In a January 2008 Times of London article about the fifty greatest British writers since World War II, J.G. Ballard was twenty-seventh, in a list that begins with Philip Larkin and George Orwell, and doesn’t even get as far as such eminent figures as Margaret Drabble, Michael Holroyd, or Victoria Glendinning. Yet his work isn’t well known in America, and many of his books, including his new memoir, have not so far been published here, maybe because of a limited audience for science fiction, social satire, and the avant-garde, three categories that claim this protean figure. The review quotes on the back cover of his novel Cocaine Nights (1996) refer to him variously as a mystery writer; “one of the few genuine surrealists this country has produced”; a detective-novelist; and “Britain’s number one living novelist.”
The fortieth anniversary of May 1968 finds us looking back with a certain wondering nostalgia at the political energy, and also the vigorous avant-garde art, of the Sixties—William S. Burroughs, the influence of Alain Robbe-Grillet on fiction and film, the arty movies of Andy Warhol, Susan Sontag’s essays, and Ballard’s early work—a rich and exciting time. Though strangely few of these figures are still alive, Ballard very much is, and has written an autobiography, Miracles of Life , the title of which we can take in part to mean that, given what he’s been through, it’s a miracle he’s alive.
Ballard is in any genre a fascinating writer with a fascinating life. It’s possible to divide contemporary writers into those to whom something has happened and those who have to wing it with the stuff of everyday (and often privileged) lives—the universal experiences that most fiction is made of, from the defining events to the small, from the death of parents to the fear of the first day at school, divorce, the perils of ethnicity, and so on. Most American writers come into this category.
But the British have a rich pool of colonial adventurers. Ballard will be best known to many readers from Empire of the Sun (1984), the first of two more or less autobiographical novels, and the film of it by Steven Spielberg (1987), which depict his childhood in Shanghai as a sheltered boy being chauffeured through the streets amid pitiful scenes of starving, dying Chinese:
Begging boys ran after our car and tapped the windows, crying “No mama, no papa, no whiskey soda….” Had they picked up the cry thrown back at them ironically by Europeans who didn’t care?
Like an intelligent, idealistic child brought up in a bordello who sees things from an early age that no one should have to see, he is permanently unsurprised.
When the war reached Shanghai in March 1943, Ballard was twelve. Europeans were interned by the Japanese, and he spent nearly three years in a prison camp. Whereas the lives of most writers are lacking in all but routine domestic drama …