An article/interview from "The Bookseller", 16 August 1991:
Ballard and the women
JG Ballard talks to "The Bookseller" about his new novel, the sequel to "Empire of the Sun"
After the Japanese invasion of Shanghai in 1937, the young J G Ballard (he was born in 1930) would journey to school regularly in sight of Chinese being beaten by Japanese soldiers, or lying dead or dying in the streets. Beggars were everywhere, parading their wounds. Two families camped outside his father's offices; often, when the police moved them on, they left behind relatives who had died.
Later, as Ballard recorded in "Empire of the Sun" (1984), he spent three years in a Japanese prison camp. In his new novel, "The Kindness of Women", to be published by HarperCollins on 26th September, he describes an incident that took place when he left the camp following the Japanese surrender. Coming across four Japanese soldiers at an abandoned railway station, and not daring to try to escape, he stayed with them while they slowly murdered a Chinese captive by suffocating him with a telephone wire.
It is not surprising that these experiences have dominated his life. For many years, however, he rarely talked about them, even to his family and friends, and memories of Shanghai appeared only as submerged influences in his fiction. "It took me 20 years to forget, and 20 years to remember," he told interviewers when asked why he had waited so long to write "Empire of the Sun". But still he was not ready to return to Shanghai. It was not until he had completed "The Kindness of Women", which is about how he has dealt as an adult with his legacy from the city, that he felt able to go back. He accepted an invitation from BBC 2's "Bookmark" to make a film there.
Much had changed. The neon signs and American cars had gone, along with the Americans themselves. The eight miles between Shanghai and Lunghua camp, once open countryside, were covered with roads and factories. High rise blocks had sprung up in the city. But much had remained the same.
Ballard's house, now an electronics library, had the same blue paint and bookshelves in what used to be his bedroom: only his comics were missing. Lunghua camp still exists, as a high school, and Ballard visited the room in the former G block in which he and his parents lived for nearly 3 years. It was "an extraordinary experience".
At last, it seems, the past has made peace with him. "The Kindness of Women", written like "Empire of the Sun" as a semi-autobiographical work of fiction (but this time told in the first person), charts his difficult and sometimes tragic journey to this reconciliation.
Ballard has something of the hearty manner of the ex-colonial, and he has lived in the same semi-detached, 1930s house in the quiet Thames Valley town of Shepperton for the past 30 years. But he has inherited from Shanghai a far less conventional sensibility than these outward signs imply. He found England, when he arrived in 1946, alien and dismaying. "Everything was so dead and flat," he says. The 1950s, though made happy for him personally by marriage and the start of a family, was "a terrible time", he thought. "The country was exhausted by the war, and people had lost their confidence. They withdrew behind the old class barriers." The 1960s, however, brought an atmosphere he recognised.
"I realised when I started to write about what I call the media landscape - of television, mass communications, high rises, motorways and the airport culture - that it had been prefigured in the Shanghai I knew, a city where everything was possible. There were dozens of radio stations, unlimited advertising and publicity stunts, bizarre parades, giant kites, floating dragons - reality was turned into a huge, non-stop circus."
In this circus, brutalities and deaths featured as arbitrary and meaningless exhibitions, and they did so again, it seemed to Ballard, in the overheated climate of the 1960s. In 1964 he was hit by the cruellest confirmation of this vision of meaninglessness: the sudden death of his young wife. He writes about it in a section of "The Kindness of Women" called "The Craze Years".
"The Craze Years is a head-on attempt to face the challenge posed by all these meaningless deaths and to try to come to some sort of understanding of them," Ballard says. "In doing so, the narrator undertakes all sorts of desperate stratagems. The car crash exhibition which I staged in 1969 [sic] is one example; using LSD as a short cut to paradise is another."
Ballard was saved from nihilism by the women in his life and by his children. Those who have read other works by him will recognise in "The Kindness of Women" themes of alienation that have recurred throughout his fiction, but will also notice a new tenderness. It appears in his love scenes, and in a chapter about the birth of his third child: "Life magic breathed over us, over the sleeping child, over everything in the sunlit town."
"I chose my title to stress the very important role that women have played in my life in giving me, I hope, a positive view of the world and of the future. The world I've written about has on the whole been a violent one - which is what the world is. But most of that violence has been perpetrated by men. There are probably more women in this book than in all my previous books put together - certainly more sympathetic women."