J.G. Ballard, 1930-2009
Obituary by David Pringle
J.G. Ballard, who has died aged 78, once described himself as "a man of complete and serene ordinariness" (to the disbelief of his interviewer). In fact, he was one of the most strikingly original English writers of the past half-century. Esteemed for his wayward imagination, and for his ability to create a distinctively "Ballardian" world, his fiction moved through various phases while remaining always instantly recognizable. His first fame, in the early 1960s, was as a science-fiction writer, hailed by slightly older peers such as Kingsley Amis and Brian Aldiss; but within a decade or so his reputation had modulated into that of an avant-garde provocateur, admired by visual artists and punk rockers; another decade on and he re-emerged as a great novelist of the World War II experience, short-listed for the Booker Prize and winning his widest-ever public; yet another decade on and he seemed to redefine himself as a special kind of "crime writer" -- one with a peculiar, sinister vision of late-twentieth-century modernity which appealed particularly to the younger end of Britain's literary and arts scene. And yet the "serene ordinariness" that he claimed for himself was manifest in his personal life and modest circumstances: he lived in the same house, a small semi-detached in Shepperton, for nearly half a century; he rarely travelled in his later decades, and he almost never participated in literary festivals or jamborees.
Born in late 1930, Jimmy Ballard was the eldest child of British expatriates James and Edna Ballard, who had emigrated from Manchester to Shanghai, China, in 1929. His father rose to be managing director of a British-owned textile factory there, and the young Ballard grew up in the high middle-class, quasi-colonial style of a large house in Amherst Avenue, tended by Chinese servants and White Russian governesses. A younger sister, Margaret, was born in 1937, in the same year that a general war broke out in the Far East with the Japanese invasion of China. In the peculiar enclave of Shanghai's International Settlement, the Ballard family, like most other European expatriates, were able to carry on a "normal," prosperous existence, despite shells occasionally whizzing over their house in the western suburbs. This endured until December 1941 when, immediately after their surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, Japanese forces entered the Settlement at Shanghai and took over the lives of almost all the Europeans there. After a year of uncertainty, in early 1943 all Japan's "enemy civilians" were interned in camps which surrounded the city. The Ballards were confined to Lunghua Civilian Assembly Centre, a few miles south of Shanghai, where they remained until August 1945.
Jimmy Ballard grew from a naive twelve-year-old to a perhaps prematurely wise fourteen-year-old during his two-and-a-half years spent in the camp. He was never separated from his parents and sister, and the physical privations the family underwent were not especially severe; nevertheless, the contrast with their previous wealthy lifestyle was extreme, awakening in the young Ballard a lifelong sensitivity to dislocations, sudden reversals, paradoxes, and ironies. A few months after the liberation, in late 1945, he was "repatriated" to England, a country he had never seen, together with his mother and sister (his father did not finally return to the west until after the Communist takeover of China in 1949). From early in 1946 he was a boarder at the Leys School, Cambridge, where, when he entered the sixth form, he concentrated on scientific subjects; while there, he won an essay prize but did not contribute to the school magazine. From the Leys, in 1949, he moved just a few hundred yards up the road to yet another "camp," King's College, Cambridge, where he read medicine for two years but left without taking a degree. The experience of dissecting cadavers left its mark on his imagination, however.
His reason for dropping out was the desire to become a writer. In May 1951 he was co-winner, with a piece called "The Violent Noon," of a short-story competition held by Varsity, the student newspaper. (The other winner was D. S. Birley -- later to become Sir Derek Birley, eminent educationalist and author of some classic cricket books.) Ballard's father suggested that if he wanted to be a writer he should resume his higher education at the University of London, reading English. This he did, but again he dropped out, after just one year. As he strove to become a writer, submitting stories unsuccessfully to literary magazines, he earned a living by various short-term jobs: Covent Garden porter (in the flower market), advertising copywriter, door-to-door encyclopedia salesman. Then, in 1954, he became a trainee pilot in the Royal Air Force. He was exempt from National Service, so this was a voluntary decision, a Conradian moment. It was a romantic impulse which sustained him for just one year, largely spent at a frozen airfield in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan. The experience of flying (aircraft had been an obsession since boyhood) obviously fed his imagination, but perhaps the most significant aspect of his time in Canada was his discovery, in the servicemen's canteen, of American science-fiction magazines. Back home in 1955, awaiting discharge from the RAF, he wrote his first sf story, in emulation of US writer Jack Vance, "Passport to Eternity" (eventually published in 1962).
A few months after leaving the RAF, in 1955, Ballard married Mary Matthews, "a great-niece of Cecil Rhodes" (as he later told Penguin Books). Their first child, a son, was born the following year, soon to be followed by two daughters. The growing family moved from digs in Notting Hill to a flat in Chiswick to a house in Shepperton, where they had settled by 1960. Ballard worked as a branch librarian, and as a scriptwriter for a scientific film company. His new-found enthusiasm for science fiction -- particularly of the American, Galaxy-magazine school -- fed into his writing, and soon he was selling short stories to the British sf magazines, whose existence he had been unaware of until then. The first to appear was "Prima Belladonna" in Science Fantasy, December 1956. At the same time, he had a strong interest in the visual arts, especially Surrealism and the nascent Pop Art represented by the "This is Tomorrow" exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery, which he visited in 1956. The editor of New Worlds, Ted Carnell, who was to become Ballard's literary agent for the first ten years of his career, helped him obtain a new job, as assistant editor of The British Baker, from which he soon moved on to the assistant editorship of a weekly science journal, Chemistry and Industry.
For four or five years, Ballard was a short-story writer, a period which climaxed in 1960 with the appearance of his remarkable tale "The Voices of Time." Set amidst desert landscapes, in a moodily-depicted near-future world situated in a larger universe that was running down, it introduced its readers to what Amis was later to call "the inner reaches of Ballard-land." After more than twenty magazine short stories, his first four books arrived in a burst in 1962, the novels The Wind from Nowhere and The Drowned World, and the collections The Voices of Time and Billenium, all published as 50-cent paperback originals by Berkley Books of New York. When The Drowned World appeared as a hardcover in Britain early in 1963, it was very well received, as were the two follow-up story collections issued by Gollancz, especially The Terminal Beach (1964). On the strength of this, and as the stories continued to spill out, he became a full-time writer. Then tragedy struck. On a family holiday in Spain, in September 1964, Mary Ballard contracted an infection and swiftly died of galloping pneumonia. As Aldiss was later to say, "it unhinged Jimmy for some while." He wrote nothing for about six months, and he drank too much. Nevertheless, resisting suggestions that he farm them out, he cared for his three motherless children. "It was an extremely happy childhood," his daughter Fay later said. "Daddy sacrificed everything to bring us up. We had a lady who came in to change and wash the sheets every Friday, but apart from that he did everything, and he did it brilliantly. Our home was a nest -- a lovely, warm family nest."
Gradually emerging from that nest in 1965-1966, Ballard became a participant in the Swinging Sixties. His novels The Drought and The Crystal World appeared (both largely written before his wife's death); he became Prose Editor of the poetry magazine Ambit; and his friendship with the new, young editor of New Worlds, Michael Moorcock, led to Ladbroke Grove parties, occasional drugs, and new women friends. Ballard was encouraged to experiment in his writing, beginning a "non-linear" phase with his story "You and Me and the Continuum." He became something of a guru to a circle of younger sf writers, some of them visiting Americans such as Thomas M. Disch and Pamela Zoline. One of Moorcock's editorials was entitled "Ballard: The Voice." Stories appeared in Encounter, The Transatlantic Review, and various small magazines. But no new novel would appear for seven years. His next significant book was The Atrocity Exhibition (1970), a collection of the nine so-called "condensed novels" plus half a dozen brief prose satires (the latter included his most infamous title, "Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan").
His next novel, Crash (1973), was written in a state of what he later described as "willed madness." Enlarging on a theme first broached in the preceding book -- the psycho-sexual role of the automobile in all our lives -- it was to be his most extreme work, a Jean Genet-like rhapsody on all the conceivable erotic overtones of the car crash. (It was written at the time a motorway extension was being built past the end of his street in Shepperton.) A fortnight after he delivered the manuscript, in February 1972, Ballard experienced his own first car crash while coming home late one night from central London -- "a case of life imitating art," as he later said. Fortunately, he was not badly hurt (and no one else was involved), but he was banned from driving for a year, during which he was inspired by this event and its aftermath to write another car-crash novel, Concrete Island (1974). Crash itself received poor reviews in the British press, but it became a succes d'estime in France and elsewhere, and more than two decades later it formed the basis of a provocative film directed by David Cronenberg.
Life seemed to quieten down for Ballard from the mid-1970s. He saw his children through school and university. He did not re-marry, although he had a long-lasting relationship with Claire Churchill Walsh, whom he had first met in the late 1960s. His novels, High-Rise (1975), The Unlimited Dream Company (1979), and Hello America (1981), were well received, as were the short stories he had resumed writing. But none of this prepared his readers for the surprise that was to come in 1984. In that year he published his largest novel to date, Empire of the Sun. It became a UK bestseller, gained him a whole new readership, and won the Guardian fiction prize. Famously, it failed to win the Booker Prize, despite being the bookies' favourite (and the reviewers'). A heavily fictionalized version of his own childhood in Shanghai, it was hailed as a major "war novel," and it is likely to be the book upon which much of his reputation will rest. Ballard revisited North America for the first time since his RAF days in order to attend the Los Angeles premiere of the Steven Spielberg film version of the novel in December 1987.
A quasi-sequel followed, The Kindness of Women (1991), which was more of a sequence of short stories than a novel, based on his own life story from 1937 to 1987. Like Empire... it represented a fantastication of his autobiography, which it would be unwise to take too literally in all its details. But it was a powerful and moving book, which gained high praise from the UK critics. To promote its launch, and at the behest of the BBC, he undertook another of his rare travels, his first visit to Shanghai since childhood, where interviews with him were shot for a memorable TV "Bookmark" programme entitled "Shanghai Jim." Other late novels included The Day of Creation (1987), a psychological fantasy set in an imaginary Africa; Rushing to Paradise (1994), a not entirely successful satire-cum-horror story set in an equally imaginary South Seas; Cocaine Nights (1996), the first of his special brand of crime-and-detection stories, set in the south of Spain; and Super-Cannes (2000), a crime novel set in a huge business park on the French Riviera. The last was the best -- sly, witty, and extraordinarily inventive in its attack on eve-of-Millennium complacency.
His Complete Short Stories appeared as a 1200-page volume in 2001, and must rank as one of his greatest books: if he had never written a novel this would still make Ballard a major writer. But there were to be no more short stories after the mid-1990s, and his last two novels, Millennium People (2003) and Kingdom Come (2006), showed failing powers, for all their incidental felicities. Both were set in Britain, and represented an imaginative coming home -- despite being slightly off-key, even old-fashioned. Nevertheless, they are part of a hugely significant body of work, which has reflected the experience of much of the twentieth century in a myriad ways.
His last book, the short but intensely moving memoir Miracles of Life: Shanghai to Shepperton (2008) -- in which he revealed the news of his terminal illness to the world -- was received with acclaim.
James Graham Ballard, b. Shanghai, China, 15 November 1930; d. 19 April 2009.