Miracles of Life: foreword to the Greek edition

Simon Sellars J.G. Ballard

Ballardian: Miracles of Life

This is the foreword to the Greek edition of Ballard’s Miracles of Life, published by Oxy, November 2009.

In 2006 I interviewed Jim Ballard. I was nervous at the thought of matching wits with this towering figure but my anxiety was quickly banished, for he was a charming and generous conversationalist. Although taxed from the recent discovery of the cancer that would claim him, he applied his blowtorch intelligence to everything from CSI and the ‘soft fascism’ of consumer culture to the surreality of having an English queen as an Australian head of state, weaving such cultural flashpoints in among the warps and wefts of a philosophy that has sustained his writing across 19 novels and around 100 short stories. Performing a similar function, but in reverse, his wonderful memoir contextualises some of the darkest and strangest corners of his fiction – as elements hotwired into his life.

It was never easy, perhaps not even possible for Ballard to separate his life from his work. Nominally English, he was born in Shanghai and lived in the expatriate community there before being interned in 1943 with his family in Lunghua, a Japanese war camp. He didn’t see England until he was 16. Accordingly, the Shanghai years, and the squalor and horror of Lunghua, take up almost half of Miracles, an index to its deep psychological fissures. Marguerite Duras once said she only truly recognised herself in her novels, not the biographies written about her. Perhaps Ballard felt the same. Like Duras, who also wrote iterative, fictionalised accounts of her expatriate upbringing in Saigon, he has practised a form of time travel throughout his career, most famously in the 1984 novel Empire of the Sun, reinhabiting his Lunghua memories in numerous stories, blurring the edges in each incarnation, incrementally shifting the background scenery, erasing forever the demarcation between fiction and reality. The summoning of memory is a key theme in Miracles. But it is memory that becomes hopelessly, irrevocably contaminated with the writer’s imaginative life. The sudden death of his wife, Mary, in 1964 takes up barely a page, but Ballard’s dream of her returning to his world to say goodbye takes up considerably more, as does a discussion of his experimental novel The Atrocity Exhibition, which Ballard has said was in part his attempt to sublimate the hurt and anger he felt at losing Mary so unexpectedly. Motifs from Ballard’s fiction bleed into the autobiographical frame, reversing the process set in train by Empire. When he writes that he was drawn to science fiction because it examined the trend towards ‘politics conducted as a branch of advertising’, we recognise the echoes from Crash, where the phrase was first used in the original introduction to that work.

Significantly, when he describes his holidays with his girlfriend Claire and his children, he says they took very few photographs for ‘memory is the greatest gallery in the world, and I can play an endless archive of images of the happy time’. Looking back at the creative process that led to Empire, he suggests, ‘I was frisking myself of memories that popped out of every pocket. By the time I finished, Shanghai had advanced out of its own mirage and become a real city again’. Bizarrely, when Empire becomes a Spielberg film and production begins at the studios near his home in Shepperton, Ballard describes how his neighbours are recruited as extras in the film, portraying his fellow Lunghua inmates. Christian Bale, playing the young Jim, comes up to him to announce, ‘Hello, Mr Ballard, I’m you’. At every turn, Lunghua erupts from the subconscious well. The sense is of a man simultaneously cursed and blessed with the task of processing a remarkable upbringing – blessed, because to Ballard Lunghua was his ‘happy childhood’, an experience that, although shocking, fed the first stirrings of his startling imagination.

Perhaps surprisingly for an autobiography, there’s very little ego on display and not much gossip, save for a scurrilous tale about Kingsley Amis, which sounds like it’s common coin anyway. But there is extraordinary detail. Interspersed throughout are lingering snapshots that impart a sense of a man enamoured of his three children (the ‘miracles of life’ that give the book its title), of his wife Mary and, later, Claire … and of cats. Ballard’s eye is as scalpel-sharp as ever, and his remembrances of domestic bliss, ‘days of wonder’ with the kids – like the vivid scene where he takes them scavenging among abandoned film sets – resonate with as much intensity as the immorality of the early Shanghai street scenes, or the bleak humour inhabiting his medical-student days when he would dissect corpses and keep skeletons under his bed.

Finally, Miracles of Life is another version of his past, as gloriously open-minded as all his fiction. It is brief, modest, honest – and poignant, with Ballard confronting his cancer in the final chapter. But shortly before this terminal appointment, Ballard realises ‘the true nature of my assignment. I was looking for my younger self’. Perhaps he is like the man in Chris Marker’s La Jetée, a film that he openly admired, about the mutability of memory. In La Jetée, the man, via the peculiarities of time travel, realises that as a boy he had witnessed his own death. In Miracles, via the peculiarities of auto(bio)graphy, Ballard time travels with the ongoing revelation that as a boy, Lunghua was the map of his future. Miracles, then, reunites his younger self with the older man, allowing Ballard to again see through young Jim’s eyes, viewing his own impending death with detached, yet remarkably clear vision.

Simon Sellars, June 2009.