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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Counting the ways: what Virgin and Other Stories teaches us about want

April Ayers Lawson’s debut collection is both forensic and mysterious.

The title story of April Ayers Lawson’s debut collection, which won the Paris Review’s Plimpton Prize for Fiction in 2011, begins with a man staring at a woman’s breasts. The breasts belong to Rachel, a recent survivor of breast cancer and a wealthy donor to the hospital where Jake works. His attraction to Rachel grows in tandem with his suspicions about his wife, Sheila, who was a virgin when they married. Jake “thought . . . that she couldn’t wait to lose her virginity to him”. It didn’t turn out like that. Sheila was first horrified by, and then indifferent to, sex. But why does she smile at strange men in the street? Why does she come home so late from orchestra practice? The story ends on the brink of infidelity – but the infidelity is Jake’s own.

“Virgin” is a fitting introduction to the animating question of Lawson’s fiction: who feels what and for whom? The narrator of the second story lists the similarities between her and the two women with whom, at a summer party, she sits in a hammock. “All three of us were divorced or about to be legally so. All three of us were artists . . . All three of us were attractive but insecure and attracted to each other,” she begins. A couple of pages later, this accounting becomes more like a maths puzzle that seems to promise, if only it could be solved, a complete account of each woman and her relation to the others. “Two of us were pale with freckles. Two of us had dark hair and green eyes . . . One of us didn’t talk to her mother and one of our fathers had left and one of our sets of parents had not divorced. . . Two of us had at some point had agoraphobia and all of us had problems with depression . . .” It goes on.

Reading the five stories of Virgin and Other Stories, trying to catch the echoes that bounce between them, I caught myself performing the same move. One story is fewer than ten pages and one more than 60. Two are narrated in the first person and one in a mix of first and third. Two have teenage protagonists and two have young, married protagonists. Two protagonists steal works from a public library. Two stories mention Zelda Fitzgerald. Four contain women who have experienced sexual abuse, or experience it in the course of the story. Four are set partly or wholly in the American South. All five feature characters struggling with powerful and inconvenient desire.

Evangelical Christianity skirts the edges of Lawson’s stories. Her characters are seldom devout but they are raised in an atmosphere of fanatical devotion. The 16-year-old Conner narrates the collection’s funniest story, “The Negative Effects of Homeschooling”. “I saw women only at church,” he says. “Though . . . we went to a progressive church, our women looked the opposite of progressive to me: big glasses and no make-up, long skirts and cropped haircuts. You couldn’t imagine any of them posing naked.” He has “hard-ons ten or 12 times a day”, pores over Andrew Wyeth’s Helga Pictures, is furious about his mother’s intense friendship with a transgender woman and obsesses over a pretty, aloof girl from church. In another story, the 13-year-old Gretchen is fascinated by her piano teacher’s sick brother. Surrounded by people talking in religious platitudes, the two teenagers lack a language for their complicated feelings, re-narrating them as love.

The collection’s last and longest story, “Vulnerability”, suggests that this lasts beyond adolescence. The brutal, joyless sex that takes place near the story’s end is all the more disturbing because of the long, complicated sentences of the 60 preceding pages, in which the narrator tries to make sense of her interactions with two men. By turns she desires them, feels nothing for them and wants them to desire her. Yet brutal though the sex is, its aftermath brings a moment of peace that makes the reader wonder whether she should reconsider her interpretation of what came before. Lawson’s stories, at once forensic and mysterious, show how insistent our wants can be and how hard they are to understand.

Hannah Rosefield is a writer and a doctoral candidate in English at Harvard University.

Virgin and Other Stories by April Ayers Lawson is published by Granta Books, (192pp, £12.99​)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge