JGB: notes on Further Reflections
On Friday 23 September 2011, I attended an event at the British Library titled 'JG Ballard - Further Reflections'. The event marked the end of the Library's 'Out of this world' exhibition, and the opening of the archive of Ballard's manuscripts and papers, donated to the Library in lieu of inheritance tax.
The following is incomplete notes from the two hour event.
Philip Dodd, presenter of Radio 3's 'Night Waves', who interviewed JGB in 2008.
"I wonder what he would think of this event. I know part of him would have be pleased. Part of him would be horrified."
The unexploded bomb
First speaker: Toby Litt, novelist, who interviewed JGB in 2006.
Litt began by recounting his 'though experiment' (previously aired at the Kosmopolis conference in Barcelona 2008, and elsewhere), that Ballard's true work was the construction of a vast network of tunnels beneath his house in Shepperton. This account was now updated, however: "There has been a structural examination of the house, and no tunnel has been discovered."
"The problem of getting Ballard wrong is still with us. Ballard is now too often presented as a defused bomb. I'd like to propose another thought experiment. I'd like to put my ear against the bomb, just to see if it might not still be ticking."
A new thought experiment: at Lunghua, young Jim was taught about Communism by an older boy, Philip. "Jim will eventually try to paint over his lifelong conversion to Marxism-Leninism with the gloss of Americanism. But the rest of Jim's life will be dedicated to exposing the violent nature of Western Capitalist Imperialism."
Of course, this is not real.
A short reading from the introduction.
John Gray, political philosopher, who interviewed JGB in 2000.
On Litt's tunneling experiment: "I thought was very illuminating and closer to fact that recent biographical excursions of Jim's life. It has external support. In the annotated Atrocity Exhibition, Ballard writes that there are no coincidences, everyone's life is a secret assignment. The nature of the assignment is unknown to the agent.
On the Marxist-Leninist theory: "They would be rather conventional views. In as far as Ballard could be put in a tradition, it's closer to that of Joseph Conrad. As a view of the world, and human beings in the world. There are some important affinities and similarities, as well as important differences.
cf 'Lord Jim' - don't be afraid of the waters, just hurl yourself in.
"He had a certain profound distance from humanism, by which I mean a belief in human progress. Conrad didn't believe that, but he did subscribe to the idea that humans can, by immersing themselves in the destructive element, can leave some kind of mark on the world.
Contrast with the Christian idea of redemptive action. "It's clear Conrad didn't think that way. I don't think Ballard thought that way either.
"But there are differences between the two. The profound one is, in Conrad the result of immersing yourself is always left in doubt. In Ballard, there's a much more positive view, starting with 'The Drowned World'.
"If there's anything positive in Ballard, it's linking up with a different kind of time, one in which history in the conventional sense is irrelevant. What Ballard was doing, I think, is expressed in the title 'Myths of the Near Future'. Myths which are peculiarly interesting if you really do shed the religious philosophy of the past."
A short reading.
What does it mean when Ballard writes well?
Litt: "He was always far more interested in images than ideas. He mesmerised himself at the desk and always wanted to mesmerise with the book."
Gray: "When he wrote best, he produces a gallery of paintings."
Did Ballard's views on humanism and values go through a shift after 'Empire of the Sun'?
Thoughts on 'Wind From Nowhere' (manuscript excluded from the archive)?
Gray: "I don't see any fundamental shift in his writing.
Litt: "I do think there's a shift. With 'Empire of the Sun', there's a certain coming out from behind the curtain. In a way that disappointed me because I found the imaginary world very powerful. As part of that, 'Wind From Nowhere' will sneak back into the canon.
Further similarities between Ballard and Conrad?
Gray: "Lots and lots. One is the male protagonists are very often isolated ones who don't think they can any longer alter the shape of their lives. There are many others, including literary ones."
Jeremy Thomas, producer of Cronenberg's 'Crash', working on 'High Rise' with Natali.
"My first meeting with Jim was through David Cronenberg. He said to me he'd like to make a film of 'Crash'. Jim loved cinema - he was really an enthusiast who saw lots of movies. He loved the film [of 'Crash']. A lot of times, writers are unhappy with how a book has been adapted, but he was absolutely thrilled.
"[Cronenberg and Ballard] were in a suburban way very subversive. They were regular guys but inside their heads something special was going on."
Thomas' father directed the 'Doctor' films and his uncle directed the 'Carry Ons' so producing 'Crash' was "an antidote".
'High Rise' adaptation is still in the pipeline. "The script has been developed. The film industry is fairly arid at the moment, but I know we're going to make this film. Technology has now played into our hands, and we can make a film about a building a mile high."
On the 'Crash' furore: a political action, with the Government at the time wanting to be seen to be making a stand on road safety issues. "Jim said it was a really good advert for safety belts."
On proposed 'Super-Cannes' and 'Cocaine Nights' adaptations: "I felt there was a film script behind the books. I tried to adapt them with Paul Mayersberg. We adapted the script of 'Super-Cannes', but it was one of those films that fall by the wayside."
Empire of the Sun
Fay and Bea, Ballard's daughters.
Fay: "It's quite bizarre - since Dad's death, he's become for me a much more public figure, and I found that very hard. When I thought about my Dad, it was usually in a Chinese restaurant with the family. It feels quite strange. I found myself in this mindset that he's entered the literary canon. He's everyone's. He's not just my Dad any more. I'm getting used to the idea that we need to talk about him.
Bea: "It's very moving to see those images [projected above the stage]. We had such an intimate relationship with him because he brought us up on his own. It's rather strange in a way to suddenly have that person discussed in public. At the same time, it's wonderful to have him being celebrated.
He would write in one room while the children played in the next. "I remember him mouthing the words, literally saying them and turning them over in his mind. He loved being at home."
"I remember being aware of his significance. I was reading the NME and remember reading this piece held him up as an incredible cultural icon - I'd think hey, my Dad's really cool. He loved reading the NME too, because he was interested in youth culture. He loved the idea of punk."
Fay: "Some of the books seemed to flow quite well, and others seemed to take longer. That would be evident in the manuscripts."
Bea: "He always said he'd have the idea for the next book while he was writing the current one."
Fay: "The manuscripts are a lot like sculptures. He didn't want to use a computer, he wanted to scratch out the words."
"I didn't read his books until I went to university. Then, I was reading JG Ballard, I wasn't reading my Dad."
Bea also only started reading her father's work at university. Both agree with the parallels with Conrad.
Thoughts on 'Empire of the Sun'?
Fay: "He made it clear it was a story. It wasn't his autobiography. He had talked about those years so we had a sense of what it was about then.
Bea: "I particularly enjoyed 'The Kindness of Women'. 'Miracles of Life', I couldn't wait to read that.
"[After 'Empire of the Sun'] he remained the same person. He didn't care about material things."
Claire Walsh, Ballard's long-term partner.
What do you remember about first meeting Jim? "His intensity. It was a blind date that Michael Moorcock arranged."
Went to a sci-fi convention in the late 60s - he had a running battle with the 'hardware guys'. "His own relationship with science fiction changed a lot. He was moving away from SF. By the middle of his life, he didn't want to be called a SF writer.
"In a way, the second half of his life was writing for a different audience, in as far as he was writing for any audience.
"He thought about ideas for 'Crash' for quite a long time before he wrote it. I did a lot of research for Jim, and found the title 'Tolerances of the Human Face'.
"If there was anything he believed in, it was the redemptive power of hard work - his phrase for that was one 'gained merit'.
"Immersing himself in the most destructive element I would say made sense for him, probably less so in the later books. There you see him drawing back and observing. But working hard and gaining merit was an absolute maxim for him.
"Seeing the pages of 'Crash' in the British Library Treasures Room makes me wonder if it's possible to be subversive any more.
Dodd: "History forgives those who write well."
Chris Beckett, curator and cataloguer of the Ballard archive.
The archive includes manuscripts or typescripts for all the novels apart from 'Wind From Nowhere' and 'Unlimited Dream Company' (the latter is held in Texas).
"'Empire of the Sun' is written in a very vigorous flowing hand.
"What the archive offers is the opportunity to reground Ballard studies. We've had a lot of theory - there's a danger that when reading becomes too theory-based that we spiral away from the text. It gives the opportunity to refocus on the text - the right words in the right order."
Gray: "Memories of the Space Age' contains absolutely everything in terms of themes and style. He said if anyone else wrote that, they'd turn them into a 400-page novel because there's nowhere to sell a short story now."
Ballard's frugality versus the opulence of his very early life in Shanghai?
Fay: "I don't think he particularly liked the opulence he had as a child. In terms of frugality, maybe the camp days never really left him. He just wasn't interested in materialism. It was just a bore to go and buy a new chair. It meant an afternoon in Bentalls.
Bea: "He always encouraged us to value food. He was always obsessed with the house being warm enough, but he didn't want the hassle. He didn't have central heating because he couldn't bear someone who'd come to the house and disturb the writing.
Claire: "Jim was a great believer in nothing couldn't be fixed with fuse wire and superglue. Things would stay unfixed. He made do and mended.
"The reason the short stories aren't here [in the archive] is that they don't exist. Jim was very ambivalent about archives. He claimed that he threw everything away. I don't know how the [Unlimited Dream Manuscript] got to the States, but I know one was stolen.
"He wanted people to see the final thing. He didn't want people to see the working [he didn't want people to see where he got names from or what he'd been reading] - he found that very intrusive. He didn't like people knocking on his door. He kept the workings away as far as he could."
Similarity to Borges?
Litt: "There's a tendency to dehumanise his subjects."
Also parallels with Shakespeare - the later stories were comic recapitulations of what he'd earlier written as tragedy.
Interest in youth culture?
Bea: "He was always switched on and watched a huge amount of TV - he was very switched on about developments in TV. Things like 'Big Brother' he saw coming 10-15 years before it arrived. He was very prescient about this sort of thing because he took an interest."
Fay: "He watched 'Top of the Pops' with us. He loved 'Hawaii 5-0'."
Claire: "He lost his interest in TV, but he carried on watching 'CSI'."
Litt: "Today we found some things might go faster than light. Isn't that perfect?"
Gray: "Jim's love of ice cream."
Fay: "I'm sitting on my bed, he says 'Darling, I can see a pelican next to you'."
Bea: "Sitting on the sofa."
Claire: "He would come on Saturday afternoon and I'd see the car going round the corner - seeing each other afresh was like having a date every week."