Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

A Writer's Twists and Turns, on Paper and in Life

Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

A Writer's Twists and Turns, on Paper and in Life

Article excerpt

"Miracles of Life" details the novelist J.G. Ballard's real life and how it influenced his work.

Miracles of Life. Shanghai to Shepperton: An Autobiography. By J.G. Ballard. Illustrated. 250 pages. Liveright, $25.95; Harper Perennial, paperback, Pounds 7.99.

J.G. Ballard's extraordinary novel "Crash" (1973) is about a form of symphorophilia: car crash sexual fetishism. In The New York Times Book Review, D. Keith Mano didn't just review it; he reacted as if someone had thrown a severed head into his lap. "Punched-out eyeballs. Blood. Vomit. Fecal matter. Decapitation. Sperm. Bifurcated, mashed genitals," Mr. Mano wrote, summing up "Crash" and its contents. "Yet no one screams out in pain. Injuries carry the reflective sweetness of a post-coital cigarette."

Mr. Mano called the novel "the most repulsive book I've yet to come across." He couldn't help adding, "'Crash' is well written; credit given where due."

It took the world time to catch up with Ballard (1930-2009). His name has been fashioned into a useful adjective. To call something Ballardian is to suggest dystopian landscapes pockmarked by the recurring images in his novels: empty swimming pools, abandoned hotels, deserted runways. Martin Amis called him "the most original English writer of the last century."

Ballard's memoir, "Miracles of Life," was written in his final years, when he knew he was dying from advanced prostate cancer. It's warmer, plainer and more elegiac than his admirers may have foreseen. The title is a reference to his three children, whom he raised as a single father after the death of his wife. But his weird old fire remains lighted. "I admired anyone," he remarks about himself as a child, "who could unsettle people."

The son of a successful British businessman, Ballard was born and raised in Shanghai. The formative experience of his youth -- evoked in his novel "Empire of the Sun" (1984) and in Steven Spielberg's movie -- was his family's two-year internment in a Japanese prison camp during World War II. He was strangely happy there. The place offered, he writes, "unlimited scope to the imagination of a teenage boy."

What's largely new, and savage, in this memoir is the level of disillusionment Ballard came to feel during the war, about both England and his own distant parents. "The dream of empire died when Shanghai surrendered without a fight," he writes. "Even at the age of 11 or 12 I knew that no amount of patriotic newsreels would put the Union Jack jigsaw together again. From then on I was slightly suspicious of all British adults."

The cozy England he loved, he discovers, "was a complete fantasy." He takes aim at the country's class system, calling it "an instrument of political control." He refers to Cambridge, where he studied medicine, as a "nostalgic pageant" that was "made possible by the fleets of American bombers waiting in the quiet fields around the city."

I'm not sure I've read a more comprehensive takedown of the postwar British psyche than Ballard's observation that the country's social codes -- "show respect to one's elders, never be too keen, take it on the chin," etc. …

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