JG Ballard's archive - and a "lost" New Statesman interview

The visionary author's papers have been acquired by the British Library.

He has remarkable ability and general knowledge. With greater concentration, his work could be even better.

That was the verdict of J G Ballard's fifth-form English teacher on a school report for the spring term of 1947. It is just one of the thousands of papers belonging to the visionary author that have just been acquired by the British Library. Plenty of others have explained just what made Ballard's contribution to literature so important - all I'll add on that note is that you can read John Gray's appreciation of the author here.

Despite declaring in 1982 that there were "no archives", when Ballard died in April last year, he left behind 15 large storage boxes packed with manuscripts, notebooks, letters and photographs that cover the full range of Ballard's output from The Drowned World (1962) to Miracles of Life (2008).

This morning, journalists were given a look at a small but revealing selection from the archive, which has been acquired under the Acceptance in Lieu scheme. (The culture minister Ed Vaizey said he hoped the scheme would be extended to allow authors to donate papers during their lifetimes, and thus prevent so many literary archives being bought for large sums by US universities.)

Shanghai

J G Ballard Archive Empire of the Sun, f. 1 

One of the most striking items was the stack of yellowing loose-leaf pages that make up the first draft of Ballard's 1984 novel Empire of the Sun. (You can see the first page of this manuscript above, credit: the Estate of J G Ballard.) The novel was based on Ballard's experiences growing up in Shanghai's International Settlement and his family's internment by the Japanese during the Second World War.

In the 1970s, Ballard acquired a stack of documents relating to the internment. One, on display today, is a graph that plots the calorie count for rations distributed to prisoners in 1943, 44 and 45. There are two lines, marked "official rations" and "reserve rice". Both decline as the war nears its end. You can see a blueprint of the camp below (credit: the Estate of J G Ballard).

J G Ballard Archive Camp Blueprint 

A "lost" interview

Up until his death, Ballard declined to use a computer, or email, preferring to submit copy on typed manuscripts. This included his journalistic work, and the NS has a mini Ballard archive of its own. It includes this (once again topical) reflection on the aftermath of the 2006 World Cup, in which he describes the ubiquitous St George's flags as signs of "a failed insurrection".

More of a mystery is the interview we have reproduced below. According to our subscriptions manager and general NS expert Stephen Brasher, it was conducted at some point in the mid-1990s, for a long-defunct feature called "Influences". We have Ballard's answers, but not the questions! If anyone has any suggestions to what they might have been (particularly the unsettling response to number 10), please add your comment below.

Replies to Influences Questionnaire

1. Orwell's 1984 convinced me, rightly or wrongly, that Marxism was only a quantum leap away from tyranny. By contrast, Huxley's Brave New World suggested that the totalitarian systems of the future might be subservient and ingratiating.

2. Film. E. Klimov's Come and See, about partisans fighting the Germans in Byelorussia, is the greatest anti-war film ever made.

Book: The Neiman-Marcus catalogue, to illustrate the bounties of consumer capitalism.

Play: Stephen Sondheim's Assassins, a brilliant cabaret set in the presidential shooting gallery that is the American psyche.

Poem: Andrew Marvell's "To His Coy Mistress", the wisest words ever written, as all men will agree.

Song: "The Star Spangled Banner". If we're all going to become Americans we might as well be enfranchised ones.

3. The cadavers I dissected in the Anatomy School at Cambridge. Almost all were of doctors who donated their bodies to the next generation of medical students. A great tribute to their spirit.

4. The dropping of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki A-bomb, which brought World War 2 to a sudden end and almost certainly saved my life.

5. Franklin Roosevelt, for launching the new Deal and bringing the USA into the war.

6. Gettysburg, 19 November 1863, as Abraham Lincoln delivered his Address, a masterpiece of English prose and an exact statement of the democratic ideal.

7. The enlightened bureaucratic state, determined to do what is best for us, and already watching our every move on its CCTV and speed-check cameras.

8. My girl-friend Claire. We have disagreed amicably for years, but she is generally right.

9. Arthur Scargill, the only socialist with sufficient will to have abolished the monarchy, House of Lords, inherited titles and the public schools in a full-scale assault on the world's largest fossil - the English class system.

10. I would nationalise Elizabeth Hurley and allow each of us to claim our share.

 

 

Daniel Trilling is the Editor of New Humanist magazine. He was formerly an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

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Mathias Énard is the most brazen French writer since Houellebecq

Énard's latest novel, Street of Thieves, has ideas and charisma to burn.

This book, though no kind of failure, may seem a little pinched and bashful to readers of Mathias Énard’s novel Zone, a 500-page, single-sentence rumination on European cruelty that was published last summer to giddy applause. A back-cover blurb by the writer Patrick McGuinness, who also teaches French at Oxford, claims that Street of Thieves is “what the great contemporary French novel should be”, but this is a description better deserved by its predecessor – and possibly its successor, Boussole (“compass”), a grand-scale effort published in French this month by Actes Sud, which promises the reader “staggering erudition” and “heartbreaking lucidity”. Street of Thieves never calls for adjectives of that order (“involving” would be closer to the mark) though it still confirms Énard as the most brazenly lapel-grabbing French writer since Michel Houellebecq. Even on a quiet day, he has ideas and charisma to burn.

In a doomy, plague-ridden future, Lakhdar recalls a late adolescence torn between his duties as a Moroccan-born Muslim and the temptations extended by the north, an alternate universe situated just across the Strait of Gibraltar. In one scale sit “prayers, the Quran and God, who was a little like a second father, minus the kicks in the rear”. In the other sit miniskirted female tourists and the pleasures portrayed in the French detective novels that Lakhdar consumes “by the dozen”: “sex . . . blondes, cars, whisky”. When he is thrown out by his family for having an affair with his cousin, it looks as if fate is tipping the balance. But it doesn’t work out that way. Poverty keeps him tethered to his homeland, and he takes a job working as a bookseller for Sheikh Nureddin, the local imam.

Meanwhile, Lakhdar’s best friend, Bassam, is playing out the same conflict in more volatile ways. Though no less lustful and weed-smoking, he is devoted to Nureddin, for whom, it soon emerges, the Propagation of Quranic Thought is an activity broadly defined, accommodating sticks and stones – and knives and bombs – as well as the pamphlets peddled by Lakhdar.

For much of the first half, the novel is an odd mixture of picaresque and parable. Lakhdar is sometimes an object or victim of fate, sometimes a plaything of his author’s purposes, and the gear changes required can be jerky. One moment, Lakhdar will tell the reader, “And that’s how I entered the service of Marcelo Cruz, funeral services,” in a fish-out-of-water, “isn’t life funny?” sort of way. The next moment, he coolly notes the thematic overlap of his work for Cruz with a previous position that involved digitising the records of an Algerian infantry regiment in the First World War. “The idea of sending real stiffs back to Morocco after having imported dead soldiers to it virtually was rather amusing, I thought.”

Énard’s parable-making instincts frequently take control of the plot, with results that verge on tiresome. When Lakhdar sets sail on a boat named after one of his heroes, the 14th-century traveller Ibn Batuta, the vessel equals Freedom. But lack of an exit visa confines him to the port of Algeciras, then a dispute with the Spanish government keeps the boat there, too. So the Ibn Batuta becomes a symbol for the way that life dashes our best hopes – or upends them. Dreams of freedom produce a nightmare reality. An ideal of escape leads to more stasis.

Yet it feels churlish to grumble about the novel’s design when it enables so much potent writing. Sending Lakhdar from Tangier to Barcelona is a contrivance that you wouldn’t want undone. As well as furnishing different possibilities in terms of scene-setting and atmosphere, it turns the novel into a comparative portrait of two societies through their common factor circa 2011: a period of civic unrest and popular anger that failed to produce a revolution. Morocco is the country that the Arab spring forgot, while in Barcelona the deepening despair is only punctuated, never alleviated, by the occasional protest.

In the Barcelona section, richer by far than those set in Tangier and Algeciras, Énard uses Lakhdar’s outsider perspective to lay bare the shallowness of the type of dissent you find in a democracy. He notes that a general strike is claimed as a victory both by the organisers, because “they reach such-and-such a percentage of strikers”, and by the government, which didn’t have to make any changes. To Lakhdar, Spain appears “a land beyond politics”, where the nationalist government “no longer gave a shit about anyone” and industrial action has become an end in itself.

The workings of orientalism – or whatever cross-cultural logic shapes European responses to North Africa – are exposed with clarity, even flair. A feeling for paradox crowds out the platitude, derived from ­Edward Said, whereby representatives of the developed west are only ever blundering and stupid. It’s true that Judit, a student of Arabic literature at Barcelona University, so narrowly associates Tangier with sexual licence and foreign visitors (Burroughs, Paul Bowles) that Lakhdar, as a Muslim from the suburbs, feels that “we were discussing a different city”. But Énard – who teaches Arabic literature in Barcelona – is careful not to present Lakhdar’s Tangier as the “true” version and Judit’s as a romantic Other-laden mirage. Despite her overemphases, Judit never comes across as a dabbler, and it is Lakhdar’s mistiness about Barcelona that receives the harsher humbling. (The “street of thieves” lies not in Tangier, but in the Raval district of Barcelona.)

So, it is a shame, given this balancing of myopic perspectives, that Énard also feels the need to grant the older, reminiscing Lakhdar, smug in his 20/20 hindsight, a prominent place in the telling. But then Street of Thieves gives the consistent impression of a writer who, not unlike Houellebecq, views formal choices as not just secondary, but irritating. The unpunctuated first-person rant, as used in Zone, is surely Énard’s ideal device. It turns crude technique into an engine. The more intricate demands of the novel – the niceties of plotting and narrative point-of-view – merely serve to slow him down. Lakhdar is most convincing when neither a picaro nor a symbolic type, neither totally himself nor entirely representative, but a balance better suited to Énard’s analytic needs: specific enough to be vivid, while clearly standing in for the migrant who, drawn by fantasies of easy passage to streets paved with gold and teeming with blondes, finds instead an obstacle course from one site of crisis to another. 

Street of Thieves is available now from Fitzcarraldo Editions (£12.99)

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism