Nicholas Lezard: An extraordinary writer whose talent never waned

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"The author of this work is beyond psychiatric help, do not publish," was the verdict from a publisher's reader after he had submitted the manuscript for Crash, in which he proposed a link between eroticism and car crashes; yet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.

Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
TV
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Actor and director Zach Braff

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams plays 'bad ass' Arya Stark in Game of Thrones

TV
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Meera Syal was a member of the team that created Goodness Gracious Me

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The former Doctor Who actor is to play a vicar is search of a wife

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne modelling

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel are bringing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to the London Coliseum

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

Review: Cilla, ITV TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars with Cillian Murphy in Peaky Blinders II

TV
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West is on his 'Yeezus' tour at the moment

Music
Arts and Entertainment
Rob James-Collier, who plays under-butler Thomas Barrow, admitted to suffering sleepless nights over the Series 5 script

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    The Imitation Game, film review
    England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

    England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

    Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week