JG Ballard, 1930–2009


Panther Books paperback edition, 1968; cover painting: The Eye of Silence by Max Ernst.

If I can’t remember when I first encountered JG Ballard’s work, it’s not because I was reading him at a very early age, more that a childhood enthusiasm for science fiction made his books as omnipresent in my early life as any other writer on the sf, fantasy and horror shelves. I know that when I started to read the New Wave sf writers his work immediately stood out, not only for its originality but also for the numerous references to Surrealist painting which litter his early fiction, references which meant a great deal to this Surrealism-obsessed youth. Ballard was a lifelong and unrepentant enthusiast for the Surrealists, with repaintings by Brigid Marlin of two lost Paul Delvaux pictures prominent in one of his rooms (often featured in photo portraits). I always admired the way he never felt the need to apologise for Salvador Dalí’s excesses, unlike the majority of art critics who dismiss Dalí after he went to America. The paintings of Dalí, Delvaux, Tanguy and Max Ernst became stage sets which Ballard could populate with his affectless characters.

Once I’d encountered the New Worlds writers—Ballard, Michael Moorcock, M John Harrison, Brian Aldiss and company—and their American counterparts, especially Harlan Ellison, Samuel Delany and Norman Spinrad, there was no returning to the meagre thrills of hard sf with its techno-nerdery and bad writing. Ballard and Moorcock were the gateway drug to William Burroughs, Jorge Luis Borges and countless others, and I thought enough of his work in 1984 to attempt a series of unsuccessful illustrations based on The Atrocity Exhibition. It’s been an axiom during the twenty years I’ve worked at Savoy Books that Ballard, Moorcock and Harrison were (to borrow a phrase from Julian Cope) the Crucial Three of British letters, not Rushdie, Amis and McEwan. One of the books I designed for Savoy, The Exploits of Engelbrecht by Maurice Richardson, was a Ballard and Moorcock favourite, and included appreciations of Richardson by both writers. I wish Ballard could have seen the new (and still delayed) edition of Engelbrecht but he got a copy of the earlier book. Sometimes once in a lifetime is more than enough.

Pages of obits and MM comment at Moorock’s Miscellany
Ballard interview by V Vale at Arthur with an special intro by Moorcock
Jeff VanderMeer at Omnivoracious
Guardian | Times | Independent | Telegraph

Previously on { feuilleton }
Ballard in Barcelona
1st Ballardian Festival of Home Movies
Revenant volumes: Bob Haberfield, New Worlds and others
JG Ballard book covers

13 thoughts on “JG Ballard, 1930–2009”

  1. Hey you!

    I really like your blog and the things you share with us. It is a daily joy to see the rss-feed in my inbox, and I hope you keep doing it. Thanks for a great venture into art and literature.

    /// Christian

  2. As when any artist that you love dies, it’s a poignant reminder of how somebody you’ve never met can be an invisible yet profound presence in your life. I think the first Ballard book I read was Low Flying Aircraft at age twelve. His words and imagery informed the whole of my youth and three decades later I find myself in the middle of his final novel, Kingdom Come, still marvelling at the acuity of his vision. Unique and irreplaceable. R.I.P.

  3. I remember my first exposure to Ballard was among a huge box of sci-fi paperbacks by dad acquired from a friend when I was eleven or twelve – a copy of New Worlds 163, spine split and chunks of pages falling out bound by dried & chalky glue. Somewhere in there, You:Coma:Marilyn Monroe, which was unlike anything else in any of the paperbacks in that box, or any of the sci-fi I’d read before, or indeed any of the books I’d read before. I wasn’t ready for it, but I was willing.

    Later on I was lucky enough to have a local independent bookshop that stocked the RE:Search series etc. (this being well before you could find any book on the web and have it in your hands the next day). I soon discovered there was far more to JGB than short blasts of hallucinatory prose, but that first exposure was a revelation, crouched up in the loft sifting through book after book looking for something of interest and then finding it; this was Strange Text and I knew there had to be more and I wanted to find it and read it, and I did and I’m glad I did.

  4. The short stories were the things I read first as well, probably something in one of the many Best of New Worlds anthologies. I do remember having to buy my copy of Crash in London since none of the shops in Blackpool ever seemed to have it in stock.

    Something else I should have mentioned above was Ballard’s hovering like an invisible presence in the music of the Seventies and Eighties. Bob Calvert was mining Ballard for his Hawkwind lyrics as far back as 1972 in 10 Seconds Of Forever (“the vermilion deserts of Mars / the jewelled forests of Venus”), through to whole songs such as High Rise and Death Trap (inspired by Crash). Then there was Joy Division, of course, and the Comsat Angels and Cabaret Voltaire (always listed Ballard and Burroughs as favourite writers) and so on.

  5. Ballard was one of my favorite SF writers and “Vermillion Sands” is still at hand for me, since I read it again and again, every now and then.
    Well, people do not live for ever, but some passings affect us really heavily. It’s been a lot of departures in 2008, and it seems that this year also will charge its toll on the old writers, musicians and artists.
    I’m extremely sorry for not havinbg Ballard anymore, and I believe you’re feeling quite sad as well, since I know you also liked his work very much.
    What else can one say but R.I.P.?

  6. Hi Márcio. It’s sad, yeah, but was far less of a shock than when Burroughs died, Ballard having been seriously ill for some time. I was thoroughly obsessed with his work in the early Eighties so there’s a part of my life which remains colonised by his imagination.

    Vermilion Sands has always been one of my favourites. He often worked better in concentrated doses like that than in some of the novels.

  7. Hi John – trawling round the web today to see reactions to his death and picked up your site again. That cover of Crystal World really rang a bell; it was the first Ballard I ever bought / read (long since lost somewhere). Just a perfect match of cover art and book content, not to mention the profound first impression made by his incredibly original writing voice.

  8. Hi Jay. That painting was on the UK hardback as well as the pb so I wouldn’t be surprised if it was a recommendation from Ballard himself. As you say, a perfect pairing. I’ve always thought that book shouldn’t be allowed to have anything else on its cover.

  9. I have link your post in my post.

    Today we can say that, as the title of the the exhibition in Barcelona, the world is a little boring.

  10. Not to be irreverent to Ballard, rest his violet soul, but the Ernst painting reminds me very much of the labyrinth scenes in Barbarella, also released in 1968. Any connection, do you think?

    I’ve just realized that half of what I post on here is saying, “This reminds me of that. Any connection?” Oy.

  11. I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s some Surrealist influence in Barbarella, it’s a very surreal take on standard sf tropes, after all. This painting always makes me think of Gustave Moreau more than anything, Ernst veered closer to the Symbolists than most with these decalcomania pictures of the 1940s. As for Ballard, he was writing for New Worlds during this period and NW #179 had Jane Fonda and John Philip Law on the cover. So it’s not that inappropriate.

Comments are closed.