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Laying the ghost to rest

27 January 2011

11:07 AM

27 January 2011

11:07 AM

‘But perhaps there was an answer, using a kind of extreme logic. My direction as a writer changed after Mary’s death, and many readers thought that I became far darker. But I like to think I
was much more radical, in a desperate attempt to prove that black was white, that two and two made five in the moral arithmetic of the 1960s. I was trying to construct an imaginative logic that
made sense of Mary’s death and would prove that the assassination of President Kennedy and he countless deaths of the Second World War had been worthwhile or even meaningful in some as yet
undiscovered way. Then, perhaps, the ghosts inside my head, the old beggar under his quilt of snow, the strangled Chinese at the railway station, Kennedy and my young wife, could be laid to
rest.’

J. G. Ballard, ‘Miracles of Life: Shanghai to Shepperton’

J. G. Ballard’s last book, Miracles of Life: Shanghai to Shepperton, was a book written in hindsight. Aware
that he is suffering from a terminal illness, Ballard intended to explain his journey as a writer and shed some light on a life that is rich in anecdotal details. Raised in Shanghai, Ballard was
interned by the Japanese during their wartime occupation of China. After the war he migrated to England, where he became a medical student examining cadavers at Cambridge University. He began to
form profound opinions on the complexity of the human body, but decided that while the experience provided fertile ground for his imagination, he was not motivated to become a doctor. The course in
medicine had in fact been an attempt to move into a career in psychiatry, trying to understand the mind in order to understand himself.

He trained as a pilot in Canada for a short spell, drawn to the possibilities and mystery of human flight. But this, too, left the writer unsatisfied. Instead, J. G. Ballard began to seriously
consider his pathway as a writer, and began to experiment with short stories to flesh out his ideas. It was at around this time that Ballard married, eventually settling in the quiet suburb of
Shepperton to raise three beloved children.


Miracles of Life is both candid and compelling, offering new insights into the artistic motivations of one of Britain’s greatest authors. There is a detailed exploration of his childhood
experiences in Shanghai, and a number of attempts to sketch a reason or logic for the shape that his fiction was to take. The autobiography also accounts for the tragic loss of his wife, and the
immense difficulty of reconciling everyday life with such random, seemingly meaningless events.

Ballard’s novels appear to chart the ‘inner-space’ of protagonists who are undergoing profound mental trauma, defined in the context of post-war Western society: a culture defined by the mass
media, celebrity, consumerism and advanced technology.

J. G. Ballard’s last book does not answer every question, or explain every obsession, but is a new work in its own right. It presents us with the last Ballard protagonist, consummately played by
the writer himself: a man of comfortable, middle-class upbringing, surrounded by an affectionate family in a quiet, idyllic neighbourhood. And yet, this man, who embodied the quintessential
aspirations of Western society, is ultimately defined by the incoherent trauma of the century that created him. It’s a fascinating memoir of a fascinating life.

An extended version of this article can be found here.


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