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The Inner Man

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Arab Today, arab today The Inner Man

London - Arabstoday

What we look for in the biography of a writer are answers. Where did all this come from? In the case of J G Ballard, the fantasies and grotesqueries in his work are so overwhelming that you feel there must be some rational explanation. But on investigation, his existence had eccentricities of its own. He was a dangerous radical who had the appearance and political beliefs of a golf-club Tory. More surprising to many snobbish interviewers were the facts that he lived most of his adult life in a small house in Shepperton, though when he died he left £4 million. Furthermore, his interiors were of a Kienholz-like chaos, or ones organised according to the principles of Quentin Crisp, who believed that the dust didn’tget any worse after the first three years. Ballard happily discoursed on two crises in his life. The first was his boyhood imprisonment in the camp at Lunghua, the experiences of which went to make Empire of the Sun. The second, which he was always ready to talk about, was the sudden death of his young wife, Mary, when they were on holiday in Spain in 1964: Ballard buried her there, and had to drive back home with three young children. After Mary’s death, Ballard threw himself into work, often fuelled by heavy drinking during the day (he stopped drinking before the children returned from school). His association with science-fiction groups moved into associations with wider, more explicitly avant-garde artists’ circles, and produced his most extreme inventions, The Atrocity Exhibition and Crash, both of which still produced outrage decades later. The experience of Lunghua fed not only into Empire of the Sun but those extraordinary tales of survival and inhumanity, High Rise and Island. (That first, of a war within a luxury tower block, begins “Later, as he sat on his balcony eating the dog”.) Ballard’s stature is not in question. His experiences were very unlike those of today’s beginning novelist with an MA in creative writing and a gift for marketability. His particular circumstances, of prison camp, medical studies, bereavement, small avant-garde or pulp publications, are very unlikely to recur. If they did, modern publishing would probably insist that Ballard’s career should begin with a frank memoir, rather than end there, as it did with his excellent Miracles of Life. Ballard, always clear-sighted, understood how his work emerged from his circumstances, and about its purposes. He told a lawyer, tasked with defending his story “Why I Want to F--- Ronald Reagan” that the story “was obscene, and he’d written it in that spirit”. What is left for a biographer to do? John Baxter’s biography has some curious emphases, and it is true that he skips over some important details. The Ballards seem to have made a habit of not seeing each other: when his mother died in 1998, “Jim hadn’t seen [her] for years”. We are told that when Ballard left only £100,000 out of his substantial estate to his son it “signified his long estrangement from his father”, but not when the estrangement occurred, or why. Indications that Ballard physically abused his partner, Claire Walsh, are present but not explored further. There may, too, be the biographer’s overfamiliarity with his material that leads to sections on Lunghua and Mary’s death being too briskly gone over. The Inner Man is mistitled, and Ballard remains just as public, just as hidden, as he wanted to be in his lifetime. Where Baxter’s book does succeed is in exploring the web of professional relationships and the particular culture from which Ballard emerged. Ballard traced a nearly unique trajectory, from pulp sci fi fanzines of the most lurid variety into experimentalism. Baxter lovingly resuscitates the long-gone worlds of post-war science fiction debates and Sixties “happenings” with topless girls at the ICA, of skin-of-the-teeth funding from the Arts Council, trials for obscenity and furious sci fi battles between old-school pipe-and-cardy John Wyndham types and acid-dropping Inner Space devotees. All this is richly enjoyable. If, on the other hand, you were hoping for an explanation of quite why anyone should write stories, intended to excite sexually, about the assassination of Jacqueline Kennedy or the rape of Ronald Reagan, or a novel about the transformation of Teddington into a tropical jungle after a plane crash into the Thames – well, I think you were probably looking into the wrong author in the first place.

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