J G Ballard 1930 – 2009

Reading & Writing

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One of the most influential and brilliant writers of the 20th century has died. In his final book, ‘Miracles Of Life’, Jim Ballard spoke with the calm grace of acceptance about his illness, and remained, in that late volume, as quietly subversive and shockingly honest as he had been throughout his life.

Despite producing a steady stream of SF books (which were not, arguably, SF books at all but future roadmaps), he gained mainstream attention with his most SF book of all. In many ways ‘Empire Of the Sun’ felt like a greatest hits package of his work to date, but it was the one made into a film by Steven Spielberg, who did wonderful job of transposing his complex work to the screen.
He was a great hero of mine. We wrote to each other a few times, and he always took the time to answer all of my dumb questions. When David Cronenberg made ‘Crash’, his producer Jeremy Thomas invited me over to meet Jim, and I found myself faced with a problem.
I hated the film and felt it betrayed the book by turning the protagonists into freaks, something Ballard was careful not to do. The subversive trick of ‘Crash’ was to make this grotesque world appear desirable by mimicking the prose of car ads, something Cronenberg avoided.
So I did not go over and meet him, because I would have had to lie about what I had just seen, or say that I hated it – something I elt it would be wrong to do on the occasion of a genius writer’s first screen adaptation.
Part of me is also loathe to meet my heroes, but I know he would have been as charming as he was in his correspondence. I wish I had taken the opportunity now.

Futureproofed

I hate the idea of a world where Jim Ballard doesn’t exist. We are now living inside the dystopia he predicted – sometimes I think he was less of a novelist than a clairvoyant. He dies knowing that the circle of his ideas has been completed, and that most of his most shocking observations are now casually taken for granted.
It seemed impossible in his many interviews for Ballard to open his mouth without saying something that upon analysis was deeply unsettling. His ideas about violence, consumer fetishism, dreams and reality have futureproofed his books for many years to come.

The Colours Of Light

Ballard’s ideas have been rightly celebrated but I particularly love the cadence of his sentences, and his extraordinary use of colour, light and landscape. I tried to imitate his prose in my early days and failed embarrassingly, because his unique expression came from somewhere deep inside and was not simply chosen as a style.
Shifting sands, rising waters, blazing sun, the refraction of light through crystal – there is something highly exotic and foreign in his writing which cuts like a razor through the most prosaic situations. Who else could set not one but several books around the Westway road in West London, a place so mundane as to be invisible to its users?

This point may not be obvious, but Ballard could be very funny, in that dry English way that does not feel like humour at all. For most overt proof, read ‘The Unlimited Dream Company’. Many of his stories have a streak of gently cruel wit running through them that exposes man’s foibles and preoccupations.

‘Ballardian’

He was often misunderstood by critics, who complained that his characters were ciphers – but I would argue that they were only so when he wanted them to be. The problem was perhaps that he understood the English nature all too well, and our critics don’t always like to be so exposed to the world.
He also gave the dictionary a word – ‘Ballardian’, meaning a dystopian modernist urban environment. The real miracle is that for all his talk of disconnection and alienation he wrote wih more human warmth than almost anyone I can think of, because he understood what it means to be human, and to accept that state with a kind of calm detachment.
Goodbye, Jim, and thank you for a lifetime of inspiration, beauty and insight.

4 comments on “J G Ballard 1930 – 2009”

  1. Stephen Groves says:

    Hi Chris
    I think he would have liked to have met you,and he would have proberly agreed with your opinion of the treatment of his work ,and even if he hadn’t it would have been an experiance just to disagree with the great man and hear his take on the adaptation.I did see the film Crash and I felt it lost the plot in it’s depiction of the characters in the story.A great shame as it could have been a much better film.

    Regards
    Steve

  2. Kevin Wilson says:

    A constant presence on my bookshelves for the last 30+ years, he is one of the all-time greats. For me, up there with Orwell for the quality of his prose and for his vision. We need writers like Ballard now more than ever.

    I thought Cronenberg did a decent job of filming a book that it was thought impossible to film – I didn’t get the feeling that he portrayed them as freaks, although that might be because I had read the book first – probably at too early an age. I went in expecting to hate it, but was surprised that I didn’t.

    I’m going to be rereading a lot of his books now, so when I’ve read Crash, I’ll have another look at the film and see what I think now. The fact that the film evoked such a hysterical response from the tabloids and others showed that he was definitely on to something when he wrote the book – not that there could be any doubt.

    Either way, from what I have read about him, I’m sure he would have been delighted to have a courteous but honest response, whether he agreed with it or not. He was a gentleman of the old school.

    I’m going to miss him badly as I continue to try and make sense of the credit-crunched surveillance society that we seem to be creating around us.

    Kevin

  3. Helen Martin says:

    There is nothing like reading heartfelt obituaries to alert a person to an author they’ve missed out on.
    An author feels much more possessive about their writing than about a film adaptation, surely, so liking the writing but disliking the film should be more than satisfactory. Never turn down experiences. I’ve always been sorry when I’ve done that. Didn’t go up to Timothy Findley to say I liked his work & get Elizabeth Rex autographed and missed writing to authors who made tremendous changes in my life (’cause they went & died on me.)You’ll get a letter soon, though, so don’t risk too much in those “experiences”.

  4. D G says:

    The news literally brought tears to my eyes, even though it wasn’t completely unexpected. I had been dreading it. It says so much about our society now that the passing of this genius gets a few sombre obits in the broadsheets whilst ‘saint’ Jade had several invasive tv specials, a ‘cancer diary’ and the tabloids in a frenzy. The man himself seemed almost apologetic even mentioning his diagnosis at the end of Miracles of Life whilst Jade & Max Clifford milked hers for all it was worth.
    A great loss.

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