Grave New World
The Decline of the West in the fiction of J.G. Ballard
His scandalous works from 1960s and 1970s forgotten, Ballard started to enjoy the privileged position of the authority on literary and moral issues. The success of Empire made Ballard write its 1991 sequel, The Kindness of Women, in which he describes Jim after the war: a young man who does not fit the post-war Britain world. He thus created next chapters of his autobiography. In his journalism refers to them from time to time; all this writing, regardless of its chronology of publication dates, forms one intertextual whole.
The cultural shock of leaving Asia for Britain is best reflected in numerous articles about the books he read as an adolescent. The sharp comparison of dull English life and the Far East he found in Greene, as he remembers in “Memories of Greeneland” (1978), written for Magazine Littéraire:
I first began to read Graham Greene in the mid-1950s, and will never forget the sense of liberation his novels gave me… whether serious or ‘entertainments’ as Greene likes to call them, had the tonic effect of stepping from an aircraft on to the airport tarmac of a strange country. (Ballard 1978b: 138)
“Memories of James Joyce” (1990) is concerned with the same period, 1950s and describes young Ballard who then studied medicine but wanted to be a writer, just like the protagonist of The Kindness of Women:
James Joyce’s Ulysses had an immense influence on me – almost entirely for the bad. I read Joyce’s masterpiece as an eighteen-year-old medical student dissecting cadavers at Cambridge, then a bastion of academic provincionalism and self-congratulation… Ulysses convinced me to give up medicine and become a writer, but it was the wrong example for me, an old-fashioned storyteller at heart, and it wasn’t until I discovered the surrealists that I found the right model. (Ballard 1990b: 145)
The most reviling in this context is a piece “The Pleasures of Reading” (1992), written to the anthology edited by Antonia Fraser entitled The Pleasure of Reading. Here Ballard juxtaposed each phase of his life with the books he remembers enjoying at that time. In the pre-war polyglot Shanghai he read the Victorian children’s classics and American comics together with the Latin Primer, described in Empire, just like the books and magazines which circulated among the prisoners of the Lunghua Camp.
Arriving in England in 1946, I was faced with the incomprehensible strangeness of English life, for which my childhood reading had prepared me in more ways than I realized. Fortunately, I soon discovered that the whole of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century literature lay waiting for me, a vast compendium of human case histories that stemmed from similar source. (Ballard 1992c: 181)
He finishes the article with a list of his favorites and his own characterization of a reader of other people’s books.
In recent years his fiction and nonfiction together influence his image: his preferences, ideas and opinions are often made public. Sometimes an interesting intertextual links join his novels and essays, like in the case of his descriptions of Shepperton, a Great London village, where he lives:
Shepperton, like most Thames Valley towns, is now suburb not of London but of London airport, and one can see the influence of Heathrow in the office buildings that resemble control towers and the huge shopping malls whose floors remind the visitor of a terminal concourse… we live in the TV suburbs, among the video shops, take-aways and police speed-check cameras, and might as well make the most of them, since there is nowhere else to go. (Ballard 1994: 183-84)
This quote comes from “Shepperton Past and Present” (1994), from the Guardian, and is a good example of his journalism in the nineteen-nineties. The impressions and descriptions of contemporary world and post-modernist culture mingle with personal memories and ciphered allusions to his books. A devotee reader of Ballard is now faced with a maze of cross-referential allusions and remarks, which together form his imaginary autobiography.