Friday, February 29, 2008

JG Ballard

I have always loved JG Ballard's books for the sheer brilliance of his ideas and how much he says about society using his fiction. And for this I have always considered him to be one of the most important novelists of the twentieth century. However, for some reason, I was never convinced of his greatness as a writer.

But not now.

Miracles of Life is undoubtably one of the best autobiographies I have ever read.

Modest and sparing, I found this telling of his remarkable life even more powerful and moving than his fictionalised accounts – Empire of the Sun and The Kindness of Women. A great deal of the material is already familiar from those novels, but one of the fascinating aspects of this book is his willingness to discuss his inspiration and techniques for writing.

His training as a doctor at Cambridge (where he was fascinated by dissection), his early working life selling encyclopedias, training in the RAF and as deputy editor at Chemistry & Industry along with his interest in psychoanalysis all led him to create a unique genre of writing in which the characters 'inner-spaces' are the focus instead of science fiction's usual preoccupations at that time.

I loved his delightful inversion of Cyril Connolly's quote – "my greatest ally was the pram in the hall" – and his belief in the importance of providing a happy and stable childhood for his family after his wife died suddenly in 1964. It is quite a leap of imagination to go from writing books like The Atrocity Exhibition during the day to picking the kids up from school, watching Blue Peter and preparing dinner. As he admits himself 'my children brought me up, perhaps as an incidental activity to rearing themselves', but also rightly points out he was incredibly lucky to be able to observe the process of his children growing from infancy into fully formed human beings so closely and how often fathers miss out on this. His joy in being a parent, the time spent as the sole parent of young children and the 'miracles of life' that he observed all added much to my understanding of him and his books.

It saddened me greatly to learn in the final chapter that he is suffering from advanced prostate cancer and that this may be the last thing he writes. It would be sad if this is the case, but when you look at the life he has led and the work he will leave behind I can't help but feeling that there isn't really any need to say anything else.

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