NEWS FROM THE SUN
(For J. G. Ballard’s Readers)
IMAGINATION ON TRIAL
I've just caught up with an important Ballard interview which appeared towards the end of 1981 (though, from internal evidence, it was taped as long ago as 1975). The interview is conducted by Alan Burns, and appears in the book The Imagination on Trial, edited by Burns and Charles Sugnet (Allison & Busby, £3.95 or $7.95). The book is subtitled “British and American writers discuss their working methods”, and it also contains long conversations with John Gardner, John Hawkes, Michael Moorcock and others.
The JGB interview, which is given pride of place in the book, fills some 15 pages and contains some fascinating material. Ballard talks about Shepperton, where he lives, and about his attitude to England as a whole. There is the following odd anecdote:
“I had a very curious sensation several years ago, when I'd already lived in this house for about eight years. I took my children to Greece for a couple of months, down the Peloponnese where you've got these endless beaches which are totally deserted, rather uncanny in a way, because you've got this paradisial landscape, you expect to see centaurs, all sorts of mythological beasts. Standing on this totally deserted beach, I suddenly realized I'd forgotten where I lived in England. I forgot, it wasn't just a passing thing, I actually for about fifteen seconds couldn't remember where I lived. I had to work it out backwards - Boulogne, Dover, Vauxhall Bridge Road, Hammersmith Flyover... Oh, of course: Shepperton!”
In response to a suggestion that his work is “cold”, Ballard makes the following marvellous statement:
“I regard myself as a very emotional person in my ordinary life. And I regard myself as a very emotional writer. I write out of what I feel to be a sense of great urgency and commitment. I'm certainly not a political writer, but I feel a great sense of urgency... When people say to me, ‘You're very cold and clinical,’ I always find that strange; they may be confused. I use the language of an anatomist. It's rather like doing a post-mortem on a child who's been raped. The anatomist's post-mortem is no less exact, he itemizes things no less clearly, for the rage and outrage he feels.”
“...the country we all live in...”
The important thing about The Imagination on Trial is that it is not a book concerned with science fiction. It is about the serious modern novel. It's heartening to see Ballard taken so matter-of-factly as a major novelist, irrespective of genre. Charles Sugnet's critical introduction to the volume cites Ballard more often than any of the other contributors. Sugnet sees JGB as one of a small group of British writers who (in common with the Americans Hawkes, Pynchon, Coover and Gaddis) “offer an investigation of the country we all live in, the country of freeways and billboards, of racism and pop culture, of labour disputes and military atrocities, a country where mass-produced language pours out of radio and television, piling up like uncollected garbage.”
On the subject of the British reluctance to face certain subjects, Ballard says to Alan Burns: “we've been an imaginative satellite of the United States for thirty, forty years. We're rooted in the past. People here are slightly blotto. Changes are taking place, but they don't want to look too closely at them. They want to go on with their strange mixture of Sotheby's and Betty Grable and royal weddings...” (Betty Grable! The royal wedding referred to must be that of Anne and Mark -- DP.)
Ballard continues: “Some of the reviews of Atrocity Exhibition were absurd, absolutely ridiculous. I think it was the Sunday Times had a very dismissive piece by Julian Symons referring to my ‘evident relish for the nasty’. He's a crime writer who spent his time writing not just novels but he actually published a book which I've got upstairs somewhere, called Crime. Great fat book, with hundreds of photographs, an encyclopedia of crime with descriptions of every conceivable criminal act from rape to mass murder. It's quite well done because it's got all the gory details: how many little girls this cannibal killer of Cologne ate between 1927 and 1933. This is a man who says I've got an evident relish for the nasty! That's one of the paradoxes: everything becomes so conventionalized that you can write about ‘crime’. Very genteel and refined people make a living writing about crime for fifty years. Polite society allows this, no one raises an eyebrow. Someone comes along with a slightly fresh or original approach: ‘Oh, my god. Relish for the nasty’. It's absurd.”
NEW JGB NOVELETTE FOR ‘INTERZONE’...
The first issue of Interzone, the new British magazine of imaginative fiction, has now appeared. It is handsomely produced and contains work by Angela Carter, M. John Harrison and others. Interzone is edited by a group of eight people, of which I am one. If any readers of this newsletter have not yet subscribed to Interzone, they are urged to do so. For a year's subscription send £5 (payable to Interzone) to 21 The Village Street, Leeds, England. Overseas subscribers please use International Money Order (Eurocheques cannot be accepted).
The second issue of Interzone (due June 1982) will contain a brand-new JGB novelette entitled “Memories of the Space Age”. This is the concluding piece in a loose trilogy, the earlier stories being “News from the Sun” (Ambit, 1981) and “Myths of the Near Future” (to appear in F&SF, 1982). “Memories...” is set in Florida, some 20 years in the future, and concerns a strange disruption of humanity's sense of time.
LETTERS ON VARIOUS SUBJECTS...
Thanks for the latest Ballard Bulletin... Re Ballard in French. Denoel began publishing him in 1964 as a result of my badgering and pestering. I featured “The Cage of Sand” in my first anthology for them (Loin de Terra) was back in 1963 and this prompted them to take on The Drowned World and thereafter. They lost him to Louit and Calmann-Levy due to internal changes on the editorial side, but I must correct you and inform you that Hello America sees him back with Denoel (and I hope for good). It appeared in November as Salut L'Amerique.
-- Maxim Jakubowski, Finchley Lane, London
Thanks for the correction, Maxim. John Wolfers told me that Hello America had been sold in France, but I was obviously confused when I reported that Calmann-Levy had bought it. Maxim has also informed me by telephone that a group called The Buggles have included on their second LP, Adventures in Modern Recording, a song called “Vermilion Sands”!
Dear David Pringle
Thank you for sending us the latest issue of NEWS FROM THE SUN which is, indeed, of interest. In spite of Charles Platt's views on Hello America we're going to be publishing this in June 1983, at which point we'll be resubscribing our JGB backlist.
-- Andy McKillop, Granada Publishing, Golden Square, London
Allusions (or seeming allusions) to Ballard's works occur quite often in contemporary music. I like the song “The Death of the Psychoanalyst of Salvador Dali" for a "Ballard” title (Ellen Foley).
This may sound ridiculous, but I think that the film Shivers has a Ballardian feel to it -- in that the claustrophobic atmosphere of a high-rise is communicated. The process whereby the residents become a self-contained unit is similar to High-Rise. Obviously the plot is totally different from Ballard's novel, but there are definite similarities in intent.
It's a pity that Ballard is not really used by the cinema -- so many beautiful cinematic scenes lie within his books. About the only thing I can recall on TV is the Out of the Unknown programme “Thirteen to Centaur?us”, circa 1965 -- quite good, as far as I can remember.
One of the tapes in my possession is very relevant to Ballard. It is from an Open University programme (radio) called “SF's Urban Vision”, and concerns the relationship of city planners and sf writers, in particular Ballard. Excerpts from three stories are read out, viz: “Concentration City”; “Billennium”; “Chronopolis”. The other works mentioned in the programme are Simak's City and Vonnegut's “Welcome to the Monkey House”. Trouble is, the theme is covered in only a 25-minute programme.
-- Jim Darroch, Corslet Road, Currie, Midlothian
A couple of years ago there were serious moves to film High-Rise. It got as far as the script stage. Maybe it will still come off; I must find out about that. (The script was not by Ballard.) I believe several of JGB's works have been “optioned” for movies, though of course that is not unusual in itself -- film-makers like to tie up the rights to novels which catch their fancy, just in case.
Glanced with usual muted horror at latest news-sheet... What are all these people on about? Is any song which mentions sand/concrete/high-rise buildings/cars automatically Ballardian? The Comsat Angels obviously take a certain inspiration not from Ballard or Peter Weir, but from Jim Morrison and the Doors “Cars Hiss by my Window” is, after all, a Doors song (see L.A. Woman) and the phrase is unusual enough for this to be an unlikely coincidence.
But then maybe Morrison was a secret Ballard fan. So secret even he didn't know it. Look at “Moonlight Drive”, for instance, the very song (according to No One Here Gets Out Alive) that brought Morrison and Ray Manzarek together to found the group. Cars, sex, drowning, what more could one ask?
I think a record company should release an album of Songs to Read Crash By. I'm sure it would prove a smash...
-- A.J. Weberman, Duckett Road, London
Thank you, Mr “Weberman”. I hope, unlike your namesake, you're not given to rifling through dustbins. Your points are taken, but... My correspondents will persist in finding parallels between music and JGB. The whole topic seems to have struck a definite chord.
I disagree with Michael Ashley's rather mechanical use of the concept of “influence” between artists by looking for a literal transposition of words and phrases from book into lyric -- after all the mark of any great writer is the way in which his/her view of the world is taken away from its individual base and changed into mass currency -- the same can be said for political ideas, viz K. Marx.
As to Joy Division: or perhaps specifically the late Ian Curtis, who it seems to me has developed and transformed Ballardian themes by condensing them into extremely short story-lines (3/5 minutes) -- he has really found the essence through the isolated individual subjected to inevitable change, where there are no heroes only observers and participants.
-- Dave Haywood, Althea Street, London
Your NEWS FROM THE SUN I have found more than interesting, but I am admittedly a Ballard fan. However, these NEWS have raised some fascinating questions in my mind. Why Ballard? Why a “chapel cult” for such an idiosyncratic writer? The simplest answer --- not the final one, indeed -- is our deep conviction (yours, mine and other readers') that Jim is a neglected major writer, and you are generously supplying the information -- difficult to assemble -- that all readers want when they love a writer who is not a public fallacy, or a public misunderstanding.
Months ago I began to write a long essay on Ballard for a Spanish magazine, an essay that I have delayed in order to obtain more critical information. The main point of my article will be Ballard's characterization, and I will try to show that the commonest argument (Aldiss has been insistent about it: Ballard's heroes have not a will of their own; they are too passive, too inactive) is in fact a misreading. I think, on the contrary, that Jim has seen very deeply, and cleverly, a seminal truth -- a truth that it is possible to perceive in some philosophical writings of our time, but not normally in fiction: man is the world, man is the situation in which he lives, etc., etc. If you recognize that you are the world, then the world and yourself become a logical entity, and it makes it possible for you to understand the world. A new concept of the hero, i.e. -- Ransom (in The Drought) is the only one who tries to understand what is happening!
-- Francisco Porrua, Ediciones Minotauro, Barcelona
Thank you. (Francisco Porrua is JGB's Spanish publisher, and he is currently copy-editing the Spanish translation of High-Rise.) Thanks also to all the other people who have written to me in response to this newsletter in the past couple of months. Please keep your news and comments coming.
One of the most interesting (and infuriating) critical essays on Ballard's works is “What Are We to Make of J. G. Ballard's Apocalypse?" by H. Bruce Franklin -- published in Voices for the Future: Essays on Major Science Fiction Writers, Vol. II, edited by Thomas Clareson, Bowling Green University Popular Press, 1979. I mention it here for the benefit of those of you who won't have seen this American item.
Franklin is a Marxist of a fairly straightforward sort, but he's also an intelligent critic. He berates Ballard for not showing us the way forward to socialism, while at the same time it is obvious that he appreciates the power of JGB’s writing. Ballard “projects” a doomed Western capitalist world, he does so brilliantly, but he offers us no constructive alternative: “What would Ballard create if he were able to envision the end of capitalism as not the end, but the beginning, of a human world?”
Franklin sees the early short story “The Overloaded Man” as being a significant paradigm of JGB's methods and concerns: “in this story he shows quite explicitly that the source, or at least one crucial source, of the central problem of all his fiction is the historical dichotomy between subject and object, a dichotomy which he perceives as becoming catastrophic as bourgeois society itself disintegrates. In ‘The Overloaded Man’ it is explicitly the lone petty bourgeois intellectual who destroys the entire world not by bombing it with nuclear weapons or too many people but by withdrawing himself from it.” Franklin believes that “solipsism is a danger inherent in bourgeois ideology right from the start”, but “the tenden?cy towards solipsism... is held in check as long as the bourgeoisie is rising or ruling as a social class, extending or maintaining its 'freedom'. During these periods, the bourgeois split between subject and object manifests itself in what Ballard aptly calls Crusoeism: the individual man of action, relying on his own wits and ingenuity, and sometimes aided by inferior beings, conquers the natural and social environment. Ballard displays collapsing bourgeois society turning the Crusoeism of the rising bourgeoisie inside out. The hero of 'Deep End' is 'Robinson Crusoe in reverse'... The hero of The Drowned World shows 'inverted Crusoeism' in the deliberate marooning of himself'.” And so on. Franklin's is a stimulating piece, although it's a pity that he can find only one story (“The Killing Ground”) which is apparently ideologically sound -- and even there “he ends by turning away from his own best insights”.