Chronicler of urban nightmare
This is my year of feeling bereft. Some months ago, John Updike, one of my great heroes, passed away. And last month, as I went from panel discussion to reading at the London Book Fair, I heard of the (expected and yet crushing) news of the death of JG Ballard.
But because I was away, I couldn’t pay homage to him in the manner that I would to my heroes: go to my bookshelf and re-read him. I did that on my return to Mumbai. Oddly enough (or perhaps not so oddly enough), I first picked up the book that is most unlike Ballard’s others: Empire of the Sun.
It is an autobiographical novel based on Ballard’s experience of growing up in Japanese-occupied wartime Shanghai, and although it is quite unlike the cold, clinical, frightening dystopias that Ballard created through his career (‘Ballardian’, like ‘Orwellian’, is an adjective that can be found in the dictionary), it is the book that narrates the experience that forever formed him as a writer.
Suffused with the richness of detail, the unforgettable prose and the horrific, casual, impersonal violence that we know so well from the master, it is the enormously moving book that forms the bedrock of his extraordinary oeuvre. If you are new to him, it’s the first Ballard I’d suggest you read. And it’s the one you should revisit once you have read his masterpieces. Here is a very brief extract.
In India, Empire of the Sun is probably best known as a Steven Spielberg film. And here is Ballard on the writing of the book and the making of the film. Ballard inspired generations of writers, generations of imitators but no equals. For someone who was such a great literary and commercial success (Crash, his best-known novel, was turned into a film by David Cronenberg, he was unique enough to not have had anyone to carry forward his flame.
As all those who wrote about him in the days following his death noted, Ballard was a slave to routine in his daily life, preserving the outlandish for his writing. He stayed in the same suburban house outside London for decades. He brought up his three children on his own after his wife passed away suddenly and wrote, as it has been said, “while tying [their] shoelaces”. Read an interview with Claire Walsh, his partner for 40 years.
Get hold of Ballard. (I bought a Grafton edition of Empire… and its sister novel, The Kindness of Women, for Rs 199 a few years ago in Mumbai.) And don’t forget to read Crash, and the late masterpiece, Super Cannes.
In our world driven by monstrous consumerism, you’ll find him, urgent, relevant and prophetic.