Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Miracles of Life by J.G. Ballard

Ballard has written stories inspired by his own life before -- it's an open question whether he's ever done anything else, actually -- but he's never before written that story straight out as autobiography.

Miracles of Life is an old-fashioned autobio, written quickly in 2007 after Ballard was diagnosed with prostate cancer and covering Ballard's life from birth to the time of writing. It was published in the UK in early 2008, and hasn't seen a US release so far -- sadly, since a year has already passed, it probably won't see a US edition. This is also definitively Ballard's last book; a further project, Conversations with My Physician, was cancelled quietly after his death since it had barely been started. So this is all we have to sum up Ballard's "real" life -- though, of course, we have the books from The Wind From Nowhere through Kingdom Come, which are what he will be remembered for.

As usual with biographies (and particularly autobiographies), Ballard's childhood provides the bulk of the book, and most of the interest. Miracles is divided into two parts: the first third covers his childhood through the end of WWII -- his Shanghai years, the ones that gave him the material he reworked so thoroughly and compellingly for decades, and that gave him the detachment and cold eye to make best use of that material -- and the rest of the book covers his adult life, in diminishing detail as he gets older and more settled and successful. That's a common pattern for biographies of all kinds; early struggle is always more interesting than the fat years.

Ballard's early childhood was one of privilege, but of course he didn't know that at the time: it was just his life, and the servants and parties of the Shanghai expatriate community were all he knew. WW II began when Ballard was nine -- old enough to notice -- and it marked the beginning of his fall from grace. All children have that fall, of course -- they will all inevitably learn about the real world -- but Ballard both had a higher position to begin with and a steeper drop. As he writes on p.16, "By the time I was 14 I had become as fatalistic about death, poverty and hunger as the Chinese. I knew that kindness alone would feed few mouths and save no lives." And that attitude -- detached, clinical, interested in the foibles of mankind without being charmed by them -- characterized his writing ever afterward.

Ballard, with his family and most of the Europeans, were interned at Lunghua for the end of the war, with increasing privations and dangers as Japanese supply lines became strained and their captors became hungrier and less willing to worry about foreign prisoners. And that was only the beginning -- after the war, Ballard found himself in an England he had never seen before, essentially alone in a cold, alien country devastated and impoverished by the war and hardened against others' suffering even more than the ex-internee was. Ballard grew to manhood in that England, the bleak postwar land that had just lost its empire and hadn't yet decided that anything else was worthwhile, and studied there, for a while, to be a doctor -- a psychiatrist, to be precise. But he realized that wouldn't suit his literary ambitions -- even then, he wanted to write stories for a living -- and so he first turned to editing and then enlisted in the RAF.

It was on that RAF tour -- sent to an even colder, bleaker land, on an airbase far off in the wilds of northern Canada -- that Ballard discovered American SF:
These [magazines like Galaxy and Fantasy & Science Fiction] I seized on and began to devour. Here was a form of fiction that was actually about the present day, and often as elliptical and ambiguous as Kafka. It recognized a world dominated by consumer advertising, of democratic government mutating into public relations. This was a world of cars, offices, highways, airlines and supermarkets that we actually lived in, but which was completely missing from almost all serious fiction. No one in a novel by Virginia Woolf ever filled up the petrol tank of her car. No one in Sartre or Thomas Mann ever paid for a haircut. No one in Hemingway's post-war novels ever worried about the effects of prolonged exposure to the threat of nuclear war. The very notion was ludicrous, as absurd then as it seems now,. Writers of so-called serious fiction shared one dominant characteristic -- their fiction was first and foremost about themselves. (p.166)
Even from this point, his career and life weren't on an easy upward slope. Ballard fit well at first in the SF genre, but he was pushing at its edges as soon as he determined where they were. Closer to home, his wife died of a sudden illness during a 1964 family vacation in Spain, leaving Ballard the single father of three young children at just the time when his successful writing career allowed him to be at home and care for them. And that was the last element of the essential Ballardian world-view cemented into place: that the world is, and always will be, cold and unfeeling and cruel, with bitter ironies around every corner. Ballard's characters sometimes battle against that coldness, and more often accommodate themselves to it, but it is always there.

Like so many biographies, Miracles of Life is most gripping and moving in the early chapters; as Ballard gets older, he gives less and less space to more and more years, collapsing decades into a few chapters and skipping lightly over his personal and interior life. But that's really the point of the autobiography -- we've already read the works, so we want to know what made the man who wrote them. We care mostly about the childhood, and read the rest of the book out of the same sense of duty that led the author to write it -- one always wants to be complete. Miracles of Life will never be one of Ballard's most important books, but it's a fine Ballardian story, full of drained swimming pools, combat airplanes, and cutting prose, and gives us the man behind the stories, telling us, as best he could, how he came to be the man who could write them. If there had to be a last book from Ballard, this is a perfect one.

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