On the publication of "The Kindness of Women", an interview in the "Sunday Times", 22 September 1991:
Out of the Shelter
J G Ballard talks about his new novel and his dangerous obsessions to Paul Pickering
When J G Ballard had his runaway literary success with "Empire of the Sun", he remarked that he couldn't be bothered to gentrify himself. He didn't. Seven years later the suburban house in Shepperton is exactly the same, although the brand new, silver spaceship of a car in the driveway looks as if it has been left by an interstellar joyrider. His latest book, "The Kindness of Women", an equally mesmeric and original sequel to the prize-winning account of a Japanese concentration-camp childhood, is just as disturbing. But when the man whom Anthony Burgess considers "the finest writer of fiction, tout court" opens his yellow front door, the only other clue to his dangerous obsessions is a unicycle in the hall. "I keep practising, but I'm not very good, really."
"The Kindness of Women" is, in the loosest sense, fictive autobiography. Ballard takes the Jim (of "Empire of the Sun") from the end of the war - when he is trying to get away from the Lunghua prison camp - to cutting up the corpse of a middle-aged doctor while a medical student at Cambridge, flying and whoring with the RAF and into LSD and the maelstrom of the Sixties. Through a reverberating sequence of true events and imaginary characters, Ballard presents us with the vivid and provocative themes of an incredible life.
"Each of my novels is reflected in a section of the book. 'The Drowned World' is Shepperton. The LSD experiences are 'The Crystal World'. The Sixties become 'The Atrocity Exhibition' where Jim exhibits crashed cars...
"However, I'm afraid all the characters are completely made up," he says. "There are no real prototypes of the women or the other characters. Except, of course, my wife and the children. And my girlfriend Claire Walsh (née Churchill) who becomes Cleo Churchill. I hope to convey my affection for her..."
The work, with amphetamine-driven Sally Mumford and psychopathic David Hunter (Ballard's own dark side) contains deadly accurate and unsentimental examinations of the Sixties. "The demise of feeling and emotion, the death of affect, presided like a morbid sun over the playground of that ominous decade, to which Sally seemed to hold a key." Yet the book is often very startling especially when this "depraved and innocent Miranda", Sally, extends her version of "kindness" to Jim on the Shepperton shagpile. "Bugger me, daddy! Beat me! Pixie wants to be buggered!"
Ballard, at first glance a comfortable figure sitting by his french windows, has the heaven-terrified eyes of an Italian Renaissance count. He is intensely private. And precisely who the kind women in his real-life Sixties were - be they Shirley MacLaine or Indira Gandhi - the facts will stay hidden, until someone digs up the time capsule buried under his pear tree by a dilapidated shed.
The truly loving relationship and tragic loss of his wife is heartbreakingly conveyed. Ballard can evoke great tenderness as well as a tranced perversity, "Yes... Some of the book is composed of literal descriptions. The birth of my baby. The LSD trip. The Japanese killing a Chinese on a station platform after the surrender. I watched that. That was a minute-by-minute account of what happened.
"People are violent. Yet most have not seen a dead body or handled a firearm and are very sheltered in our little island enclave. Some said that 'Empire of the Sun' dealt with an untypical upbringing. But Shanghai in the second world war has more in common with a typical Third World life than ours does. And those who have witnessed violence on an immense scale do need to find some sort of meaning." So the new book charts a healing process?
"I hope that is true. In the past people have criticised my stuff for the absence of warmth and personal relationships, as if these things are bubbling out of Kafka, Hemingway, Sartre and Genet." He chuckles, and for a moment those eyes lose their haunted look.
"I think the Kennedy assassination was a catalyst for me. The crime had to be expiated by the public at large. My wife died of pneumonia at the same time and that seemed a crime committed against a young woman and nature... I thought nothing could assuage that wrong, but did not want to descend into a black fatalism. The assassination led me to generalise my feelings and to the experiments with LSD and the car crash obsessions."
Doubleday pulped Ballard's 1969 book, "The Atrocity Exhibition". Now having cult status, it contains a section entitled "The Assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy Considered as a Downhill Motor Race". The first editor who read his work, "Crash", about the latent sexual content of automobile accidents, wrote: "The author is beyond psychiatric help."
Engaged in writing far from the mainstream and bringing up a family singlehanded, Ballard had to rely on women coming to him. "I didn't have the freedom to move around a lot. I was not passive in my private life. It was just a matter of time-tables. Women had to take the initiative with me out here." The female characters in the book are very strong.
Unlike other writers, Ballard has never been seduced by film and television scripts. "I never take up anything that has not sprung from my own imagination. The only thing I would consider is Moby Dick."
In the new novel, Ballard hilariously likens the BBC to the self-protective images in a dying brain. To thank him, the BBC's Bookmark (Wednesday, September 25), takes a Panama-hatted Jim back among the pre-war Shanghai skyscrapers, towering like gigantic 1930s radio sets above the Bund and the Yangtse River. At the Lunghua camp, which is almost as luxurious as Ballard's semi, his eyes are truly happy for the first time. "I had come full circle. I had made contact with my lost self."
As I leave we discuss car alarms and if I know Emma Tennant, with whom he edited Bananas in the 1970s. He is thinking of moving and living for half the year in Antibes with Claire. We pass his unicycle and I recall that Kingsley Amis once compared him to H G Wells, who also had a passion for recreational bicycling and women. Yet, in imagination alone, Ballard leaves Wells in the bike shed.
How long, one wonders, before hordes of Japanese literary tourists come to see the semi-detached launching pad of so many fantastic journeys - hopefully, with Shanghai Jim outside on his unicycle. Now that would be full circle.