An interview by John Clute to mark the publication of the "War Fever" collection of stories; from the Sunday Times, 11 November 1990.
Pictures from an atrocity exhibition
In the week of his 60th birthday and publication of a new story collection, J G Ballard talks to John Clute about the worlds he inhabits.
To reach J G Ballard at home, one must travel through time. The road to Shepperton, a 1920s suburb slung into a long, slow curve of the Thames somewhere south of Heathrow, carries the visitor from the chilly modernity of Hammersmith, miles westwards to the chapped subtopian claddings of Sunbury, then south into the past. Ballard himself lives in an almost supernaturally quiet suburban street which tails into a verdant cul-de-sac just out of reach of the M3. It is here that he is celebrating his 60th birthday with the publication of "War Fever", his tenth collection of short stories.
"Shepperton is more or less my age. This, house is, I think, almost exactly my own age; we've been together 30 years exactly, and the sense of actually living in a locale that is one's own age has a certain stabilising effect. In truth, though, 60 looks a lot more intimidating than 50 did. Very different from 40, no question about that. I think everybody's got an image of himself that's about 10 years out of date. Every now and then, in a particularly cruel department-store window, you catch a sight of this shambling, rather shifty-looking figure, and you know if you were a security guard you'd be stepping directly towards him.
"When I reached 40, I was I expecting a sound barrier. My father had died a couple of years beforehand, and I had always accepted Freud's dictum that the death of a man's father was a liberation of repression. I thought then, well, here goes. But in fact I went straight through it without even noticing it - partly because I was bringing up two kids [Ballard's wife had died in 1964]. Also there was no physical fall-off. But there's something odd about 60."
It is not something apparent to the eye. Sitting at his ease in a working room in the semi-detached in Shepperton, he is outwardly genial, even bonhomous (although it would be an unwise person who thought the expression on his face was that of a gullible or unwary man). Indeed, he looks very much as he looked in 1970, preparing his notorious exhibition of Crashed Cars for the Arts Lab in Roberts Street, or speaking about "The Atrocity Exhibition", the collection of "condensed novels" which mourned the deaths of the Kennedys and in which his prescient obsession with Ronald Reagan first took formal shape.
The best of the early novels -- "The Drowned World" (1962), "The Drought" (1965) and "The Crystal World" (1966) -- are apocalyptic fables of a blinding ferocity. Through the eyes of characters who cannot express the exaltation they feel on witnessing the transformation of the world, we see the planet drown or burn or transform itself into a dance of broken glass. Always, a terrible beauty is born, transcendent, mute.
These early works differ radically from "Empire of the Sun" (1984), the novel about his early experiences as an internee in wartime China that made Ballard a world-famous figure. The young Jim of this novel lives in a world which externally resembles that of his early novels, but it is a world in which Jim learns how to survive, how to wear a public face, how to cope with the unfinished business of his shattered boyhood.
"To some extent, all the earlier books were disguised versions of the main theme that ran through 'Empire of the Sun', something that I've noticed even more clearly in the book that I've almost finished, a sequel which takes Jim into adult life. When I finished 'The Drowned, World', effectively my first novel, it never occurred to me that the landscape that I was describing -- that great sheet of water covering this city of London, with apartment houses showing through the watery surface -- that that landscape was the distant Shanghai I used to see every morning from the camp, the apartment blocks of the French Concession reflecting the great sheets of flooded paddy fields.
"I think that, when I left Shanghai in 1946, there was a large amount of unfinished business inside my head. Looking back, I realise that, even at the time, I was aware that everyday reality was a stage set whose entire cast and scenery could be moved at a moment's notice. And then suddenly we were 'free', in six sets of inverted commas. When I began to write, I was trying to end that scenario, trying to draw some moral from it all.
"I think part of the reason I waited so long to write 'Empire of the Sun' was because my kids were so young. While they were young, it was difficult to set aside that protective embrace that shielded them, and to some extent my younger self, from the world. A man whose wife has just died in childbirth is not going to sit down and write a novel about a young mother who has just died in a car crash. Once my children had grown up, I was free to look at my own childhood and probably by the same token stand back and look at the world with a more ironic and cooler eye."
Most of the stories in "War Fever" come from the last 10 years, and they too reflect that cooler and more ironic eye. More directly than ever before, they address the world, sometimes hilariously. The Ronald Reagan whom Ballard created 20 years ago was an icon, a premonition of something dire and strange to come; but the ancient duffer who features in "The Secret History of World War 3" is a figure we all know, and the premise of the tale, that a very brief third world war might be contrived to stabilise a disintegrating world, has a rough satirical bite new to the author of "The Assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy Considered as a Downhill Motor Race".
The title story suggests that Beirut might be used as a literal theatre of war to serve as a safety valve for the rest of us; "Love in a Colder Climate" and "The Largest Theme Park in the World" are similar daylight assaults on a visible public world as near as the next paper.
"If these stories are written in anticipation of today's headlines, at least they may have the merit of being about the world we live in. It's a curious thing that some of my earlier work predicted global warming and desertification and pollution; whether we'll see the psychological effects that I also predicted, we'll have to wait to find out if people will embrace the catastrophes for their own psychological needs. But given we're entering the millennial dream, it may well be the case: embracing the end of the world might extend to an embracing of global warming, coastal flooding, pollution...
"The stories of 'War Fever' are imaginative fiction, yes, but they confront these topics without any kind of genre baggage, as far as I can see. I don't like to use these terms, but in fact they are realist fiction, in a Zola-esque sense of addressing the realities of the day in a completely frank manner. There is no allegorical machinery in 'War Fever'."
Ballard speaks in a voice whose soothing cadences tend to coat the strictness of his message. He speaks of the psychic and technological outmodedness of the American space programme as anatomised in "The Man Who Walked on the Moon" and "Memoirs of the Space Age"; he speaks of the Challenger disaster as "the blowing of a gasket, the sort of thing that might have destroyed some Pacific locomotive 100 years ago". The programme was fatally archaic, he says. "It is a curious black hole in the continuum of the popular imagination. They'd have had more spin-off if they'd built spaceships out of bamboo and rice-paper, decorated with poems, and they might have got to the Moon sooner that way."
Even the fine, public tales that make up the bulk of "War Fever" show a mind which sees archetypal patterns beneath the surface, stigmata of real though hidden worlds. In the two main rooms in Shepperton stand two large surrealist paintings, remote and transcending visions. "They're copies I commissioned of two paintings by Paul Delvaux which were destroyed in the Blitz. I thought it would be rather nice, five years ago, to bring them back to life. A similar sort of principle is at work in a lot of my fiction. It's the whole principle of biographical fiction, isn't it? Reconstructing a lost original?"
He says goodbye. The visitor drives back downwards to the present.
"War Fever" by J G Ballard has just been published by Collins.