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

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This wonderful book — “wonderful” literally, in that it is full of wonders — has taken an inexplicably long time to reach these shores. Published in England in 2008, a year before J.G. Ballard’s death from especially virulent prostate cancer, it only now appears in the United States, despite the immense popularity of his heavily autobiographical novel “Empire of the Sun” (1984) and Steven Spielberg’s even more popular (if considerably less successful artistically) film adaptation, released in 1987. To be sure, Ballard, whose literary energies principally were devoted to cutting-edge science fiction, never was a regular on bestseller lists, but he certainly had and still has a large and loyal following in this country.

The only explanation I can come up with for the tardy arrival of “Miracles of Life” over here is that it covers the same ground Ballard treated fictionally in “Empire of the Sun” and its sequel, “The Kindness of Women” (1991). The first covers his boyhood in Shanghai, most notably the two years he and his family spent in a Japanese internment camp during World War II, while the second is about his return to England, a country he scarcely knew, his gradual adjustment to life there with its attendant peculiarities, the sudden death in 1964 of his beloved wife and his decision to raise their three children by himself — an uncommon choice at the time and one that puzzled many of those who knew him, the women among them most especially.

So no important surprises await Ballard loyalists in “Miracles of Life,” unless one counts the appearance therein of his mother and father, whom he chose to omit from “Empire of the Sun” because he wanted to tell the story solely from the point of view of the boy, also named Jim Ballard. What awaits loyalists and all other readers, on the other hand, are many pleasures: exceptionally lucid, graceful and evocative prose; a heartfelt and deeply moving account of Ballard’s too-brief marriage and his great love for his children; a careful delineation of his writing career and the determination with which he pursued it despite numerous setbacks and disappointments; and a further exploration of the central themes of his work, among them “the surrealism of everyday life” and “an attempt to appease death, to buy off the executioner who waits for us all in a quiet garden nearby, like [the painter and sculptor Francis] Bacon’s figure in his herringbone jacket who sits patiently at a table with a machine gun beside him.”

As if “Empire of the Sun” were not evidence enough, “Miracles of Life” makes absolutely clear that Ballard’s boyhood in Shanghai was the shaping experience of his life. It was “90 per cent Chinese and 100 per cent Americanised,” a place where “the everyday reality of the city” was at times so bizarre that “I sometimes wonder if everyday reality was the one element missing from the city.” Ballard’s father was “the chairman of a prominent English company,” and the Ballard family, which included his mother and a younger sister, lived a prosperous life in a comfortable house just outside the International Settlement. Jim was a curious and adventuresome boy who roamed almost every corner of the city, which “struck me as a magical place, a self-generating fantasy that left my own little mind far behind,” but also a place where starving and dying Chinese were common. An old man died right at the entrance to the Ballards’ driveway:

“Forty years later I asked my mother why we had not fed this old man at the bottom of our drive, and she replied: ‘If we had fed him, within two hours there would have been fifty beggars there.’ In her way, she was right. Enterprising Europeans had brought immense prosperity to Shanghai, but even Shanghai’s wealth could never feed the millions of destitute Chinese driven towards the city by war and famine. I still think of that old man, of a human being reduced to such a desperate end a few yards from where I slept in a warm bedroom surrounded by my expensive German toys. . . . By the time I was 14 I had become as fatalistic about death, poverty and hunger as the Chinese. I knew that kindness alone would feed few mouths and save no lives.”

This became the central image in Ballard’s extraordinary imagination, intensified and made more urgent by other deaths. After pneumonia took his wife, Mary, “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 the 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, [a] strangled Chinese at the railway station, Kennedy and my young wife, could be laid to rest.” This search led him to create fiction that is often called “dystopian,” involving as it does a dehumanized world: “Change was what I wrote about, especially the hidden agendas for change that people were already exposing. Invisible persuaders were manipulating politics and the consumer market, affecting habits and assumptions in ways that few people fully realised.”

Apart from Shanghai, the greatest influences on Ballard’s writing were exposure to Freud (I’d say overexposure, but that’s an acknowledged bias) and the surrealists, and then medical school, during which “two years of anatomy were among the most important of my life, and helped to frame a large part of my imagination. . . . In a way I was conducting my own autopsy on all those dead Chinese I had seen lying by the roadside as I set out for school.” Ballard writes:

“My years in the dissection room were important because they taught me that though death was the end, the human imagination and the human spirit could triumph over our own dissolution. In many ways my entire fiction is the dissection of a deep pathology that I had witnessed in Shanghai and later in the post-war world, from the threat of nuclear war to the assassination of President Kennedy, from the death of my wife to the violence that underpinned the entertainment culture of the last decades of the century. Or it may be that my two years in the dissecting room were an unconscious way of keeping Shanghai alive by other means.”

As the opening sentence of that paragraph makes plain, Ballard’s fiction, for all its unflinching confrontation of the various unpleasant aspects of modern life, is scarcely so despairing as some of the passages quoted herein suggest. Indeed, the title of his memoir leaves no doubt that Ballard found many miracles in life, foremost among them the love of his children and others who obviously cared deeply about him. “Miracles of Life” is at moments quite charmingly witty, and the self-deprecation with which Ballard views himself is invariably refreshing. During his time under Japanese internment, he detected “a strain of melancholy in the Japanese that I responded to, although I myself was never sad. I had a natural optimism that I only lost when I arrived in England,” and in time he recovered it.

Plainly put, “Miracles of Life” is a joy. Ballard must have been exceptionally good company, funny and kind and talkative, knowledgeable about many things and interested in everything. I wish I had known him, but “Miracles of Life” takes me, and everyone else who reads it, a long way toward just that.

yardleyj@washpost.com

MIRACLES OF LIFE Shanghai to Shepperton, an Autobiography By J.G. Ballard Liveright. 250 pp. $25.95

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