J.G. Ballard: 15 November 1930 – 19 April 2009
The writer, J.G. Ballard, who has died at the age of seventy-eight, was frequently linked to two very different places: Shanghai, where he was born and where he was interned, with his family, during the Second World War; and Shepperton, the quiet Middlesex suburb in which he lived for nearly half a century. And yet his writing demonstrates a fascination with exploring and defining strange non-places: the hinterlands that surround motorways and airports, for example, or imaginary closed communities that seal themselves off from the outside world and begin to live by their own rules.
In 2003, I was asked to introduce a reading by Ballard from his novel Millennium People, which was just being published, and then conduct a short interview with him. He was an expansive and generous conversationalist, and utterly affable and charming to boot; but what we were talking about was a novel in which London’s middle classes had risen up, stopped paying their taxes and embarked on a bombing campaign aimed at the destruction of everything that one might traditionally assume the middle classes to hold dear.
Ballard was a true subversive: he took our ideas of how societies are supposed to work and threw a new shape on them. Along the way, in novels that range from The Drowned World (1962) and Empire of the Sun (1984) to Cocaine Nights (1996) and Super-Cannes (2000), he anatomized human impulses towards sexual extremism, violence, religious fervour and nihilism, among other things and provided us with brilliant, disturbing portraits of both the individual and the herd.
In this way, JG Ballard became one of the most influential fiction writers of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. At Granta.com, we have asked writers to describe the impact his work has had on them and on contemporary culture.
Hari Kunzru: novelist
I was lucky enough to meet Jim Ballard. I went to interview him for a magazine. He was already very ill, and in order to have enough energy to speak to me, he’d spent a few hours resting. We sat in the living room of a tiny flat belonging to his partner, Claire Walsh, as cats rubbed round our ankles. He spoke about Shanghai, surrealism, psychoanalysis, violence, social class, revolution and the untimely death of his wife, and his conversation seemed to me to have all the tensions that fascinate the reader in his work – urbanity undercut by a terrible darkness, a forensic coldness at war with an angry and passionate humanism, a fascination with pathology combined with a real and unforced respect for the conventional rituals of middle-class life.
Last October, I attended a festival in Barcelona whose centrepiece was an exhibition about his writing. He was too ill to attend, but Claire was there in his stead. Together we walked around Gaudi’s La Pedrera; the apartment block’s bizarre melting architecture and bourgeois interiors formed another perfectly Ballardian paradox. For Claire it was a difficult afternoon. Barcelona was a place she’d last visited many years previously, on a happy driving holiday with Jim. I tried to comfort her as she cried. Jim Ballard was evidently a triumph as a man as well as a writer: he’d had the strength to stare open-eyed at the horrors of modernity, but hadn’t been overwhelmed by them. Despite all he’d seen, he managed to love and be loved in return.
Hanif Kureishi: novelist
I was thinking about Ballard, as I used to see him walking around the streets, near my house. I didn’t know why, but have found out his partner lived on the Goldhawk Road. It was wonderful to see him, his kind wise face, as he was a great writer and understood the modern condition like no one else.
Philip Gwyn Jones: Ballard’s publisher at Flamingo
Ballard the writer was a soothsayer who lived long enough to see many of his rare and uncannily advanced insights become universal. He was like the Angel of History: always future-facing on the page, in person he looked back to the best of the past – unfailingly courteous, civil, generous, loyal and relaxed. The warmest companion with the coldest vision of where Humanity might head.
Jonathan Lethem: novelist
I began thinking I’d confess how extensively my early work – particularly my second novel, Amnesia Moon – lay under Ballard’s influence. And it certainly does. But then, once I begin thinking of it, I realize that the novel I’ve just finished this year is in many ways equally indebted to him. For me, Ballard’s the purist’s dystopian writer. He submitted himself absolutely to the admonitory mode, seeming to merge his writerly ego, his whole emotional palette, into our entire species’ experience of modernity, technology, architecture, automobiles and the artifacts of culture. Coming to him as early as I was lucky enough to do, he made whole reams of postmodern critical writing blessedly redundant. An absolutely irreplaceable writer.
Thom Yorke: lead singer, Radiohead
He turned a mirror on our super-Cannes world and revealed transparent dysfunctional creations playing out bit parts in a play with no author.
It was a dirty job but someone had to do it.