on November 8, 2008
Quite simply, this was a joy to read.
Ballard tells of his childhood in Shanghai, internment there under the Japanese, his university years in England, right through to his writing career and the joys and tragedies he's experienced as a father and husband, and his love of family life.
What makes this book appealing is that it's not only well written and direct, but also that Ballard tells his story with an honesty and poignancy that is so rare in many autobiographies today.
This isn't about Ballard the writer, but about the circumstances and events that shaped and formed his personal values and beliefs.
You don't have to have read Ballard's fiction to enjoy this book either (although his Shanghai reminisces provide a fascinating insight into Empire of the Sun, the novel based on his internment experiences).
What stands out above all else is his enjoyment of childhood and subsequent selfless devotion and enjoyment of family through all the joys and tragedy he experienced.
His life affirming views on childhood, fatherhood, and single parenthood set this book apart from those hundreds of other autobiographies available that only tell of how individuals found (or lost) their fame or fortune.
on August 25, 2009
J.G. Ballard's candid autobiography impresses through its hallucinatory evocation of the human (war, social, psychological) scenery, the unfolding of the deep sources and motivations of his authorship and the emotions in his life as a family man.
As a young boy in Shanghai, J. G. Ballard was unsettled by the deep social differences between the wealthy foreign bourgeoisie and the extreme poverty of the local population with `orphans left to starve in doorways'.
The picture became even grimmer when the Japanese invaded China and war atrocities (clubbing to death) became nearly an everyday street scene. `Starving families sat around the gates, the women wailing and holding up their skeletal children.'
On his return to England after the war, he was confronted with the English class system, `an instrument of political control'. For the higher classes `change was the enemy of everything they believed in.' Meanwhile, the living standard of the working class was dreadful: `how bleakly they lived, how poorly paid, educated, housed and fed ... a vast exploited workforce, not much better off than the industrial workers in Shanghai.'
Studying in Cambridge he saw that for the inmates `heterosexuality was a curious choice.'
His family life
At the beginning of the 20th century, `children were an appendage to parents, somewhere between the servants and an obedient Labrador' and `childhood was a gamble with disease and early death.' To the contrary, J.G. Ballard was a father and a mother for his children after the early death of his wife.
His medical studies in Cambridge (dissection) taught him `that though death was the end, the human imagination and the human spirit could triumph over our own dissolution.'
As an editor of a scientific magazine `Chemistry and Industry', he read at first hand reports on new discoveries in the drug, computer and nuclear weapons industries.
He saw the originality and vitality of Science Fiction, which he wanted to `interiorize' by `looking for the pathology that underlay the consumer society, the TV landscape and the nuclear arms race.' For him, writers of so-called serious fiction wrote first and foremost about themselves.
Other deep influences were Freud and the surrealists, who showed him a more real and meaningful world.
As a writer he considered himself a lifelong outsider and maverick, devoted to predicting and provoking change.
Themes and vision on mankind
Against all these backgrounds, J.G. Ballard saw perspicaciously that `human beings have far darker imaginations' than normally accepted. Human beings are often irrational and dangerous.' Mankind is ruled by reason and self-interest only when it suits us.
Fundamentally, his fiction `is the dissection of a deep pathology, witnessed in Shanghai and expressed in the threat of nuclear war and the assassination of J.F. Kennedy.'
The result of all these unsettling confrontations and psycho-pathological insights are masterpieces like `Empire of the Sun' or disturbing provocative nightmares of auto-destruction like `Crash'.
This book is a must read for all amateurs of English and world literature and or the admirers of J. G. Ballard's iconoclastic prose.
on October 31, 2009
after viewing the film, EMPIRE OF THE SUN once again on DVD, i was sufficiently inspired to read the true life account of the novelist responsible. after just finishing MIRACLES OF LIFE, the first thoughts entering my mind are, heart-felt, sincere, and touching. the most engaging gripping sections of the autobiography were (for me) found at the beginning chapters...his carefree freckless youth spent growing up in pre-war Shanghai and subsequent civilian internment by the Japanese at Lunghua Camp. the descriptions through the haze of time, of the International Settlement, social life amongst the Brit and other foreign ex-pats, his formative years as a young growing curious teenager in a Japanese Civilian internment camp, and the ending of WW2 in occupied China, were perhaps the crux of his autobio...essentially an unique life experience that determined his future direction and mind set. of mild interest were the follow-up chapters of adjusting to a drab post-war Britain still under rationing (not only food...but optimistic hope)...but unfortunately his narrative of his adult years dissolves into a personal aesthetic exposition of literature cum cinema cum modern art, all tinged with the political upheavals of post-50's decades, and includes a rather pedestrian marriage with single parenthood after the death of his spouse. for those wishing a first hand account (albeit european eyes) glimpse into pre-war Shanghai...this is an invaluable resource. the concluding chapter of his return to childhood Shanghai (after four decades)...now a post-Maoist New Order metropolitian city....was much too short, not as dramatic as expected and proof that 'you can't ever go home again'.
on May 3, 2012
Rarely do I read biographies. It's not that I don't have people whose life interest me, it's just that it always seems that there is something more interesting or more important to read. Literature is full of wonders and I find immense joy in discovering bits of this and bits of that. At some point I discovered "Miracles of life" by J. G. Ballard.
I've read Ballard's work before. Mainly his SF novels and occasional essay or two and his writing always fascinated me. I'm a great admirer of new-wave science fiction of the 60's and Ballard's work stands as a perfect example of this movement. It is fresh and radical, more fearsome of technology than fascinated by it, but still it holds some longing for the future and its possibilities. Ballard and his generation were avant-garde - not just for the science fiction but for the entire literature of the 2nd half of 20th century. All of this promised me a fascinating read and I wasn't disappointed.
Ballard started work on this biography after he was diagnosed prostate cancer. He was 78 then and he lived quite an eventful life. First part of the book deals with his growing up in Shanghai and his life in prison camp during World War II (International Settlement in Shanghai where Ballard live with his parent was occupied by Japanese after an attack on Pearl Harbor) - before this autobiography this was fictionalized in "Empire of the Sun". Second part of the book starts with young Ballard moving to England from where the rest of his life will be lived. Both parts are equally fascinating though they highlight different aspects of life and may not be equally interesting to readers who are looking for literary influences, gossip or musings about literature in general. Both parts show that Ballard is a skillful writer. His memory is keen, and his recollection of events is something to behold.
When describing his life as a boy and young adult Ballard sort of rewrites history. This is an integral aspect of every autobiography which basically shows that thinking about ourselves always becomes fictionalized. That does not mean that Ballard lies in his autobiography (as far as I can tell), it means that Ballard tends to reinterpret past events using a knowledge that wasn't in his disposal when they occurred. Sometimes he overstretches himself and sometimes these interpretations hit the mark precisely. Browsing through these facts and fictions is what makes this book an interesting read for any reader - one that is already familiar with Ballard's work and one that just begins to discover him.
For my part, I found his Shanghai musings rather uninteresting. They do portrait intricacies of a multicultural life in a foreign country, and they do shed some light on an economic colonization of Asia but for the most part they are Ballard's reinvention (or reinterpretation) of his family. Nevertheless, Shanghai experience is crucial for understanding of Ballard's literary work and 2nd part of the book will deal with that.
Second part of the book is where things become interesting (at least for me). It captures the essence of post-World War II Britain, it deals with art and artist and rise of the new paradigm in literature, it presents an insight into a cultural history of the 20th century from an insider's point of view - insider being one of the most important British authors in past 60 years.
Throughout the book Ballard yet again shows his writing skills. His sentence is perfect and has a nice flow so that even when he writes about most tiresome themes you feel compelled to go on, to discover what lies on a next page and how it all fits together. It's a rare skill and seeing it in action reminds me of why I wanted to study literature in the first place.
"Miracle of life" is something you really should read if you're interested in the history of the 20th century. It doesn't show you great events and important things (as "official" and more "serious" handbooks do). It leads you through the backstreets and one should visit these if one hope to gain a semblance of an understanding of how marvelous, intriguing, troublesome and challenging this life on Earth is.
on June 3, 2012
Obviously Ballard is a great writer and the book has some interesting aspects to it, but, well there's not a narrative drive and it sort of ambles along. You do get a bit of a history lesson in regards to his years in Shanghai, but it didn't really hold my interest. Maybe if you are a great fan then this book might be more engaging.
on February 22, 2013
In Miracles of Life, JG Ballard tells the story of a boy who grew up in Shanghai before the last war, was allowed to roam the city at will, immersing himself in exotic and cruel sights, and then found himself interned by an increasingly brutal Japanese occupation force. Ballard writes evocatively and you can feel the excitement and fear coursing through the first hundred or so pages. Yet he also writes with a certain reserve since as a young boy he can only cope with what he sees by shutting off part of his emotions. I don't think it's an accident that he spent two years studying to be a doctor, another profession where you can't afford to give in to your feelings. Ballard settles into a happy marriage and then his wife dies suddenly of pneumonia, leaving him with three small children to bring up. The book is oddly paced, giving us an awful lot of Shanghai at the beginning before moving to grim crushed dirty starving post-war Britain. The more famous he becomes the less we learn about his writing and then we are back in Shanghai and he suddenly more relaxed again. I can't be too mean-spirited though because as he makes clear in the last chapter, he started work on Miracles of Life (his nickname for the three children) after learning he had incurable bone cancer.
on May 14, 2013
Ballard is known for his dystopian, erotic impuses, and psychological science fiction. His stories intimate a classic grouchy British male, when he lived for the most part a very bourgeois, family-loving life. His art was a brilliant representation of the part of his life structured by a youth in Shanghai, before and during WWII. This short memoir was composed upon diagnosis of terminal cancer.
More memoir writers should follow his model, one of encompassing a life divided among single parenthood, writing, and art. He corrects misconceptions based upon his fictional novels structured on his own life events, such as fact his parents were in the internment camp with him, or that his wife died in a matter other than explained in The Kindness of Women. In the process, he offers hints to writers about ways to adapt personal material for stronger effect.
New to me was his involvement with the dadaist English art world of the 1950s, which included an exhibit of crashed cars, leading of course to his eventual writing of Crash. I was also ignorant of his initial work in science fiction. This is a stunning work by a man with a very complicated psychology, who managed to take what could have been very destructive impulses and transformed them on the page or in the art gallery.
on April 1, 2012
This was a fascinating and well written memoire.
It is pretty short and certainly isn't comprehensive when it come to Ballard's writing career.
However it was always interesting and insightful.
The earlier sections on his childhood were very good and were quite comprehensive. It would have been good if it was longer.
The bits on his domestic life after his wife's tragically early death were quite moving. Though I have read that he maybe have glossed over some things and his later domestic life wasn't perhaps as idyllic as it is portrayed here.
His lack of ego was impressive and I thoroughly enjoyed this biography and though that I gained greater insight into his work.
on January 1, 2014
How fascinating to see Shanghai life through the eyes of a young boy during an otherwise obscure time in an otherwise obscure place...obscure from my perspective anyway. Just the panoramic view of life and death in the teeming density of 1930's Shanghai is stunning in and of itself. And, curiously, I as the reader, seemed to be protected or shielded from any emotional over-reaction to the obvious brutality of that era, including the early 1940's. I attribute such insulation to Mr. Ballard's subtle mastery of understatement, as well as his highly developed mental faculty.
Quite a fascinating life's journey, recounted by a master storyteller, as he shares his emergence into the world of writing through the unfolding of his life. Especially interesting was his description of the constraints and conservativism of the science fiction genre, as well as his attraction and response to it.
Fond of Freud, Mr. Ballard sort of, yet lightly, explains certain aspects of his life in psychoanalytic terms. While neat, I wasn't totally convinced.
If I have any criticism of this book it is that it struck me as a bit dry, which seems to be characteristic of most Brits. Not that there isn't a strong emotional component, it's just that it's all channeled thru the mental faculty; hence, a tad "dry." Yet, like so many Brit writers, we're talking about serious mastery and command of the mother tongue; and, Mr. Ballard is, indeed, a master and commander.
on March 30, 2010
From his childhood in a prisoner camp in Shangai during WWII to his going back to it after a 40 years hiatus (a lovely chapter and a noteworthy description of how memory works), the book is a depiction of how these events influenced his major life decisions and his most famous works.
The book is divided in many chapters, each one an important year in his life telling a.o. the relation with his parents and fellow prisoners while being in the camp, the post-war England in a bourgeois family (and how to get away from it), the wedding, being the loving widow father of three, his interest for surrealism and SF (with a strong foot in the present), his relation with other writers (Kingsley Amis gets the biggest "second role" in the book), the sense of peace while the cancer was taking him away only a few years ago.
A book one would have liked to be longer, and (much) more detailed at times - but then again, the clock was ticking while he was writing it...