An irregular, irreverent, post-modern account of the surreal, the ordinary, and the bizarre happenings on and around the Felia lavender farm in Crete

Sunday, February 17, 2008

The Year of the Death of James Graham Ballard

It is always with a sense of dread not dead that I write obituaries. To write one in advance of the actual death is nothing new for me but this one pains me deeply.

This piece could easily have been entitled Chronicle of a Death Foretold. But it isn't. I found a better hook to hang it on. It could as well have been entitled The Dead - great novel or great short story it makes no nevermind - JGB did them equally well but will no more I fear. Fear is the key. Instead I stole my title from Jose Saramago - one his less accessible but most beautiful novels. A novel about a real poet - the death year of a great poet - the
4 greatest Portugese poetsFernando Pessoa.

I have read all of my properly sentient life. I have listened to radio all of my sentient life too. This week my two loves have come together with readings on Radio 4 from JGB's latest book - Miracles of Life: Shanghai to Shepperton. Latest and last?  I seldom read biographies and eschewed literary biographies almost entirely some years back with but a few exceptions. My advice would usually be "
Never read the biographies of artists whose work you admire. You wouldn't want to meet them - let alone know them. Most of them are less than likable human beings and in many case their likability is in an inverse ratio to the product of their talent and how much you admire their art." But this is an autobiography and Ballard comes across as a really nice guy!

Having made the disastrous mistake of failing to give Gilbert Sorrentino the Nobel prize for literature - he died before they even thought of it - I fear they might miss Ballard too, and for the same reason, and that would be a mistake of the same order of magnitude. I love Doris and Harold P all that they have done - but really  - GS had and  JGB has, each, a genuine body of work unassailable by comparison.

JGB is, I truly believe, the greatest English writer since the second world war. Forged in that conflict his insight is unwavering and unsentimental. Amiss, Self, Rushdie, McEwan et al are pygmies by comparison. Ballard looks inside the human condition and never flinches no matter how unpleasant the image. Where Dostoevsky and Camus and even Derek Raymond looked inside the individual and found Conrad's Heart of Darkness Ballard's focus is upon society - the kinds of society that mankind is capable of creating - the ugly crippled children of the body societal. The works all shine a magnifying light on the potentialities of how we pull ourselves together into groups or how we might. Somehow the Cocaine Nights tetralogy seems more real and more frightening than Orwell's 1984 or Huxley's Brave New World - more prescient - and he does this not by looking into and projecting the future but simply by looking into the present and extrapolating.

Not since Joyce has one man mastered both the short story form and the novel with such a mixture of skill and inventiveness. Ballard's Atrocity Exhibition is a scarily experimental novel that challenged readers when it was published to handle the fractured and overlapping semi-narratives and snapshots, the vignettes and the tableaux that have become a commonplace - an everyday, moment by moment experience - since the advent of the web. Ballard pulls it off with an aplomb that in hindsight is nothing short of brilliant.

Reading Ballard can feel like accompanying Mapp and Lucia on a day-trip to Belsen says Sam Leith in his recent review of Ballard's final work and there is more than a grain of truth in that albeit contrived encomium but the regularity with which reviewers and fans alike trot out the word dystopic is in and of itself fairly depressing.  I would prefer to draw people's attention to the facination with art and architecture, design and decadence that suffuses his work and his vision. Ballard sometiimes writes of livable societies and sometimes of unbearable ones but to focus entirely on the darker side of his work is to miss his essential humanity and this last week I have come to appreciate just how human JGB  is and how this informs his entire oeuvre. He shows us exactly what mankind is capable of and it is not all misery.

If Miracles of Life is his last book it will be sad but it may be a fitting place to finish his life work. I want it not to be his last. I want to have the next Ballard to look forward to and that is something I can rarely say of a living author.

The wikipeadie entry on Ballard can be found here

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1 comment:

  1. JGB definitely earns his eulogy whether ante or post mortem.

    Thanks to your entry I added his early tetralogy and Crash to my shorter list of books to be both bought and read.