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Sam Leith


The Inner Man: The Life of J G Ballard
By John Baxter (Weidenfeld & Nicolson 377pp 20)
Ballard: sage of Shepperton

Not long after J G Ballard's death, I was exchanging emails with Mike Moorcock, one of Ballard's oldest and best friends. The avuncular old gent at whose feet Will Self and Iain Sinclair sat, Mike warned, was a carefully managed fiction.

Well, John Baxter's book firmly sees off that avuncular old gent - and how. The Ballard who emerges from it is a drunk, a woman-beater, a liar, a humbug, a borderline plagiarist, a self-publicist, a bully, a philistine, a racist and a misogynist. Much of the work is expressly or implicitly dismissed as second rate, too: the productions of an adman rather than an artist.

The contours of the established legend - as promoted by said adman - are well known: the childhood in Japanese-occupied Shanghai; the death of his wife, Mary, while his children were young; the New Worlds years, with Ballard 'Merlin to Michael Moorcock's Arthur'; the 9am glasses of scotch; the prosecutions for obscenity; the automobile-related pervery; the titanic success of Empire of the Sun; the cussed late period as 'the Sage of Shepperton', at once tweedily suburban and thrillingly unheimlich.

But we learn here of other, bizarre and interesting things. There are his brief careers as porter for a florist, door-to-door encyclopedia salesman, scriptwriter for Jackanory and editor of British Baker. There's his admiration for Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (the record doesn't, alas, show what he made of Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, but I suspect he'd have enjoyed Tina Turner).

What's particularly hilarious is how uninterested, according to Baxter, Ballard was in reading books. He claimed Moby-Dick was his favourite book, but never finished it, and Wyndham Lewis his favourite author, though his knowledge of Lewis's work came entirely from BBC Radio's 1955 adaptation of The Human Age trilogy. 'It would have mortified the young novelists of the nineties who rated him their spiritual father', Baxter writes with a gleam of amusement, 'to discover he never read their books.'

Even though any number of infatuated pop bands wrote songs based on Ballard's work, he shunned music, and his appearance on Desert Island Discs, in this account, was somewhere between a spasm of self-love and a prank. He told guests on one occasion that he'd bought a single of The Who's 'Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere', but that 'I like it much better at 33rpm' - and forced them to listen to it at that speed. He said his favourite sound was machine guns.

Baxter has a bloodhound's tenacity, the prime requisite for one attempting to invigilate so determined and successful a self-mythologiser. Everything has been double-checked: from the question of whether the Andrews Sisters appeared in a particular film, to the fact Ballard didn't bother to look up - and got wrong - the birth and death dates of both his parents in his autobiography.

Great pillars of Ballard mythology - most of them erected by the man himself - come crashing down. Nelson Doubleday ordering the pulping of the US version of The Atrocity Exhibition? 'Even a glance through Who's Who would have shown it to be false': Nelson Sr had died twenty-one years previously, and Nelson Jr wasn't yet president of the company. The wife of 'a well-known TV psychiatrist' who on reading the manuscript of Crash declared its author 'beyond help'? An invention. The tyre blowout that caused Ballard's own car crash? Try JB's drunk-driving, for which he got a year's ban, and about which he kept very quiet.

Baxter is also a shrewd and unforgiving critic of Ballard's work. He's comfortable jumping sideways into the visual arts and music, and deft in teasing out influences and sources. Blake's Milton is identified as the model for The Unlimited Dream Company, and Hello America as a rip-off of - sorry, homage to - Bernard Wolfe's Limbo '90.

This feels a little like one of those biographies in which the author begins as a devotee and, in the course of writing, falls out of love with his subject: one senses that its more astringent criticisms are given topspin by a sense of disappointment, or even anger, at having been taken in. Baxter sneers that, had it been better done, Rushing to Paradise 'might have been a bestseller to rival the work of an infinitely less gifted Michael Crichton'; and that as a title for Super-Cannes '"More Cocaine Nights" would not have been inappropriate, since the book replicated both the plot and argument of the first'.

Sometimes, I think, disenchantment leads him to read Ballard too much against the grain. Baxter credits the 1970 exhibition Crashed Cars - in which a collection of smashed-up cars were shown in a gallery, through which a topless girl circulated with a microphone - with having 'transformed Ballard's career and his mythology'. 'What appeared to be a work of conceptual art was in part an inspired exercise in self-promotion,' Baxter writes, adding later: 'Though the real inspiration was pure fetishism, Jim offered an intellectual rationalisation.' I think it would be fair to Ballard, and in keeping with his declared project, to see these as false oppositions. It could be both.

Likewise, though the biographer rereading the author's oeuvre will no doubt find himself slapping his forehead in frustration (not another empty bloody swimming pool! not another dominatrix in a lab-coat!), repeating himself was exactly what Ballard set out to do. Ballard's admiration for The 120 Days of Sodom - 'a masterpiece, a black cathedral of a book, forcing us to realise that imagination transcends morality' - is surely in part because that book is so tedious and repetitive: the systematic working out of a great spreadsheet of depravity. Ballard, too, was building a black cathedral.

Ballard loved visual art by Delvaux, Dali and De Chirico, whose affectless abstract landscapes are given literary analogues in his work. (They had to be: Ballard occasionally said he'd like to have been an artist, but he was hopeless at drawing, sculpture, painting and photography.) He 'wrote in pictures', it was said - and approaching Ballard's work from that angle, as Baxter perceives, makes a lot of sense. That doesn't just apply in terms of Ballard's early typographical experimentalism, but in his use of archetypes (all those women called Xerox), the exteriority of his treatment of character, the moral blankness of his work and his contempt (or inaptitude) for conventional narrative.

A most cogent criticism of Ballard's talent that Baxter quotes is that of Robert Towers: 'I see him as primarily the creator of powerful, feverishly detailed situations, situations that give rise not so much to stories as to the nightmarish expansion of images'. Baxter adds tartly: 'This is not the timber of which the well-constructed novel is made.' He even goes so far as to suggest that Ballard's hostility to naturalist fiction might have been

an aspect of his psychopathology, since it echoes the hostility of someone trying to hide a physical or psychological dysfunction - epilepsy, dyslexia, illiteracy. Perhaps he didn't have the patience to stick with a narrative and a collection of characters long enough to complete a conventional novel.

That seems to me to under-read Ballard. And taking at face value Ballard's self-description as a 'psychopath', which Baxter does repeatedly, seems jejune. The deep strangeness of his work - a strangeness that continues to resonate even though its origins in surrealism and Freudianism are so dated as to seem positively quaint - may well have been down to his fractured psyche; but he went to work on that psyche with a set of unique literary tools. He wasn't just obsessed by his themes: he actively and deliberately obsessed on them.

This is a fascinating and, in some ways, an accomplished biography - but it is a very partial one in both senses of the word. It is marred by its hostility, and having had input from neither Ballard's partner Claire Walsh nor his children, has huge gaps in it. Moorcock - ostensibly Baxter's source for the allegation that Ballard beat Walsh - has since repudiated the claim in print.

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Sam Leith's You Talkin' to Me? Rhetoric from Aristotle to Obama is published this month.