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‘Obeying the surrealist formula’: Iain Sinclair & Hermione Lee on Ballard

Author: • Feb 17th, 2008 •

Category: archival, autobiography, Iain Sinclair, interviews, Salvador Dali, Shanghai, Shepperton, speed & violence, surrealism, visual art, WWII

Ballardian: Miracles of Life

Photo by Jennie Middlemiss.

Here’s a transcription of the BBC Radio Front Row review of Miracles, presented by Mark Lawson and featuring Iain Sinclair and Hermione Lee.

It’s a more shallow treatment of Miracles this time. Unsurprising praise from Iain Sinclair, himself lauded in the book. Also Mark Lawson’s introduction has sloppy errors: Empire of the Sun was nominated for the Booker Prize but didn’t win, and the Ballards were interned rather than being held in a Prisoner of War camp, an even more grim prospect.

Mike Bonsall


Mark Lawson: The work of the novelist JG Ballard divides fairly neatly into two sets, there are the novels which draw clearly on his own experience of the world, including the Booker prize-winning Empire of the Sun, which describes his internment in a Chinese prisoner of war camp during World War Two, and The Kindness of Women which fictionalises his experience post-war of being widowed with three young children. And then there are stories which take place in a distorted, warped, surreal version of the modern world, such as The Unlimited Dream Company and Crash — about sexual fantasists involved in car wrecks, which became one of the few modern movies to be widely banned. But confusingly, books of both kinds are likely to include central characters called Jim Ballard. Readers and critics though, who are policing the line between Ballard’s life and writing, are now helped with their enquiries by the author himself with the publication of his latest book, Miracles of Life: From Shanghai to Shepperton, an autobiography. To discuss it, I’m joined in the studio by the writer Iain Sinclair, whose books include Downriver, and from Oxford by the writer and critic Professor Hermione Lee. Iain Sinclair, we have to get this out of the way really, for any readers of Ballard, or admirers, the book contains a shock. In that calm voice that he’s used about so many terrible things, he explains he’s been diagnosed with terminal cancer, his oncologist has made it possible for him to write this book. It’s another example of the unflinching way in which he can describe what happens to him.

Iain Sinclair: Yes, and he holds that revelation back until the end of the book, although in some senses it underwrites it, because this is a very generous book, it’s amazingly warm hearted, and although it is very similar to Empire of the Sun in some ways, and other books, there are these little glancing details that give you more of himself than he’s offered before. The parents appear in the prison camp, the sister appears. It’s very subtly done, I think it’s wonderfully crafted and in the classic Ballard way; it’s also a tremendous page turner.

ML: Hermione Lee, he’s always played, as we’ve said, with the boundaries between fact and fiction — Jim Ballard — in books which seemed autobiographical, and ones which almost certainly can’t be. He does, as Iain says, he does provide useful footnotes here.

Hermione Lee: Yes, it’s terribly interesting to set it against Empire of the Sun, which came out in 1984, when he was in his 50s, and which, as you say, drew on that childhood experience of being, you know, the Japanese occupation of Shanghai, and being in the internment camp. And what Ballard fans remarked on then, when that novel came out, was how close the images of that experience were to the fantasy novels, novels like The Drowned World. And now he goes over that time again and shows how haunted he’s always been by that mental furniture — as how could he not be — but also what’s gripping about it is that he shows what actually he made up in Empire the Sun, you know, which people said — oh, it’s much autobiographical than the other novels — and here, now you can see from, as Iain says, the extra things he tells us, how much he actually invented and imagined in Empire of the Sun. So it’s really fascinating to hold the two together

ML: Iain, having discussed that, give me an example of something that you learned from this that you hadn’t known about him… Or which changes the way…

IS: Um… the figure of his sister for example; I didn’t know about. And then there’s this extraordinary surreal image of the sister — when he’s a child — he builds a plywood barrier that goes onto the dinner table so that he doesn’t have to look at his sister, it as a peep-hole in it — this is like something out of Dali. And underwriting everything Ballard does, goes back to a remark he made many many years ago, which was that he tries to obey the surrealist formula, which is — to place the visible at the service of the invisible. And this is a very visible book, but beneath it are these shadows of the invisible that he’s releasing for the first time, and I find that quite moving.

ML: Hermione, on that point of surrealism…

HL: Yes, I was just going to say, that’s such a brilliant image to pick up, because that little spy-hole, which is so weird, is actually like Ballard’s eye, because elsewhere there are little tiny places that he crawls into, like the cockpit of a disused plane, and he’s looking out, he says, as if through a small window into a dream, and he talks very fascinatingly about the influence of dissecting corpses when he’s a medical student and Francis Bacon and Kafka and film noir. And he talks about Freud and surrealism as the key influences on his work and he calls them: ‘a secret corridor into a more real and more meaningful world’, so he’s really giving you a kind of interpretation of his whole work here.

ML: And Iain, he’s one of the few writers to have become an adjective — Ballardian — lots of writers used that after the death of Princess Diana, in that week. The artist Marc Quinn, on Front Row the other day, who’d made these impossible flowers, he said: ‘I think of them as Ballardian’. And he has — it’s apparent throughout this book, and the others, as Hermione was saying — that way of looking at the world and describing it.

IS: Yes, he says, often, he wanted to be a painter. He was a great friend of Paolozzi, Eduardo Paolozzi, a sculptor, and I think the dominant figures in his influence over the years were Paolozzi and Chris Evans, who was the kind of rogue scientist who provided him with outprints of scientific matters and who is the figure behind Vaughan, to some extent, in his novel Crash. Ballard really is like a kind of Delvaux — famously he has an imitation Delvaux in his house — and here, I think that there are key images that come back repeatedly in his fiction, as with the famous drained swimming pool. There’s also the figure of a Chinese man who’s strangled with wire on a railway station, who comes back in this book and comes back in the fictions. There’s, as Hermione said, there’s this moment when the boy gets onto an airfield and climbs into the cockpit of a plane. There is the bicycle ride through the streets of Shanghai — these things just come back again and again and again…

ML: Also, Hermione, the amazing revelation that he almost died in a car crash after writing Crash, and he reflects on what would have been made of that, in his life, if it’d happened.

HL: Absolutely extraordinary, he writes his own obituary — as in a sense he’s doing here, I feel. I mean, there is a kind of — benign benediction — going on in this book, but that, what I’m left with is this sense that, when he was a little boy, the mothers of his friends used to complain that he was always rearranging the furniture in their in their houses, and this is what he does, he rearranges the furniture.

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9 Responses »

  1. Thanks again to Mike Bonsall, who does all the tedious work of transcription so that
    we overseas Ballardians (I’m in USA) can stay with him closely (indeed, almost in
    real-time face-to-face encounters) as he faces -unflinchingly, as always- the impending end of his life.

    “I haven’t got a future” said Ballard in the first Beeb broadcast-interview about “Miracles of Life”. For the first time I would differ with the Oracle of Shepperton – he is already
    functionally immortal by means of his incredible and lifelong stream of incomparable
    literary works! And I feel sure that the indefatigable Simon Sellars, our gracious and learned host here- WILL continue this tributary – and also incomparably rich- website
    after JGB goes to stand in the shadows with Aristotle and Shakespeare and all the
    other true greats who have enriched our collective consciousness with the “invisible
    world.” we all have in our heads Thanks to you both!

  2. hey there, crashman, thanks for your continued support of the site.

    regardless of jgb’s health, i am not sure i will be continuing the site for too much longer. it is simply becoming far too much work, being an unpaid labour of love. i hope though, that before i pull the plug, that the site will have generated a bit of extra interest in jgb’s writing, and that i will have somehow done the man justice.

  3. here’s hoping that you continue. it would be a sad day for us all if you pulled the plug.

  4. hey, when i say pull the plug, i’m sure the site will be left online…just not updated. unless some keen type takes over! but it’s not going to happen immediately, anyway.

    thanks, johnny.

  5. I understand, Simon. I’m stunned at the amount of work you do DAILY on this site, and
    someone will SURELY pick it up on the updating – he’s one of the 10 greatest British authors of the 20th (and now 21st) Century, despite the VERY late-realization of that FACT.

    Why doesn’t Ballard have editions in the USA? I’ll tell you – because almost NO ONE over here in the Pillar of Consumerism reads seriously anymore! It’s all TV and the Net!

    Thriller-trash completely dominate the paperback-racks and even in the SERIOUS
    bookstores (which are all clone-chain-store entities now, BTW) you find only coffee-table picture-books and a few doggedly-hanging-on ancient classics and niche-books in hardback. The SERIOUS literature-readers are a dying breed over here, and even surveys show that our Univ.- grads read about only ONE book of serious literature a year. Even our MOST educated people DO NOT READ!

    I hardly even bother with the large bookstore-chains anymore, and find all my real gems
    in the used-bookstores, which are also a dying breed over here…. Go to ANY US library and you will find NO Ballard (except by accident), and the patrons are ALL young students with no interest in history except current events, and a few die-hards like me.
    The ONLY way I can get my hands on any more Ballard in the USA for my collection is to go to Amazon and buy British or other foreign editions…. SAD to say, but it’s true!
    The saying I absorbed at University was “A 4-year degree in English Literature plus
    $1 will get you a cup of coffee – nothing more.”

    I have NEVER been able to buy a new-edition JGB in the USA except thru Amazon. We have become a nation completely dominated by light-throwaway consumerism, as the Oracle well knows- and predicted! Even pseudo-serious literature here has become only light current-events and celebrity-political trash-entertainment! A glance at the NYTimes best-seller list will show you it’s true…. the books that sell well here are now strictly light entertainment or scurrilous expose’ -genre. Never have so many read so meaningfully less, (to paraphrase Churchill). The attention-spans of our US youngsters now are sadly diminished by their constant exposure to this light-throwaway trash and the TV and video games – they HONESTLY don’t have the attention-span to handle JGB! Or ANY great work of literature. I know personally a 4-year University B.A. graduate in “Communications” (whatever that is) who CANNOT write a single English paragraph without SERIOUSLY laughable mistakes in grammar, diction, spelling, syntax, etc.

    SERIOUS modern literature has a VERY tiny following here, and even that is viewed with a vague suspicion by the average American. My house is packed with books in every closet and cranny, because I (unlike 99% of American readers, few as they are) NEVER throw a good book away. To most Americans books are as disposable as last week’s episode of a soap opera! A book once read is seen as throwaway trash! Yet I go over and over JGB’s work, re-reading and finding new depth and correlations EVERY time! (Like all great works of literature). I call this generation “If it’s not at the Mall, on TV, or currently hot on the Internet I don’t know about it!” For SHAME!

    We are living in a world that has lost its connection with 99% of Man’s great discoveries and insights -which are ALL in printed books! The ignorance of the contemporary American outside his/her work-specialty is STAGGERING – most people on the street cannot locate MAJOR countries on a globe! And we Americans rarely travel except as
    “look-at-these-funny-natives!” tourists.

    Funny aside: since I was British-schooled in the West Indies as a child (in the early 60s) I STILL have and TREASURE all my “Just William” and Biggles paperbacks, so I can at least claim that connection with JGB – although Biggles(worth) series books were postwar-children’s books popular in Britain. No one here can understand why these were not trashed LONG ago, nor why my house is FILLED to bursting with books! I answer: “This is my REAL wealth – and it can NEVER be stolen by a burglar!” (imagine a burglar trying to tote away boxes and boxes of heavy, dusty books with NO market value). They are perceived to have NO value here – but I count them ALL as my most precious possessions. I even have 1964 editions of science -fiction magazines with JGB’s early SF work in them! And my best intellectual friend has named his personal website “Vermilion Sands” – as early as 1993.

    OK enough ranting at American anti-intellectualism (ingrained in this culture since the birth of the country). But I wanted to explain what SAD shape the serious literary scene is in, over here…. Now off to Amazon to pre-order “Miracles of Life”!!

  6. It’ll be a shame to lose the site, Simon. A lot of the time it’s the only thing I come and sit at the comp for – lazy, I know; I should be finding my own World of Ballard. When you retire the site maybe you could have some endless running loop taken from a video of JGB: JGB walking around a Lincoln, a close-up of a young woman in the passenger’s seat … Something like that. Not that I’m the man to tell you what to do to your own site – I know nothing about computers.

    And as for what crashman says about the state of American publishing – that makes fairly depressing reading. My local library isn’t too bad; neither is the one bookshop in town. I personally have very few books in my house.

  7. ballard’s writing is all that really matters. the site is peripheral; instead, read the books, again and again and again.

  8. You are absolutely correct Simon, it is the writing that matters, but I would like to take the opportunity to thank you for all the time and effort you have put into creating what is an invaluable resource for those of us who do not always get the opportunity to see & hear all of these different perspectives.

  9. Thanks, Julian — in any case, the site isn’t going anywhere just yet!

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