Strange Fiction, Stranger Reality
Miracles of Life: Shanghai to Shepperton
By J G Ballard (Fourth Estate 278pp £14.99)
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In the week before he left his public school to go up to Cambridge for his medical degree, J G Ballard reports:
My last act ... took place in the basement kitchen in North B house, when I skinned and then boiled a rabbit. I was determined to expose the skeleton, wire it together and use it as a combined mascot and table ornament. I filled the entire building with steam and a disagreeably potent stench. The housemaster came down to stop me, but backed off when he saw that I was on an intense mission of my own. Why the rabbit skeleton was so important I can't remember.
There, compressed, is a quintessential chunk of Ballard. In tone, it is delivered as you might a cheerful reminiscence on the Parkinson show. There's a dance of humour about it, too: you probably can't really fill an entire building with steam by boiling a rabbit, and you'd expect the smell to be more or less agreeable, but the mad-scientist hyperbole is tickling. Then there's the conjunction of the macabre and the tweely suburban: he wants this horrible thing for a 'combined mascot and table ornament'. And, finally, the wondering payoff: what was he up to? The memory is strong - and his determination such that the master backed off - but his motivation is opaque.
Ballard's writing - and its circling preoccupations with consumerism, the psychopathology of everyday life and a slightly burlesqued form of Hay Fever, tennis-club Englishness - came at first as science fiction, in which he found a freedom unavailable in the standard literary modes of the time. But a hint dropped in Miracles of Life suggests that it belongs equally to the world of the English detective story. He talks constantly of 'mysteries' that need investigating - foremost among them, he says, the mystery of his own mind.
The thing that has always been so compelling about Ballard's fiction is that its strangeness seems entirely unforced. Ballard's work has shocked and disturbed publishers and readers, but it doesn't seem to set out to shock and disturb - it sets out, in a straightforward and even amused way, to report. And his narrative voices - often blandly chipper - don't seem to be nearly as disconcerted by what they come upon as the reader. There's nothing voulu. Ballard writes, at root, in earnest.
This is Ballard's first foray into straight autobiography. Empire of the Sun and The Kindness of Women were both novels, and though the protagonist of Crash shares the author's name, the idea that it's a memoir doesn't even bear thinking about.
Miracles of Life is as unobtrusively well written as you'd expect, and quite fascinating. So much of the imagery that the fiction returns to - its empty bombers on deserted airfields; its drained swimming pools; its psychopathic recycling of atrocity as entertainment - turns out not to be the product of a strange imagination, but of a strange reality.
Growing up in Shanghai, and later being interned by the Japanese during the war, the fantastic, which for most people lies inside their heads, lay all around me, and I think now that my main effort as a boy was to find the real in all this make-believe ... as a writer I've treated England as if it were a strange fiction, and my task has been to elicit the truth, just as my childhood self did when faced with honour guards of hunchbacks and temples without doors.
The 'strange fiction' of England was of course all the more pronounced in its colonial outposts - and all the more bizarre in juxtaposition with what was around:
Sunday afternoon trips we took with our parents and their friends to the recent battlegrounds to the south and west of Shanghai. Convoys of chauffeur-driven Chryslers and Buicks would move through the stricken land, wives in their silky best ... Dead horses lay by the roadside, enormous ribcages open to the sky. And in the canals were dead Chinese soldiers, legs stirring as the current flowed through the reeds ... Then the convoy would roll on, carrying everyone back to the safety of the International Settlement and large gins at the country club.
If Ballard sometimes reads like Mapp and Lucia on a day-trip to Belsen - reader, there is a good reason.
Ballard's childhood in China takes up around half the length of this book. That is where his imagination is rooted, and so powerfully that as he skates through his adult life the book very slightly loses colour. In fact, the first sections still feel, electrically, as if they were written in the present tense; his adult life, conversely, reads almost as if it were the nostalgic recollection of a more distant past.
Two of his great praise-words, applied with ingenuous enthusiasm, are 'cheerful' and 'easy-going'. Ballard finds these qualities, and values them, even and in fact especially, in circumstances where you would not expect them. They are abundantly present in him. The man sporadically denounced in the pages of the Daily Mail as a menace to society is in fact an exemplary family man with an enormous capacity for affection.
He brought up his three children - they are the 'miracles of life' of the title - single-handedly after the sudden death of his wife in the early 1960s, and positively trills at the mention of them. He pays open-handed tribute to friends, and writes gratefully of his long relationship with his partner Claire Walsh. You get the strong impression that he is happy.
In an endnote, he delivers the rabbit-punch: he has advanced prostate cancer. Ballard is dying. His note seems to suggest that this will be his last book. He can be proud of it.
Sam Leith is literary editor of the Daily Telegraph.