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The Wind from Nowhere is now a wind from somewhere

Author: • Sep 2nd, 2007 •

Category: Ballardosphere, Toby Litt

From the Observer: Nicola Barker Toby Litt ‘critically rehabilitates’ (to use the parlance of our times) J.G. Ballard’s first novel…

[ via Feuilleton ]

Sunday September 2, 2007
The Observer

How did we miss these? Far from the fame and glamour of the Booker and bestsellers is a forgotten world of literary treasures – brilliant but underrated novels that deserve a second chance to shine. We asked 50 celebrated writers to nominate their favourites.

The Wind From Nowhere (1961)
JG Ballard

Thousands of books are undervalued by the general public. Far rarer are those undervalued by their own authors. And rarer still are those the authors dislike so much that they suppress them. Graham Greene wouldn’t allow his first four novels to be reprinted. And Jeanette Winterson has done her best to turn her second novel, Boating for Beginners, into an unbook. Harder to understand is JG Ballard, who always refers to The Drowned World as his first novel, whereas it was, in fact, The Wind From Nowhere. His reluctance to admit authorship is almost certainly due to having knocked it out in a mere two weeks. But it’s not a bad book – recognisably Ballardian in subject and form. Also, it stands as the first part of Ballard’s Disaster Quartet. Each of these books – The Drowned World, The Drought (aka The Burning World) and The Crystal World are the others – is based on one of the four classical elements: air, water, fire and earth. By refusing to admit The Wind From Nowhere into his corpus, Ballard leaves this quartet maimed. But maybe that’s the whole point.

Nicola BarkerToby Litt

NicolaToby says this ‘unbooking’ is a rare phenomenon, but I can think of a similar example in music: Kraftwerk. They went even further than Ballard, burying their first three albums, refusing to release them on CD and wincing in horror whenever an interviewer dares to mention them.

But not even Ballard or Ralf or Florian can resist the recombinant power of late capitalism, where every ‘dog’ must have its day (even ones that have been kicked by their owners as much as these ones have).

Woof, woof.

UPDATE: It’s Toby Litt who brings us this snippet, as John Coulthart informs me. I was so fixated on nabbing the Ballard stuff, I didn’t even notice Toby’s name above the entry. Apologies all round. Anyway, it’s no surprise — Toby waxed lyrical about ‘Wind’ in the interview Gwyn and I did with him, saying this:

[The Wind from Nowhere] seems to be very much the start-point for his oeuvre, if you want to call it that. It’s certainly not comparable to, say, Graham Greene’s disowned novels — which, from what I’ve read, aren’t only very badly written but are also acutely anti-Semitic. As Ballard started with the four elements [in his first four novels], it seems odd and imbalancing to leave one of them out. Everyone realises it’s an early novel.

By the way, Ballard’s archivist David Pringle would take exception with Toby’s repeated assertion that Ballard’s first four novels are patterned after the four elements. Here’s what David said about that notion in a recent discussion:

Looking again at that Wikipedia entry on JGB, here is an example of a myth which, in my opinion, really ought to be killed:

“Several of Ballard’s earlier works deal with scenarios of ‘natural disaster’; most notably a quartet thematically based on the four Classical Elements of Aristotle, featuring The Wind From Nowhere (Air), The Drowned World (Water), The Crystal World (Earth), and The Drought (Fire).”

In what sense does _The Crystal World_ represent earth? Crystals are earthy, are they? What makes them more earthy than, say, the sand of _The Drought_?

Ballard has never, anywhere, to the best of my knowledge, stated that those four novels were based on the four classical elements. Apart from anything else, such a schema would give far too much prominence to _The Wind from Nowhere_, a quickie hack novel which he has effectively disowned (as the Wiki entry in fact makes clear elsewhere).

The notion that the “four elements” underlay those four novels comes from a specific, dubious source — an article by one Anthony Ryan entitled “The Mind of Mr J. G. Ballard” (the title is an allusion to Edgar Wallace’s _The Mind of Mr J. G. Reeder_), published in _Foundation_ no. 3 in March 1973. It’s not a very good article, but it was Ryan — who, as a critic, has not been heard from
since, as far as I know — who tossed out the notion that in some way JGB’s first four novels were based on the four classical elements of Aristotle.

My own essay, “The Fourfold Symbolism of J. G. Ballard,” written quite independently of Ryan’s (which I hadn’t seen), was published in the following issue of _Foundation_ — no. 4, dated July 1973. The fourfold symbolism I talked about had nothing to do with the four classical elements. Inspired in part by Northrop Frye and his studies of Blake, I was talking about the symbolism in Ballard’s fiction, as I saw it, of Water, Sand, Crystal and Concrete — as best exemplified in _The Drowned World_, _The Drought_, _The Crystal World_ and _The Atrocity Exhibition_. (I paid no attention to _The Wind from Nowhere_.)

My essay, and Ryan’s slightly earlier essay, swiftly became confused in some people’s minds — and the myth was born that Ballard’s “fourfold symbolism” was somehow based on the four classical elements.

Not true! I never said it. Ballard never said it. Only Ryan said it (or he said something like it).

I wish now I hadn’t used the word “fourfold” in the title of my essay!

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10 Responses »

  1. I think it’s Toby Litt that chose Ballard which makes more sense when you think about it.

    Kraftwerk may have shunned their early albums but they were still playing Ruckzuck in the mid-Seventies; don’t suppose they had much choice since their back catalogue wasn’t very substantial then. I don’t see it as a shunning in their case so much as part of an ongoing evolution or streamlining. The (as yet unreleased) Catalogue album collection saw changes being made to some of the sleeve art including the Nazi radio set being dropped from Radio-activity in favour of the day-glo radiation symbol.

  2. Thanks, John — it is indeed Toby and I’ve added some stuff to the entry to tease this out. Regarding Kraftwerk: they also changed the lyrics to the song Radio-activity, didn’t they? Adding stuff about Chernobyl and Sellafield to make an anti-nuclear statement, rather than the ambivalent flavour of the original, with its homage to the mystical power of radio waves.

    I just checked out those early albums on Wiki — apparently the chaps are thinking of adding the ‘Ralf and Florian’ album to Catalogue when it comes out. So there you go — miracles do happen.

    Still no word that the first two will go the same way, and if Tone Float ever gets an official re-release I’ll eat my shoe live via web cam on this site*.

    (*disclaimer: I am lying).

  3. Yes, Radioactivity had its lyrics amended and their recent live performances of the song have featured a doomy processed voice describing the amount of pollution that the Sellafield 2 plant produces. I wish they would give their early albums a proper release (although the various “unofficial” CDs aren’t too hard to find). Ralf and Florian has always been a favourite of mine.

    I also used to wonder if there was a four elements scheme at work with Ballard’s early novels. Regarding The Drought and fire, it should be remembered that its early title was The Burning World. And another example of someone burying their early work is Stanley Kubrick whose first feature, Fear and Desire, is impossible to see outside occasional Kubrick season screenings.

  4. Bloody Hell!!! Greece must be the mother of bootleg cd releases, since i do have all three Kraftwerk (K.1, K.2 & R+F)on cd, but i thought they were official… I also have the Wind From Nowhere on a cheap paperback (Charing Cross is the place to be) and if anybody would care for the cover, i will scan it soon. Kisses!!!

  5. There’s at least two sets of the first three Kraftwerk albums out there (and the Tone Float album), one lot taken from vinyl, another lot from tapes. The vinyl set crackles a bit but includes tracks from a 1975 concert as a bonus feature. One of the Ralf and Florian ones features the different artwork as well, with the circuit board cover.

  6. John, I always thought it was four elements, too, but according to David Pringle it’s a misapprehension!

    Iraklis, I have all the early Kraftwerks on CD, but no they are not official: mine are vinyl rips (although not too bad with the crackle and hiss). Didn’t know there were copies made from tape.

    Oh, and Fear and Desire! I completely forgot about that. That reminds me to buy it; there’s a bloke on the net offering an nth-gen copy, but still I must have it.

  7. It’s a pity that in order to make his weak case against the ‘four elements’ pattern of Ballard’s first four novels David Pringle has first to discount the existence of ‘The Wind From Nowhere’ and then to depend on the feeble argument that ‘Ballard has never, anywhere, to the best of my knowledge, stated that those four novels were based on the four classical elements’ – a silence which proves precisely nothing. The early critic Anthony Ryan was simply responding honestly to something that was directly in front of him, in the texts themselves.

    In spite of Mr. Pringle’s objection, ‘The Crystal World”s place as the ‘earth’ novel is easily sustained – the book deals with the uncontrolled proliferation of matter. It’s also worth remembering that ‘The Drought”s original title was ‘The Burning World’, which reinforces that book’s standing as the ‘book of fire’.

    It may well be that the apparent symbolic patterning across the four novels is accidental – but it’s a hell of a coincidence, and I would expect any competent critic, even at undergraduate level, to notice it. What the critic then makes of that patterning is up to the critic – not to David Pringle, or even Ballard himself.

    In the end, however, it hardly matters whether Ballard intended the elemental symbolism or not. It’s in the language itself, and even an explicit denial of intent by Ballard wouldn’t root it out. ‘The Wind From Nowhere’ is Ballard’s first novel, and should be read as such, even if it has to be treated as apprentice work.

  8. Apparently, the ‘Burning World’ title wasn’t Ballard’s idea…as to the rest of your comment, Paul, fair call. I agree you with you that there’s a case to be made.

  9. I did reply to David Pringle, privately.

    Here is what I said (not having read Paul Bowes posting above, but our point do co-incide):

    Firstly, I don’t think it’s necessary to have confirmation from Ballard that he intentionally wrote an ‘elemental quartet’. The elements are so deeply embedded within our western culture that it’s more than possible he did it unconsciously. And, if challenged, he would probably deny it anyway – as he tends to deny most things ascribing arcane motives to him. If I – or anyone else – decides to read them as that, and makes a decent case for it, I see that as perfectly fair. Otherwise we would end up doing nothing but biographical criticism. Ballard’s own reading of Ballard is, I’d argue, not all that interesting. Or not as interesting as that of some other writers.

    Secondly, at the recent Ballard conference at UEA, Eunju Hwang gave a paper called ‘Disastrous Lanscapes and Self-Quest in J.G.Ballard’s Natural Transformation Quartet’. This was clearly an attempt to reread the four interlinked novels in a way that took for granted that they were interlinked. As far as I remember, no-one in the audience got up to challenge this. The use of ‘..World’ within three of the four titles suggests that these three novels are in some way to be thought of together. Drowning World involves water; Burning involves fire. Nothing is being forced there. So, it’s not going to be long before people look for the other two elements.

    Thirdly, I think there is a technical point about The Crystal World. If you were to wish to make ‘earth’ fatal, but not by, say, turning it into molten lava which would kill all the characters within moments, how would you do it? Turning it into something as useless as crystal seems to me to solve the problem.

    So, I wasn’t duped by Wikipedia. The reading I favour may possibly be perverse, but that’s Ballard for you.

    Very best wishes, etc

    Nicola Barker/Toby Litt

  10. All fair points Nicola/Toby. As far as I’m concerned, it’s a bit of a storm (or wind) in a tea cup. I completely agree with you that we don’t need confirmation from Ballard. This site and its various outlandish theories wouldn’t exist if that were the case. In any case, Ballard repeatedly asserts that The Drowned World is his ‘first novel’ so he’s hardly a reliable witness…

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