Nicholas Lezard: An extraordinary writer whose talent never waned
Monday 20 April 2009
With the death of J G Ballard one of the most extraordinary lives in English letters departs the scene, and we are impoverished. Schooled by his own traumatic life, from his childhood in a Japanese prisoner of war camp to the death of his wife (which obliged him, with an almost heroic dedication, to write for a living as well as bring up his three children) he first wrote, with an eerie, disengaged style, science fiction stories which were both a part, and far apart, from the conventions of the genre.
From early on, he would exploit and examine the tropes of a civilisation on the ropes: stranded aircraft, drained swimming pools, destroyed worlds, the clash between consumer excess and our own animal instincts. There are few more arresting sentences in the whole of literature than this from High Rise: "As he sat on his balcony eating the dog, Doctor Robert Laing reflected on the unusual events that had taken place within this huge apartment building during the previous three months."
This marriage of dryness, conventionality, and imaginative excess made him an unlikely, yet all the more plausible figures of the literary counterculture. It gave his audacity wings: one would not have suspected, having met the man, that he would have been the author of a short story called "Why I Want To Fuck Ronald Reagan" - and that was in 1969.
Four years later, he wrote "The Assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy Considered as a Downhill Motor Race"; the literary echo was of Alfred Jarry's "The Crucifixion Considered as an Uphill Bicycle Race", but it was not that he wanted to start any kind of shocking literary movement. Beneath the façade of a benign, convivial suburbanite (he lived in what was, in essence, the opposite of Bohemia: a detached house in Shepperton, as affectless as his prose and as characterless a neighbourhood as any contrived), he mapped and plotted the nightmares of the contemporary world with a precision that has come to be seen as prophecy.
"The author of this work is beyond psychiatric help, do not publish," was the verdict from a publisher's reader after he had submitted the manuscript for Crash, in which he proposed a link between eroticism and car crashes; yet few people seemed as little in need of psychiatric help as he did. He was a generous friend and encourager of the younger writers whom he inspired, such as Will Self.
He found large mainstream success with his memoir of his childhood, Empire of the Sun, in 1984, and if some fans worried that this heralded a shift towards respectability, he contrived a renaissance - if that is the word to describe a talent that was never really in abeyance - with works like Cocaine Nights, Super-Cannes, Millenium People and Kingdom Come. Being timeless, he never dated, never really went away.
And at least we have his last work, the transcendent autobiography, Miracles of Life, to sustain his memory.
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