigmund Freud and the surrealists, as well as his admiration for Francis Bacon, whose painting provided the aesthetic linchpin for his own suspicions of the times. What emerges in Miracles of Life is a man not given to self-analysis but fascinated by the contemporary world and the ways in which an artist might engage with it.

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