From the Guardian, 29 November 1984, a profile/interview to mark "Empire of the Sun" winning the Guardian Fiction Prize:
An educated eye for atrocity
J. G. Ballard has won this year’s Guardian Fiction Prize for his much praised novel, “Empire of the Sun”, based on his memories of war-torn Shanghai. He talks to W.L. Webb
It was a rare conjunction of experience and imagination which brought forth so late, in J. G. Ballard's twentieth book, the best British novel about the Second World War. For that alone we might give thanks, but there is more. “Empire of The Sun” is also the key to the rest of an extraordinary oeuvre and central to his project of teaching English fiction a thing or two he knows about the twentieth century.
In every way only he could have written it, for the landscapes and experiences its young hero describes are all psychologically and often literally those of his childhood and adolescence in the atrocity exhibition that was wartime Shanghai and in the Japanese camp at Lunghua nearby.
Landscape is as important as character elsewhere in the works of this English symbolist, this storm-dreamer, its elements invested with a strange tenderness often withheld from the humans who sparsely populate it.
In this more naturalistic novel one finds the actual archetypes of the abandoned apartment blocks, the empty, weed-choked swimming pools, the silent runways and injured aircraft so familiar to already addicted readers. Here too, “at the estuary of the Yangtse, that vast river barely able to draw all the dead of China through its mouth,” is the source of the haunted lagoons and overwhelmed cities of “The Drowned World” (1963), the first and best of the rest of his novels.
And here -- just as rooted in reality, just as concretely grounded in history - is the terrible, fertile source of the visions the seer of Shepperton has [seen] through the past quarter of a century from the sitting-room window of a distinctly low-tech mod. semi, circa 1934, surrounded by the fading bricky charm of Thames Valley metroland.
Past Mac’s café and Heaven Burger Bistro, down the High Street (where an elderly sclerotic followed me with furious tit-tupping steps, howling with rage at his shrunken life) is the sweet bend of the river where Thomas Love Peacock’s villa stands, and there is Rider Haggard’s handsome house across the green. An English scene. However, as the anxious pedestrian and author of “Crash” and “Concrete Island” reminds me, as we scuttle across the road to the Ship Inn, there is also the H.G. Wells connection: he exterminated Shepperton in “War Of The Worlds”.
In the climate of these times, with Nanny in charge once more, and half the English insisting that the church clock stands at ten to three and there will be honey still for tea, it does seem a particularly apt moment to be considering Ballard' s alternative view of the nature of reality.
“Jim, you're a war-child,” says one of the exhausted adults in “Empire Of The Sun” (using that characteristic vocative Ballard turns out to be oddly unaware of): a child of war he now sees as unending, not least in the sense of man ever more dangerously at war with himself, with his own creatureliness.
But another of the lessons of his early instruction in that harsh reality was about the pathos and fragility of the privileged enclaves of Western “normality” in the world: looking at Shepperton's wealth of cottages ornées, one recalls Jim in his torn cathedral school blazer returning to “the unreal house” in abandoned Amherst Avenue, and gazing at “the Tudor gables and the replica chateaux” in the ransacked streets of the former European concession where the nightmare of Asia's poverty had come home to roost.
“I'd like to make the point,” says Ballard, “when people talk about the extreme world I appear to describe, that the experiences of my childhood which ‘Empire Of The Sun’ reflects are experiences I share with the great majority of people who've lived on the planet in this century. If they could read my book, most people living in, say, large areas of Africa, southern Asia, and Central and South America would recognise these landscapes as being truer to their experience of the twentieth century than certain other novels which… well, you can fill in the blanks.”
Such experiences -- of hunger, violence, sudden death and the survivor's dubious skills - are not got without cost. “A bit corrupting,” he calls them. But they do give one an educated eye for atrocity, as readers of what the fans call the works of his hard-edge period will attest.
“Concrete Island” and “Crash”, written “while my children were daily crossing the roads to wherever children go,” are dangerous explorations of what taking the car-juggernaut to our hearts has meant.
And “The Atrocity Exhibition” explores, in more complex ways but with no less imaginative ferocity, the media landscape we largely inhabit when we come off the motorways, a world in which “experiences at first hand more and more give way to second-hand experiences mediated to us by TV and video, devoid of their emotional and human context, so that one can watch horrendous events like, say, a racing car exploding during a race at Brands Hatch without making any sort of moral judgment about what' s going on.”
Ballard sees this as a special case of the obsessive interest in discrete and specific functions which many scientific operations tend to share with pornography, contributing largely to the “death of affect” in our world which is a recurring preoccupation in his writing.
These harsh books are no documentary moralities, but trails blazed through areas of dangerous fascination in which most of us stray - “and I share in that fascination. At the same time I offer, almost, myself as an example of the dangers of being too fascinated. There's a strong cautionary element running through my books. And yet when people say, ‘Why are you writing this kind of extreme fiction?,’ it seems to me it isn't as extreme as people living in, say, the Constable country of the mind might imagine. I mean, most of the planet is not covered with rolling English meadows, if you know what I mean. I don't think it's some sort of bizarre choice on my part.”
This is frankly not what the Constable countrymen of the book trade like to hear - “we like the light and satirical way,” as another Booker runner-up observed of her English peers - and the Guardian Fiction Prize which he receives today will be the first prize he has won. (But then William Golding remained unprized until he was over 70).
In fact, the later work is by Ballard standards almost genial. In “The Unlimited Dream Company”, a mysterious flyer who crashes in the Thames makes amends for Wells's unkindness by transforming Shepperton into an erotic subtropical utopia, a peaceable kingdom with groves of palms and hanging vines where pregnant deer gratefully roam and the dead are released from the churchyard in a great Spencerian Assumption to the sun.
“Hello, America”, the next novel, is a high pop-art entertainment in a continent emptied by the collapse of The Dream in a global energy crisis, another world turned upside down. And for all the grimness of its history, Ballard is touchingly concerned that we should notice that in “Empire Of The Sun” his hero actually dares to make relationships.
As the early winter dark hides the starlings ravening in his garden's slice of what's left of an old orchard, he glosses this progression quite simply. Twenty years ago his wife died suddenly while they were all on holiday in Spain. It seemed, he says, “a crime committed by nature against a young mother and her children,” and no doubt the exacerbated imagination of his work in those years when he was bringing up three children alone was partly an exorcising of his pain and anger.
And then the brain calms down. “It's a fact,” he pronounces with aplomb, “that nobody becomes a psychopath over the age of 40.” In one's fifties “it's time to make peace and draw the threads together,” and plainly the confronting of old traumas in “Empire Of The Sun” was part of that process too. So now, his children grown and gone, our Shepperton surrealist continues more serenely in his magic fictions, the games against time and death which are the ground of all art and love.
“Empire Of The Sun” is published by Gollancz, price £8.95.