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The Inner Man: the Life of J G Ballard

A model for missing the point of biography.

The Inner Man: the Life of J G Ballard
John Baxter
Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 400pp, £20

By the time Steven Spielberg's 1987 film Empire of the Sun made the work of J G Ballard known to a wide audience, the author's reclusive life in Shepperton had long been the stuff of media legend. Interviewers who visited him at his modest, semi-detached home rarely failed to mention the house's dusty clutter and to speculate on how the accumulated debris might be linked with his psyche.

The explanation was, in fact, quite prosaic. Ballard had a settled routine. He would get up early, have breakfast and do the Times crossword, then sit down at his typewriter for the rest of the morning. From time to time he would emerge from his study into the hall, take hold of the carpet sweeper and start sweeping. Bringing up his children after the sudden death of his wife in 1964, Ballard had found that he could do the housekeeping in a few minutes. His brief bouts of cleaning had another purpose, however. As his daughter Fay explained, "The use of the carpet cleaner was really a device for him to stop and reflect on what he had been writing."

It was only to be expected that journalists would seize on the dust-festooned hallway as a sign of something deep in Ballard's make-up. At some level - one that few interviewers managed to reach - they may have been right, because his attitude to his suburban home was highly complex. In any event, he seemed happy to go along with the legend. After a while, though, the story was bound to pall, and when media interest in him intensified after the Spielberg production, he seemed to lose patience. It was around this time that Ballard told a visiting journalist, "Please! Don't ask me about the dust! Everyone is fascinated by my dust. There must be more interesting things to talk about."

It is symptomatic of John Baxter's attitude to Ballard that when he recounts this episode he glosses it with the comment that it revealed "a flash of the bully". Perhaps Ballard's manner during the encounter might have been exasperated, or abrupt, but bullying? The choice of word is telling. An Australian-born author who wrote science fiction in the 1960s and went on to produce biographies of film-makers such as Spielberg, Stanley Kubrick and George Lucas, Baxter vents an obsessive animus against his subject on every page of this book.

“In person," he writes, "Jim presented a veneer of good-fellowship, slick as Formica and just as impermeable." The "superficially genial Jimmy" was "drawn to the extremity, the dangerous edge, the abyss which, as H G Wells warned, will, if you stare into it long enough, stare back at you". (It was Nietzsche who warned of the abyss looking back at you - Wells couldn't conceivably have written in these terms.) The book is full of wildly tendentious assertions, such as claims about Ballard's "porn obsession" and his supposed bouts of violence. His own accounts of his life are dismissed. "Jim's skill was to speculate and fantasise, evade and lie."

Ballard's originality is insistently diminished or denied. His early decision to write science fiction rather than realist novels "could be an aspect of his psychopathology, for it echoes the hostility of someone trying to hide a physical or psychological dysfunction - epilepsy, dyslexia, illiteracy". His notion of inner space "came from" a 1953 New Statesman piece by J B Priestley, although, as Baxter notes, "Jim never referred to this essay nor acknowledged that he had read it". No evidence is given that Ballard did read the essay, nor for Baxter's characteristically far-fetched theory that some of Ballard's images "could have been" inspired by Stanley Spencer's paintings.

Maybe the reader should not expect proof from a biographer who can write that Ballard's was "the voice of a born advertiser, paradoxically preaching a jihad against commerce: the contradiction at the heart of Jim's life". That Ballard abounded in contradictions is not in doubt, but they were more interesting than any that can be conjured from his spell as a copywriter in the early 1950s. At the same time as he was reimagining through fiction the extremes of cruelty and desolation he had witnessed in Shanghai, Ballard was being a loving and devoted father. In some ways always solitary, he was nonetheless capable of sustaining long, deep personal relationships, most notably with his partner of four decades, Claire Walsh. These disjunctions are mirrored in his novels. Whereas The Atrocity Exhibition (1970) and Crash (1973) describe "the death of affect", Empire of the Sun (1984) and The Kindness of Women (1991) show how our lives are shaped by experiences of love and bereavement over which we have no control.

Perhaps the most profound contradiction in his work relates to time. In flight from his memories for much of his life, he used his fiction to envision a moment in which the passage of time was stilled. Baxter touches on this theme, noting that it amounts to a kind of "secular mysticism", only to conclude that Ballard "deployed the psychopath's reverence for the instant present". Yet what he was struggling to achieve in the several genres of fiction he deployed was a reconciliation between conflicting impulses that were not his alone. From the dream-haunted landscape of The Drowned World (1962) to the deadpan surrealist comedy of Hello America (1981), from the experimental novels to the thrillers of his later years, it was the universally human conflict between seeking to preserve meaning in memory and the need to shake off the burden of the past that Ballard explored. In a more directly personal way, he did the same in his 2008 autobiography, Miracles of Life. It is with a weary sense of inevitability that we learn that Baxter judges Ballard's graceful and deeply moving memoir to be "above all one of his skilful exercises in image management".

The publisher's blurb notes that this biography is unauthorised. The works are summarised but not quoted, and it is clear that Baxter did not talk to Ballard's family, nor to his partner, nor to hardly anyone who met him in recent years. His own contact with his subject seems to have been tenuous and sporadic, and it occurred mainly in the 1960s. One wonders what he imagined he was doing in taking on this book. Demystifying literary biography can be illuminating (one thinks of Michael Shelden's Graham Greene: the Man Within), but what Baxter gives us is something quite different - a Burroughs-like cut-up in which a fictitious ogre is constructed from irrelevant facts, scraps of gossip and random inferences.

Here and there, one comes across passages that point the way to an understanding of this most challenging of writers. They are always in quotations from those who knew him. Visiting Shepperton in the summer of 2008 for the first time in years, Fay remembered

a dried-up orange sitting on the mantelpiece in the nursery. I walked through the door and it was still there. I said, 'Oh my goodness, you still have the orange. He looked at me and he said, very quietly but seriously, 'It's a lemon.' It must have been there for at least 40 years. I don't see the lemon as something eccentric. It's not a relic. It's covered in dust. It hasn't been moved. It's obviously important to him. And it's very beautiful.

John Gray is the NS's lead book reviewer. His latest book is "The Immortalization Commission: Science and the Strange Quest to Cheat Death" (Allen Lane, £18.99)

John Gray is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is Feline Philosophy: Cats and the Meaning of Life (Allen Lane)

This article first appeared in the 12 September 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron vs the shires