J G Ballard

J G Ballard by Fay Godwin
J G Ballard by Fay Godwin © British Library Board

Biography

The novelist and short-story writer J G Ballard was born in Shanghai, China in 1930. When he was 11, the Japanese invaded the Shanghai International Settlement and interned him and his family. He drew on the experience for the semi-autobiographical novel Empire of the Sun (1984).

He began training as a doctor at Cambridge, but on winning a short story competition, moved to study English at Queen Mary, University of London. Having left without completing his degree, he worked briefly as a copywriter for an advertising agency and as an encyclopaedia salesman before joining the RAF.

His first short story was published in 1956 in the magazine New Worlds; his first novel, The Drowned World, was published in 1962. When his wife died in 1964, he raised his three children alone, living in the Shepperton area near the famous film studios and London’s Heathrow airport, and also working as a literary and scientific editor.

Ballard identified his influences as being in the surrealist tradition, and befriended avant garde artists such as Eduardo Paolozzi. In 1970, he staged an exhibition of crashed cars in a London gallery; this led to his 1973 novel Crash, an exploration of the eroticism of automobile accidents. The film version, made in 1996 by David Cronenberg, only served to exacerbate the controversy, and at one point it was banned in the London borough of Westminster and campaigned against by the Daily Mail.

Other later satirical works include Cocaine Nights (1996); for some, Atrocity Exhibition (1970) is his best collection of short stories. ‘Ballardian’ has passed into the language as a term in its own right; the Collins English Dictionary defines it as: ‘resembling or suggestive of the conditions described in J. G. Ballard’s novels and stories, especially dystopian modernity, bleak man-made landscapes and the psychological effects of technological, social or environmental developments’. For the writer Will Self, one of Ballard’s most dedicated disciples, this ‘fails entirely to capture the vigorous strangeness of his finest writing, and its avowedly philosophical cast.’

Ballard described the mainstream literary world which acknowledged him when the Empire of the Sun was published as ‘the enemy.’ He declined a CBE in 2003, and died in 2009; the title of his 2008 memoir, Miracles of Life, refers to his three children. His archive is at the British Library.

Further information about the life of J G Ballard can be found here via the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

Related articles

J G Ballard and modern art

Article by:
Roger Luckhurst
Themes:
Visions of the future, Art, music and popular culture

Roger Luckhurst describes the influence of modern art, especially Surrealism and Pop Art, on J G Ballard and, in turn, Ballard's influence on visual artists.

Review of Empire of the Sun

Article by:
Angela Carter
Themes:
Power and conflict, Literature 1950–2000

The writer Angela Carter reviewed Empire of the Sun for Time Out on its publication in 1984. Describing it as J G Ballard's 'breakthrough' novel, she nevertheless emphasised its connections to his previous work.

The opening of Crash in slow motion

Article by:
Chris Beckett
Themes:
Visions of the future, Literature 1950–2000

Chris Beckett provides a close reading of the manuscript draft of Crash by J G Ballard, focussing on the novel's opening pages.

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