I spent this morning at the British Library, looking at the recently acquired archive of JG Ballard. Ballard is one of those authors whose work I have devoured, absorbed, appreciated, exalted and admired but never really adored or even enjoyed, absolutely, that is without reservation.
I read him partly because I feel I should, not necessarily because it gives me the escapist satisfaction of my favourite writers. That’s not to say I read him out of dour and unwilling duty, like a GCSE student forced to confront Conrad, but it is markedly different to how I approach writers like James Ellroy, Jose Saramago or John Lanchester. With them, I know that no matter what the subject, I’m going to have a blast. With Ballard, it’s more complex. I know what I’m going to get, I’ll admire the way it is written, but I won’t be knocked off my feet, not any more anyway.
Ballard’s enthusiasts – among them Will Self and Iain Sinclair – often attribute to him extraordinary powers of insight and perspicacity, of having an almost mystic-like view of what awaits the world. There is some truth in this, as he accurately anticipated an atmosphere of suburban psychosis and predicted a society of disconnected and violent insular communities who have a paranoid fear of the ‘outsider’. But in general, it’s all a bit overstated.
His best novel is 1975’s ‘High Rise’, where he first put together a plot he then relentlessly repeated for almost 35 years – an enclosed community, a charismatic professional, a tribal awakening, a middle-class orgy of destruction. Many of the books that followed were almost identical, just with the location changed (one of the best is ‘Super-Cannes’ from 2000).
By 2003’s ‘Millennium People’, his dire penultimate novel set in contemporary London, the methodical working through of these familiar tropes had passed firmly into the territory of self-parody. It was still ecstatically reviewed by critics, obsessed with the man rather than the novel he had written. Personally, I have more time for his early short stories, which are more or less straight science fiction and absolutely brilliant but often dismissed by those who are more interested in what he did after the seismic auto-porn ‘Crash’.
All that said, the archive acquired by the British Library is fascinating and will keep biographers busy for years. Expect many of them to mention his early school report for English, which says he ‘has remarkable ability… but with greater concentration, his work could be even better’.
What astounds when looking at the archive is the amount of revision Ballard applied to his work. His first typeset draft of ‘Crash’ is loaded with handwritten amendments, almost every word appears to be changed in a visual, violent display of self-editing. The level of self-criticism is terrifying – it’s enough to put you off the idea of ever being a novelist.
The British Library member of staff in charge of cataloguing the archive says that the most exciting part of his job is getting a new collection in from a great writer and taking the lid off the box to see their novels in draft form. ‘What’s it going to look like? How did they write?’
Those interested in the answers to those questions should get to the British Library from Friday, June 11, where two pages from ‘Crash’ will be on display at The Sir John Ritblat Gallery: Treasures of the British Library.