This is a curious mixture of a book. Granted that it was written under strained and special circumstances, it is both revealing and concealing in equal measure. If you are familiar with Ballard’s work and have taken an interest in him over the years, you will find nothing new. It is, however, a pleasure to have it in one volume. And for all its apparent superficiality, we learn a great deal about Ballard from the structure and level of content of this work.
Nearly half the book is devoted to Ballard’s first fifteen years, the time he lived in Shanghai and experienced the strange life of an expatriate community as well as internment by the Japanese. This is also the most fluent and vibrant part of the book.
It may well be that writing of his early life in his fiction, especially in Empire of the Sun, means he is well rehearsed. But it is clear these formative years are seared not just into his memory, but also his psyche. The things he saw and experienced have re-appeared time and again in his writings, sometimes filtered, but always from the same roots.
Elsewhere, there is a reticence, a shyness that produces a sketchy feeling, as if we are seeing an early draft. A pioneer of explorations into the sf of ‘inner space’, his own inner space is closely guarded. Yet what he chooses to conceal is revealing in itself. He speaks of family life, for example, but whilst it is clear that his family was the bright sun at the centre of his universe, dimmed for a while by the sudden death of his wife, it is also clear that the rest is nobody’s business but his own and theirs. I find this wonderfully refreshing – we are strangers, after all, those of us who read his books.
As a writer myself, I confess I was disappointed that Ballard did not discuss how he wrote or consider the processes by which developed certain styles, especially his concentrated novels. I would love to have known more of those early days and the discussions he had with other writers of the so-called ‘New Wave’. On the other hand I am not altogether surprised. Whilst undoubtedly a highly intelligent man and a skilled and innovative writer, he has never been one of the ‘literati’, self-dissecting and self-obsessed. His work must (and does) speak for itself – with a voice that is robust, fluent, exciting, innovative, often tackling the controversial, but always worth listening to.