RIP – JG Ballard 1930-2009

Empire of the Sun by JG Ballard

JG Ballard, the British writer, died late last night after a long illness. He was – I do believe – the author whose work I most coveted.

I first started reading Ballard way back at university. Specifically, it was 1994. I’d just started university. One of my courses was contemporary British literature and I found it very hard to keep up with the reading (not just for that, across the board). I was also doing two history courses, two politics and another literature (Colonial American I think).

On the syllabus was a book called Empire of the Sun. I had never encountered it before and knew nothing of it or what it was about. It got to the night before the seminar at which I would need to talk about it. I hadn’t read it. I read it. That night, in one sitting (whilst popping ProPlus like Smarties, if memory serves – no wonder I had such bad sleeping patterns in those days). Immensely powerful is how I found it. It became – very quickly – one of my most important books. I will always remember reading it that first time – the intensity with which I found the story and my absolute identificaton with Jim – the protagonist.

It resonated on multiple levels. Whilst I was born in the UK, that was only for immigration purposes as my parents were living abroad at the time as they did throughout the 70s and early 80s. I just felt utterly attuned to the wavelength of the book. His disillusionment on returning to the UK, the grey banality of it. I remember thinking that too after our long stints in East Africa and then the Middle East.

I have read a lot more of his work in recent years. Off the top of my head I can think of:

Crash. Loved it! There is no other book that I’ve read that is quite like this. The movie is ‘so-so’ but the book is still a masterpiece for me. I’ve just never read anything like it since.

Super Cannes. The reviews seemed mixed but it worked for me.

The Kindness of Women. Semi auto-biographical if I remember rightly. Is many years since I read it.

Cocaine Nights. This was very good indeed. I can see it happening. The way he gets under the façade.

Concrete Jungle. A terrifying concept. Truly. It’s about being stranded, after a car crash, in a kind of central reservation criss-crossed by huge motorways, with no way out.

Miracles of Life. His autobiography proper. Was quite short. I was fascinated by his life story. I wish it had been 4x the length it was.

In my last Amazon order, a month or so ago, I’d bought two more of his books. The Drowned World and The Crystal World. I look forward to reading these.

If you’ve read a couple of Ballard’s works you’ll see the recurring themes. Isolation, dystopia. Empty swimming pools. Airports and huge motorway networks. Cars and planes. Chaos, debauchery, degradation and violence writhing beneath an outward veneer of respectability (and concrete!) especially of the professional classes. The more ‘professional’ the individuals (Doctors, often) – the greater their need for unconventional gratification. The motifs appear time and time again. I understand them; empathise even.

I’m looking forward to now reading those works of his I’ve not not yet read.

Tributes may be left here.

A decent obituary in The Telegraph.

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