Poetry of the Thirties edited by Robin Skelton (1964)

Even before they were quite over, the Thirties took on the appearance of myth… It is rare for a decade to be so self-conscious… (Robin Skelton in his introduction)

Robin Skelton (October 1925 – August 1997) was a British-born academic, writer, poet, and anthologist. In 1963 he emigrated to Canada and taught at universities there. He appears to have written an astonishing 62 books of verse (some of them, admittedly, explanations of theory & metre), five novels, 15 non-fiction books and some 23 anthologies.

This Penguin paperback edition of poetry from the 1930s is similarly profuse. It contains some 169 poems by no fewer than 43 poets, a very wide-ranging selection.

Some of the poets are super-famous – W.H. Auden, Dylan Thomas, John Betjeman.

Some more niche, like the Surrealist poets David Gascoyne, Hugh Sykes Davies and Philip O’Connor.

Some wrote little but have cult followings, like the fierce young communist John Cornford or the eccentric academic William Empson.

Many are worthy but dull, like the famous but boring Cecil Day-Lewis and Stephen Spender.

Some are famous for other things e.g. Laurie Lee, who went on in the 1950s to write the phenomenally successful memoirs Cider with Rosie and As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning but is represented here by three minimalist lyrics written in Spain.

And half a dozen or so of Skelton’s choices are of pretty obscure figures – Clere Parsons, Ronald Bottral, F.T. Price, Roger Roughton. Who? Did Skelton make some of these up? It would be funny if he had.

What the breadth of this selection is obviously designed to do is to make us look far beyond the usual suspects, particularly the over-hyped Auden Group poets, and consider a much wider range of Thirties poet – and in this it works.

Introduction

Skelton arranges the poems by theme, not by poet, juxtaposing poems on the same topics by widely different authors in order to compare & contrast approaches and styles, making the anthology what he describes as a kind of ‘critical essay’.

Period Anything published in a periodical between 1 January 1930 and 31 December 1939, extended to the end of 1940 in the case of poems which first appeared in books, which have a slower turnaround.

The Thirties generation Skelton only includes poets born between 1904 and 1916. Anyone born after 1904 had no conscious experience of the idyllic pre-war Edwardian civilisation. They came to adolescence during the Great War or the turbulent years afterwards leading up to the 1926 General Strike and had barely learned how to party before the 1929 Wall Street Crash inaugurated the Great Depression.

At the other end of the period, some poets born in 1916 were still recognisably of the generation but much after that and they came to maturity just as the second war started and so belong to a different generation.

Schoolboy view of war Almost all the poets of the Thirties went to public schools which had officer training corps, maps on the walls showing the progress of the Great War and jingoistic masters. Their parents, teachers, newspapers and books gave them a vivid impression of the heroic camaraderie of war. (Remember the anti-war poems of Siegfried Sassoon were known only to a tiny literary circle and the anti-war sentiments which we take for granted didn’t really become widespread until the 1960s.)

It is no surprise that the poetry of a generation which grew up during the Great War for Civilisation is stuffed with images of war: armies, soldiers, the Enemy, the Leader are routinely referred to, and there are maps, lots of maps, and ‘frontier’ is a particularly resonant buzzword (Auden’s play On the Frontier, Edward Upward’s first novel, Journey to the Border).

Now over the map that took ten million years
Of rain and sun to crust like boiler-slag,
The lines of fighting men progress like caterpillars,
Impersonally looping between the leaf and twig.

(from It was easier by Ruthven Todd, 1939)

You above all who have come to the far end, victims
Of a run-down machine, who can bear it no longer;
Whether in easy chairs chafing at impotence
Or against hunger, bullies and spies preserving
The nerve for action, the spark of indignation-
Need fight in the dark no more, you know your enemies.
You shall be leaders when zero hour is signalled,
Wielders of power and welders of a new world.

(from The Magnetic Mountain poem 32 by Cecil Day-Lewis, 1933)

Here war is simple like a monument:
A telephone is speaking to a man;
Flags on a map assert that troops were sent;
A boy brings milk in bowls. There is a plan

For living men in terror of their lives,
Who thirst at nine who were to thirst at noon,
And can be lost and are, and miss their wives,
And, unlike an idea, can die too soon.

But ideas can be true although men die,
And we can watch a thousand faces
Made active by one lie:

And maps can really point to places
Where life is evil now:
Nanking; Dachau.

(poem XVI from In Time of War by W.H. Auden, 1939)

Movements They wanted to be part of a larger community, the era was characterised by movements, gangs and cliques. There were lots of manifestos and anthologies with prefaces earnestly explaining why the poetry of their generation was different. Not only that but the poets felt that they had to embody the new values they promoted. The literary culture was high-minded and unforgiving, epitomised by the high standards of the magazine New Verse (1933-39) which flayed any poet who ‘sold out’ to the establishment. When C. Day-Lewis agreed to me a judge for some book club he was mercilessly attacked for selling out.

Chums The accusations that the movement was based round a small clique of pals who boosted each other’s works was reinforced by the way the Auden Gang did collaborate, for example that Auden and his best friend Christopher Isherwood collaborated on no fewer than three plays – The Dog Beneath the Skin (1935), The Ascent of F6 (1937) and On the Frontier (1938) – as well as a joint account of their visit to China during the Sino-Japanese War, Journey to a War (1939). Auden and MacNeice co-wrote an account of their visit to Iceland, Letters From Iceland (1937), and the leading composer of the new generation, Benjamin Britten, was also a collaborator, writing music for F6 and Frontier, as well as setting poems from On This Island and music for the documentary film Night Mail for which Auden wrote the verse commentary.

New ‘New’ was a buzzword, new verse, new times, new politics, new men. Art Deco was an entirely post-war style they grew up with, new suburbs were being built, in new styles, flats and maisonettes suggested new types of urban living, memorably expressed (if with the obscurity typical of his earliest poems) by Auden:

… Publish each healer that in city lives
Or country houses at the end of drives;
Harrow the house of the dead; look shining at
New styles of architecture, a change of heart.

(from Poem XXX by W.H. Auden, 1929)

Two key early anthologies of the era which helped introduce the young generation to a wider audience were New Signatures (1932) and New Country (1933), both edited by Michael Roberts, and the most influential magazine was New Verse edited from 1933 to 1939 by the combative poet and critic Geoffrey Grigson. New Writing was a popular literary periodical in book format founded in 1936 by John Lehmann and committed to anti-fascism, which featured works by the new young writers.

Even Oswald Mosley’s first independent political party was initially named simply the New Party (founded February 1931) before it morphed into the British Union of Fascists (October 1932). Everything had to be new.

Politics The Great Depression began with the Wall Street Crash of 1929 when the poets were in their early 20s and lasted until 1933, during which huge swathes of the industrial economy collapsed throwing millions out of work. The international nature of the crisis (which began in the USA and affected America worst) convinced many intellectuals that capitalism was entering its last great crisis. The entire political and economic system from the king through the Houses of Parliament seemed incapable of dealing with the social impact of the crash.

These confident young men castigated it as ‘the old order’, ‘the dying order’, ‘the old gang’ and routinely castigated pompous, top-hatted ministers presiding over a country where the poor were living in squalor.

In England the handsome Minister with the second
and a half chin and his heart-shaped mind
hanging on his thin watch-chain, the Minister
with gout who shaves low on his holly-stem neck…

(from The Non-Interveners by Geoffrey Grigson, 1937)

The economic crisis had only just begun to recede when Hitler came to power in Germany (in January 1933). For anyone on the Left (which was almost all of the poets) the accession to power of an overt anti-semitic fascist in Europe’s largest country was a disaster, and from then on virtually each new month brought shocking news as Hitler banned trade unions, all other political parties, murdered his opponents, passed discriminatory laws against Jews and so on.

All this took place with the tacit acquiescence of the liberal democracies Britain and France, which increased the contempt and vehemence of the young poets for their cowardly elders. By the mid-30s Hitler was trebling the size of Germany’s army, navy and air force amid the sense of an accelerating stampede towards war which affected all of Europe and produced a tone of political anxiety in most writers.

Whatever their precise position, the poets reflected the general sense that ordinary life was overshadowed and dominated by menacing political issues, and a widespread feeling that poetry must address the huge issues of the day.

This underlies one of the verbal tics of thirties poetry which is use of the word ‘now’ used to mean, right here, right now‘, now this second, to convey a sense of burning urgency, that this – the Spanish war, the threat of communist revolution, is happening now, wake up!

Look, stranger, on this island now
The leaping light for your delight discovers…

(from Look, stranger by W.H. Auden, 1935)

The nowness of the poet’s present moment is contrasted with the Glorious Future which is just around the corner, come the revolution.

Communism The biggest group or ‘gang’ was World Communism which owned All of History and the Future of The Human Race. Stephen Spender, Cecil Day-Lewis, Edward Upward, Hugh Sykes Davies, John Cornford and David Gascoyne are just some of the notable writers who joined the Communist Party of Great Britain during the 1930s, some of them writing earnest books arguing that communism represented the Future of Humanity and of Art (C. Day-Lewis Revolution in Writing, 1935, Stephen Spender Forward from Liberalism, 1937). The 19 February 1937 edition of the Daily Worker featured an article by Spender – I Join The Communist Party – and an editorial giving you a flavour of the oleaginous tone of communist propaganda:

The Communist Party warmly welcomes comrade Spender to its ranks as a leading representative of the growing army of all thinking people, writers, artists and intellectuals who are taking their stand with the working class in the issues of our epoch…’ (quoted in Cunningham, page43)

Louis MacNeice was one among many who tried to express their revolutionary feelings in verse, but being MacNeice, he characteristically humanises his views with everyday observation and imagery:

But some refusing harness and more who are refused it
Would pray that another and a better Kingdom come,
Which now is sketched in the air or travestied in slogans
Written in chalk or tar on stucco or plaster-board
But in time may find its body in men’s bodies,
Its law and order in their heart’s accord,
Where skill will no longer languish nor energy be trammelled
To competition and graft,
Exploited in subservience but not allegiance
To an utterly lost and daft
System that gives a few at fancy prices
Their fancy lives
While ninety-nine in the hundred who never attend the banquet
Must wash the grease of ages off the knives.

(from part III of Autumn Journal by Louis MacNeice, 1939)

Others had visionary hopes for the new world and new way of living the revolution would usher in:

After the revolution, all that we have seen
Flitting as shadows on the flatness of the screen
Will stand out solid, will walk for all to touch
For doubters to thrust hands in and cry, yes, it is such…

(from Instructions by Charles Madge, 1933)

In less skilful hands, communist urgency could degenerate into not much more than abuse:

No more shall men take pride in paper and gold
in furs in cars in servants in spoons in knives.
But they shall love instead their friends and their wives,
owning their bodies at last, things they have sold.
Come away then,
you fat man!
You don’t want your watch-chain.
But don’t interfere with us, we know you too well.
If you do that you will lose your top hat
and be knocked on the head until you are dead…

(from Hymn by Rex Warner, 1933)

By contrast with the above, John Cornford, who volunteered to fight in the Spanish Civil War and died fighting, aged just 21, really means it. From his personal hesitancies emerges a revolutionary anthem. He only wrote a handful of poems before his early death. In Full Moon at Tierz he expresses doubts and worries, but out of them comes the burning conviction of a revolutionary anthem.

Freedom is an easily spoken word
But facts are stubborn things. Here, too, in Spain
Our fight’s not won till the workers of the all the world
Stand by our guard on Huesca’s plain
Swear that our dead fought not in vain,
Raise the red flag triumphantly
For Communism and for liberty.

(from Full Moon at Tierz: Before The Storming of Huesca, 1936)

The Spanish Civil War When General Franco staged his coup against a democratically elected socialist Spanish government in July 1936 he expected to seize power within days. Instead his putsch turned into a gruelling and barbaric three-year-long civil war. Once again, as in their boyhoods, the poets read daily accounts of battles and statistics about dead and wounded in their daily newspapers.

The Spanish Civil War brought together many of the issues these writers were obsessed with – war, working class solidarity, communism, the struggle against fascism. Many of the poets travelled to Spain, it became was a mark of revolutionary virtue and commitment, most as journalists and commentators, a handful to actually fight. Several young English poets and critics actually died on the Republican side – Christopher Caudwell, Julian Bell, John Cornford, Ralph Fox.

Madrid, like a live eye in the Iberian mask,
Asks help from heaven and receives a bomb:
Doom makes the night her eyelid, but at dawn
Drawn is the screen from the bull’s-eye capital.
She gazes at Junker angels in the sky
Passionately and pitifully. Die
The death of a dog. O Capital City, still
Sirius shall spring up from the kill.

(from Elegy in Spain by George Barker, 1939)

By the end many had become bitterly disillusioned by the lies and betrayals they discovered on their own side, the anti-fascist side. George Orwell was only one of hundreds who realised that war, any war, isn’t as simple and pure as their schoolboy heroics had imagined. Skelton makes the point that for many of that generation, the Second World War came as an anti-climax after the immense emotional investment they’d made in Spain and the immense disappointment and disillusion they felt when all of Spain was finally conquered by Franco’s fascists in early 1939, and the war declared over.

Bourgeoisie Virtually all the poets came from the professional classes and attended exclusive private schools, and were acutely embarrassed by it. They keenly identified with the workers, with the unemployed, with the poor, they wanted to take up their cause. They wanted to joint their gang but they didn’t know how. Edward Upward’s novel In The Thirties amounts to a long description of the mortal self-consciousness and embarrassment a typical public school product feels when he becomes a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain and finds himself having to talk to the Great Unwashed.

This makes most of their poems loudly proclaiming solidarity with the working class risible. All too often the threats against ‘the rich’ and ‘the idle’ and ‘the upper classes’ and ‘the poshocracy’ amounted to little more than masochistic self-hatred, the result of liberal guilt about their own privileged upbringings, and a lot of the people they threatened were, on closer inspection, their mummies and daddies and uncles and aunts.

You dowagers with Roman noses
Sailing along between banks of roses
well dressed,
You lords who sit at committee tables
And crack with grooms in riding stables
your father’s jest…

(opening of The Witnesses by Auden)

Orwell’s hatred of this middle-class play-acting knew no bounds. In a letter he dismissed Auden and Spender in particular as ‘parlour Bolsheviks’.

The common people That said, there was a new cultural and academic interest in the sociology of ordinary people, the common people, evidenced by, for example the Mass-Observation social research organisation founded in 1937 by anthropologist Tom Harrisson (Harrow, Cambridge), poet Charles Madge (Winchester, Cambridge) and film-maker Humphrey Jennings (the Perse school, Cambridge), or the amateur ethnography of George Orwell (himself educated at Eton), namely Down and Out In Paris and London and The Road to Wigan Pier.

In this spirit, many of the poets and many of their 30s poems tried to capture the lives of the common people without being (too) patronising.

Now the till and the typewriter call the fingers
The workman gathers his tools
For the eight-hour-day but after that the solace
Of films or football pools
Or of the gossip or cuddle, the moments of self-glory
Or self-indulgence, blinkers on the eyes of doubt,
The blue smoke rising and the brown lace sinking
In the empty glass of stout.

(from part III of Autumn Journal by Louis MacNeice, 1939)

August for the people and their favourite islands.
Daily the steamers sidle up to meet
The effusive welcome of the pier, and soon
The luxuriant life of the steep stone valleys,
The sallow oval faces of the city
Begot in passion or good-natured habit,
Are caught by waiting coaches, or laid bare
Beside the undiscriminating sea.

(from To A Writer On His Birthday by W.H. Auden, 1935)

Traditional forms The super-serious Modernism of T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound (and their continental equivalents) which crystallised just before the First World War, promoted free verse i.e. each line is free-standing and not constrained by having to fit into a preconceived stanza or rhyming scheme. In fact rhyme was generally dropped from Modernist poems as childish and Victorian.

But the thirties poets rejected this rejection, and brought traditional forms and rhymes and rhyme schemes back into fashion. Partly they were reacting against their earnest forebears, partly it was in a bid to make poetry more popular and accessible, partly because it’s just lots of fun to write ballads or sestinas or terza rima or sonnets or couplets and so on.

As I walked out one evening,
Walking down Bristol Street,
The crowds upon the pavement
Were fields of harvest wheat.

And down by the brimming river
I heard a lover sing
Under an arch of the railway:
‘Love has no ending.

‘I’ll love you, dear, I’ll love you
Till China and Africa meet,
And the river jumps over the mountain
And the salmon sing in the street,

‘I’ll love you till the ocean
Is folded and hung up to dry
And the seven stars go squawking
Like geese about the sky…

(from As I Walked Out One Evening by W.H. Auden, 1939)

All the old forms were revived but given a modern spin, filled with thirties urban imagery or modern psychology. Louise MacNeice used rhyme schemes in his best poems but with subtle innovations to match the dreamy subtlety of the moods he captures.

Time was away and somewhere else,
There were two glasses and two chairs
And two people with the one pulse
(Somebody stopped the moving stairs):
Time was away and somewhere else…

(from Meeting Point by Louis MacNeice, 1939)

Later on Auden tended to divide his poetry into Poems and Songs and it is no accident that his younger contemporary at Gresham’s public school, Benjamin Britten, throughout his career set many of Auden’s lyrics to music.

Exhortation But if there’s one thing an expensive education at private school and then Oxford or Cambridge gives you it is the confidence to tell other people what to do. The classic thirties poem is packed with accusations and exhortations and instructions and orders. It addresses people, directly, like a speech or sermon or talk or assembly address by the head master. One characteristic device was to address as ‘you’ a range of professions and jobs. It made it sound like you, the poet, a) grasped the multifarious nature of modern society, and b) had a huge audience across all professions and types. But always the tone is warning, minatory, threatening, urgently telling these simple folks that the Disaster is coming, the Great Social Upheaval is just round the corner, they’d better bloody wake up before it’s too late!

Fireman and farmer, father and flapper,
I’m speaking to you, sir, please drop that paper;
Don’t you know it’s poison, have you given up all hope?
Aren’t you ashamed, ma’am, to be taking dope?
There’s a nasty habit that starts in the head
And creeps through the veins till you go all dead:
Insured against against accident? But that won’t prove
Much use when one morning you find you can’t move…

(Opening of The Magnetic Mountain poem 20)

The drums tap out sensational bulletins;
Frantic the efforts of the violins
To drown the song behind the guarded hill:
The dancers do not listen; but they will.

(To Benjamin Britten by W.H. Auden)

Headmaster All this telling people what to do meant that, without realising it, many of the 1930s ‘rebels’ ended up sounding as high-minded and didactic and evangelical as the school chaplains and headmasters and gammon-faced imperialists they loved to mock. This verbal tic, the direct address of the hypothetical reader, you you you, at first gives the poems a sense of vigour and confidence but after a while feels like someone is poking you in the chest with their forefinger.

You that love England, who have an ear for her music,
The slow movement of clouds in benediction,
Clear arias of light thrilling over her uplands,
Over the chords of summer sustained peacefully…

You who go out alone, on tandem or on pillion,
Down arterial roads riding in April,
Or sad besides lakes where hill-slopes are reflected
Making fires of leaves, your high hopes fallen…

You who like peace, good sticks, happy in a small way
Watching birds or playing cricket with schoolboys,
Who pay for drinks all round, whom disaster chose not…

(from The Magnetic Mountain poem 32 by Cecil Day-Lewis, 1933)

This frequent use of the accusatory ‘you’ is accompanied by recurring use of the imperative mood, telling readers they must do, act, look, see, listen, consider, think about the important Truths the poet is telling them.

Think now about all the things that made up that place… (Geoffrey Grigson)

Enter the dreamhouse, brothers and sisters… (Cecil Day-Lewis)

Consider these, for we have condemned them… (Cecil Day-Lewis)

Consider this and in our time
As the hawk sees it or the helmeted airman… (W.H. Auden)

Let the eye of the traveller consider this country and weep… (W.H. Auden)

For many of the 30s poets were not only the products of top public schools (‘five years in a lukewarm bath of snobbery’, as Orwell described the experience), but then went back to become teachers in them, too, swearing to do it all differently, to be more enlightened, tolerant but ending up sounding dismayingly like their own teachers. And a schoolmasterly, hectoring tone is regularly found across all their poems. Think now could be the visionary poet telling his readers to wake up to the international situation: or it could be the Head of Latin telling his dopey pupils to make sure their adjectives agree in number and in gender.

At the time they felt they were making vital distinctions between the previous generation and their own. Looking back, they all sound like part of the same big squabbling family.

Schoolboys It is no accident that so much of this sounds like squabbling children. At the time and subsequently many of the writers realised their privileged private schooling had kept them away from the harsh realities of life as it was lived by 99% of the population and placed a steel wall between them and ‘the working classes’.

Much of the poetry prolonged into adulthood a silly, giggling, schoolboy mentality, a jokey cliquiness that those outside it (i.e. almost everyone) loathed about the chummy insiderness of the Auden Gang. Allen Tate thought they were ‘juvenile’. Orwell wrote a long essay about how much damage his prep school did him (Such Such were the joys, 1948), as did Cyril Connolly in the autobiographical section of Enemies of Promise (1938).

Auden himself (of course) nailed it in his birthday poem to his friend Isherwood, remembering how, as young men just out of Oxford:

Our hopes were set still on the spies’ career,
Prizing the glasses and the old felt hat,
And all the secrets we discovered
Were extraordinary and false…

(from To A Writer On His Birthday by W.H. Auden, 1935)

Ways of escape Part of the reason for joining a gang, group or movement is because you don’t have to face the world by yourself. Thus Stephen Spender looking back at his motivation for going to Spain says he was driven on:

‘by a sense of personal and social guilt which made me feel firstly that I must take sides, secondly that I could purge myself of an abnormal individuality by co-operating with the workers’ movement.’

Many of the writers were plagued by personal anxieties and neuroses, not least the king of them all, Auden himself, but many others were aware of this conflict between their own private anxieties and their wish to present a brave, heroic, communist front to the world. This double-mindedness, this self-consciousness, watching themselves think and feel, was a characteristic of the age.

And now I relapse to sleep, to dreams perhaps and reaction
Where I shall play the gangster or the sheikh,
Kill for the love of killing, make the world my sofa,
Unzip the women and insult the meek.
Which fantasies no doubt are due to my private history,
Matter for the analyst…

(from part III of Autumn Journal by Louis MacNeice, 1939)

Freud Auden’s father was a doctor, in fact a professor of public health among other things. He owned a complete edition of Freud’s works and young Wystan read them along with everything else he could get his hands on. Thus by the time he arrived at Oxford he was able confidently to psychoanalyse all his friends (before or after sleeping with them).

Most of all Auden had an ascendency over his friends which was due to his being versed in psychoanalysis and therefore in a position to diagnose their complexes… Auden… seemed a lone psychoanalyst at the centre of a group of inhibited, neurotic patients – us.’ (The Thirties and After by Stephen Spender, pp.19-20)

Freud was one of the numerous modern thinkers whose ideas Auden played with in his poems like toys and Freud’s psychosexual theories influenced all the writers. Indeed Freud is the subject of an extended and highly impressive obituary poem Auden wrote right at the end of the decade, in his magisterial, end-of-the-thirties manner.

When there are so many we shall have to mourn,
when grief has been made so public, and exposed
to the critique of a whole epoch
the frailty of our conscience and anguish,

of whom shall we speak? For every day they die
among us, those who were doing us some good,
who knew it was never enough but
hoped to improve a little by living.

Such was this doctor: still at eighty he wished
to think of our life from whose unruliness
so many plausible young futures
with threats or flattery ask obedience,

but his wish was denied him: he closed his eyes
upon that last picture, common to us all,
of problems like relatives gathered
puzzled and jealous about our dying.

For about him till the very end were still
those he had studied, the fauna of the night,
and shades that still waited to enter
the bright circle of his recognition

turned elsewhere with their disappointment as he
was taken away from his life interest
to go back to the earth in London,
an important Jew who died in exile…

(from In Memory of Sigmund Freud by W.H. Auden, 1940)

Freud seemed, to traditional liberals, to have freed the new generation from its Victorian repressions. But he had other uses than the strictly scientific or psychological.

Surrealism The French group who invented surrealism and automatic writing, who fetishised coincidences and the unconscious, took Freud as their inspiration and ideology. Obviously people had read about them for a decade or more but the Surrealists made a big splash as a result of a famous exhibition held in Mayfair in 1936 which brought together the best of European Surrealist painting and was visited by record crowds and covered even in the popular press.

Elements of devil-may-care surrealist absurdity and irrelevance can be found in many of the poets and was a feature of Auden’s skipping from image to image, and invocation of fairy tales and nursery rhymes. But a handful of writers devoted themselves more seriously to exploring the surrealist mode, figures such as Hugh Sykes Davies (private school, Cambridge, communist party, surrealism) and above all David Gascoyne (private school, Regents Street Poly, communist party, surrealism).

today is the day when the streets are full of hearses
and when women cover their ring fingers with pieces of silk
when the doors fall off their hinges in ruined cathedrals
when hosts of white birds fly across the ocean from america
and make their nests in the trees of public gardens
the pavements of cities are covered with needles
the reservoirs are full of human hair
fumes of sulphur envelop the houses of ill-fame
out of which bloodred lilies appear.

across the square where crowds are dying in thousands
a man is walking a tightrope covered with moths

(from And the Seventh Dream is the Dream of Isis by David Gascoyne, 1933)

Obscurity Having made the point that many of the poets revived popular forms and rhyme schemes and so on, partly out of a wish to be better understood, there’s no denying that a lot of their poetry is, in fact, quite obscure.

More beautiful than any gift you gave
You were, a child so beautiful as to seem
To promise ruin what no child can have
or woman give…

From The Token by F.T. Prince

Not many poets had the blunt factual subject matter to hand of John Cornford in his Spanish Civil War poems, or were as crudely political and declamatory as Cecil Day-Lewis.

Many tried to express their feelings and emotions as poets always have done, but using the new styles and imagery of the age. The tortured syntax and stylistic quirks unleashed by Auden in his first collection, published in 1930 – omission of the words ‘the’ or ‘a’; use of ‘O’ as at the beginning of a prayer –

O for doors to be open and an invite with gilded edges
To dine with Lord Lobcock and Count Asthma on the platinum benches..

(from O for doors to be open by W.H. Auden, 1936)

And the vague wartime imagery of maps and leaders and ambushes – all these went on to infect a generation who, as a result, often found themselves caught in a mesh of sub-Audenesque mannerisms.

Lord O never let lose this habit
of expected strangeness, a kind
of alertness ambushed in the eye,
at once to strike on, to select
the deep the dangerous uniqueness down in things…

(from Request For The Day by Randall Swingler, 1933)

As a rule, the advice for coping with obscurity or anything you don’t immediately understand in a poem, is to go with the flow, read on past it, don’t let it put you off, and come back later and try to work it out, like a crossword puzzle.

Sometimes things become clearer on reflection, sometimes they’re deliberately obscure and only annotations or explanations by a scholar can help. Other times you can just let the obscurity settle in your mind – after all poetry is not a PowerPoint presentation with clear bullet points, it’s meant to work its way into the mind through other channels.

Take Dylan Thomas, none of his poems make much logical sense, but that doesn’t stop them being magnificent.

But hang on…

So that is a thumbnail portrait of the classic style of Thirties poetry, as exemplified by the gang of Auden, Spender, MacNeice, Day-Lewis and their followers – highly political, highly confrontational, highly engaged. But the range and breadth of Skelton’s anthology is meant to show us that there were lots of other 1930s, too.

Probably the most striking alternative to all of the above is the gentle, Anglican satire of John Betjeman, destined for a long career and the Poet Laureateship (1972). It is surprising to think of him as a ‘thirties’ poet, but he was.

In a completely different zone was the semi-surreal, religious trumpeting of Dylan Thomas, who didn’t go to a spiffing public school (Swansea Grammar School) and who stood outside literary London and its backbiting (though forced to work there during and after the war).

In a room of his own was the eccentric literary critic William Empson. I’ve always liked his poetry because it is larky.

And it’s hard not to be impressed by the diamond hardness of dedicated communist John Cornford, who died aged just 21 fighting in Spain.


Some poems from the thirties

Lullaby by W.H. Auden (1937)

Lay your sleeping head, my love,
Human on my faithless arm;
Time and fevers burn away
Individual beauty from
Thoughtful children, and the grave
Proves the child ephemeral:
But in my arms till break of day
Let the living creature lie,
Mortal, guilty, but to me
The entirely beautiful.

Soul and body have no bounds:
To lovers as they lie upon
Her tolerant enchanted slope
In their ordinary swoon,
Grave the vision Venus sends
Of supernatural sympathy,
Universal love and hope;
While an abstract insight wakes
Among the glaciers and the rocks
The hermit’s carnal ecstasy.

Certainty, fidelity
On the stroke of midnight pass
Like vibrations of a bell,
And fashionable madmen raise
Their pedantic boring cry:
Every farthing of the cost,
All the dreaded cards foretell,
Shall be paid, but from this night
Not a whisper, not a thought,
Not a kiss nor look be lost.

Beauty, midnight, vision dies:
Let the winds of dawn that blow
Softly round your dreaming head
Such a day of welcome show
Eye and knocking heart may bless,
Find the mortal world enough;
Noons of dryness find you fed
By the involuntary powers,
Nights of insult let you pass
Watched by every human love.

In Westminster Abbey by John Betjeman (1940)

Let me take this other glove off
As the vox humana swells,
And the beauteous fields of Eden
Bask beneath the Abbey bells.
Here, where England’s statesmen lie,
Listen to a lady’s cry.

Gracious Lord, oh bomb the Germans,
Spare their women for Thy Sake,
And if that is not too easy
We will pardon Thy Mistake.
But, gracious Lord, whate’er shall be,
Don’t let anyone bomb me.

Keep our Empire undismembered
Guide our Forces by Thy Hand,
Gallant blacks from far Jamaica,
Honduras and Togoland;
Protect them Lord in all their fights,
And, even more, protect the whites.

Think of what our Nation stands for,
Books from Boots’ and country lanes,
Free speech, free passes, class distinction,
Democracy and proper drains.
Lord, put beneath Thy special care
One-eighty-nine Cadogan Square.

Although dear Lord I am a sinner,
I have done no major crime;
Now I’ll come to Evening Service
Whensoever I have the time.
So, Lord, reserve for me a crown,
And do not let my shares go down.

I will labour for Thy Kingdom,
Help our lads to win the war,
Send white feathers to the cowards
Join the Women’s Army Corps,
Then wash the steps around Thy Throne
In the Eternal Safety Zone.

Now I feel a little better,
What a treat to hear Thy Word,
Where the bones of leading statesmen
Have so often been interr’d.
And now, dear Lord, I cannot wait
Because I have a luncheon date.

Two Armies by Stephen Spender (1939)

As you know I don’t much like Stephen Spender’s verse. I think it’s a good impersonation of poetry but it’s not the real thing. Here he is trying to write a poem about the Spanish Civil War because it’s expected of him.

Deep in the winter plain, two armies
Dig their machinery, to destroy each other.
Men freeze and hunger. No one is given leave
On either side, except the dead, and wounded.
These have their leave; while new battalions wait
On time at last to bring them violent peace.

All have become so nervous and so cold
That each man hates the cause and distant words
Which brought him here, more terribly than bullets.
Once a boy hummed a popular marching song,
Once a novice hand flapped the salute;
The voice was choked, the lifted hand fell,
Shot through the wrist by those of his own side…

Now here is a poem included in a letter from the front by John Cornford, who fought in Spain, serving with the POUM militia on the Aragon front, where he wrote this poem which was included in a letter home.

A Letter from Aragon by John Cornford (1936)

This is a quiet sector of a quiet front.

We buried Ruiz in a new pine coffin,
But the shroud was too small and his washed feet stuck out.
The stink of his corpse came through the clean pine boards
And some of the bearers wrapped handkerchiefs round their faces.
Death was not dignified.
We hacked a ragged grave in the unfriendly earth
And fired a ragged volley over the grave.

You could tell from our listlessness, no one much missed him.

This is a quiet sector of a quiet front.
There is no poison gas and no H. E.

But when they shelled the other end of the village
And the streets were choked with dust
Women came screaming out of the crumbling houses,
Clutched under one arm the naked rump of an infant.
I thought: how ugly fear is.

This is a quiet sector of a quiet front.
Our nerves are steady; we all sleep soundly.

In the clean hospital bed, my eyes were so heavy
Sleep easily blotted out one ugly picture,
A wounded militiaman moaning on a stretcher,
Now out of danger, but still crying for water,
Strong against death, but unprepared for such pain.

This on a quiet front.

But when I shook hands to leave, an Anarchist worker
Said: ‘Tell the workers of England
This was a war not of our own making
We did not seek it.
But if ever the Fascists again rule Barcelona
It will be as a heap of ruins with us workers beneath it.’

Spender is very earnest but he’s posing, he’s playing the part of young lyric poet, he knows he is the Percy Bysshe Shelley of the Movement. But Cornford isn’t playing.

Missing Dates by William Empson (1940)

Empson earned his living as an English professor and critic. He wrote a small number of odd poems. This is the most famous. Read each line slowly.

Slowly the poison the whole blood stream fills.
It is not the effort nor the failure tires.
The waste remains, the waste remains and kills.

It is not your system or clear sight that mills
Down small to the consequence a life requires;
Slowly the poison the whole blood stream fills.

They bled an old dog dry yet the exchange rills
Of young dog blood gave but a month’s desires.
The waste remains, the waste remains and kills.

It is the Chinese tombs and the slag hills
Usurp the soil, and not the soil retires.
Slowly the poison the whole blood stream fills.

Not to have fire is to be a skin that shrills.
The complete fire is death. From partial fires
The waste remains, the waste remains and kills.

It is the poems you have lost, the ills
From missing dates, at which the heart expires.
Slowly the poison the whole blood stream fills.
The waste remains, the waste remains and kills.

The Sunlight on the Garden by Louis MacNeice (1938)

An example of MacNeice’s deceptively simple lyricism and lulling, cradle rhythms.

The sunlight on the garden
Hardens and grows cold,
We cannot cage the minute
Within its nets of gold,
When all is told
We cannot beg for pardon.

Our freedom as free lances
Advances towards its end;
The earth compels, upon it
Sonnets and birds descend;
And soon, my friend,
We shall have no time for dances.

The sky was good for flying
Defying the church bells
And every evil iron
Siren and what it tells:
The earth compels,
We are dying, Egypt, dying

And not expecting pardon,
Hardened in heart anew,
But glad to have sat under
Thunder and rain with you,
And grateful too
For sunlight on the garden.

And death shall have no dominion by Dylan Thomas (1936)

The great clanging cathedral bell of Thomas’s stern verse.

And death shall have no dominion.
Dead men naked they shall be one
With the man in the wind and the west moon;
When their bones are picked clean and the clean bones gone,
They shall have stars at elbow and foot;
Though they go mad they shall be sane,
Though they sink through the sea they shall rise again;
Though lovers be lost love shall not;
And death shall have no dominion.

And death shall have no dominion.
Under the windings of the sea
They lying long shall not die windily;
Twisting on racks when sinews give way,
Strapped to a wheel, yet they shall not break;
Faith in their hands shall snap in two,
And the unicorn evils run them through;
Split all ends up they shan’t crack;
And death shall have no dominion.

And death shall have no dominion.
No more may gulls cry at their ears
Or waves break loud on the seashores;
Where blew a flower may a flower no more
Lift its head to the blows of the rain;
Though they be mad and dead as nails,
Heads of the characters hammer through daisies;
Break in the sun till the sun breaks down,
And death shall have no dominion.


The poets

  • Kenneth Allot b.1912
  • W.H. Auden b.1907
  • George Barker b.1913
  • Julian Bell b.1908
  • John Betjeman b.1906
  • Ronald Bottral b.1906
  • Norman Cameron b.1905
  • Christopher Caudwell b.1907
  • John Cornford bb.1915
  • Hugh Sykes Davies b.1909
  • Clifford Dyment b.1914
  • William Empson b.1906
  • Gavin Ewart b.1915
  • Edgar Foxall b.1906
  • Roy Fuller b.1912
  • David Gascoyne b.1916
  • Geoffrey Grigson b.1905
  • Bernard Gutteridge b.1916
  • Robert Hamer b.1916
  • Rayner Heppenstall b.1911
  • Peter Hewitt b.1914
  • Kaurie Lee b.1914
  • John Lehmann b.1907
  • Cecil Day-Lewis b.1904
  • Louis Macneice b.1907
  • Charles Madge b.1912
  • H.B. Mallalieu b.1914
  • Philip O’Connor b.1916
  • Clere Parsons b.1908
  • Geoffrey Parsons b.1910
  • F.T. Price b.1912
  • John Pudney b.1909
  • Henry Reed b.1914
  • Anne Ridler b.1912
  • Michael Roberts b.1902
  • Roger Roughton b.1916
  • Francis Scarfe b.1911
  • John Short b.1911
  • Bernard Spencer b.1909
  • Stephen Spender b.1909
  • Randall Swingler b.1909
  • Julian Symons b.1912
  • Dylan Thomas b.1914
  • Ruthven Todd b.1914
  • Rex Warner b.1905
  • Vernon Watkins b.1906

Related links

Miracles of Life by J.G. Ballard (2008)

Finally, right at the end of his life (he died the year after it was published), Ballard wrote a genuine autobiography which actually sets the record straight.

His previous two books Empire of the Sun (1984) and The Kindness of Women (1991) had been marketed as autobiographies but, as time went by, it became clearer and clearer that they contained large slices of invention, fictional characters and imaginary events, as well as playing fast and loose with the few actual events of his life which they retold.

(For example, in Kindness his wife is described as dying after slipping and cracking her head against stone steps at a holiday villa in Spain; in fact she died of pneumonia, so the moving description of her slipping, the crack as her head hit the stone, Ballard rushing over and cradling her, seeing the growing bruise behind her ear, her loss of feeling down one side as the ambulance rushed her to hospital – all of that is entirely fictional.)

In interviews Ballard emphasised that both books were novels presented in autobiographical form and this is what a careful reading confirms.

Still, Miracles of Life is an odd book because although it adds new detail about, for example, his parents and their family origins in the West Midlands, or his decision to become a science fiction writer in the mid 1950s, or the passages describing the art and literary world of the 50s and 60s – it doesn’t really alter the essential shape of his biography, and anyone who has read The Kindness of Women will experience a strong sense of déjà vu.

Some incidents, like his description of the famous exhibition of crashed cars he organised in 1970 and how the visitors’ bad behaviour inspired him to write the novel Crash – or the passages about his visit to the set of the Spielberg filming of Empire of the Sun, right down to the words 12-year-old Christian Bale used to introduce himself (‘Hello, I’m you’) feel like they’ve been copied almost word for word from Kindness.

He knew he was dying. Maybe he ran out of time to revise and expand the familiar stories…

J.G. Ballard outline biography

  • born in 1930 and raised in the International Settlement in Shanghai
  • plays as a carefree boy among the privileged ex-pats, goes on cycle rides across the vast teeming fantasy land of Shanghai
  • 1941 Pacific War breaks out: interned along with his parents in Lunghua civilian internment centre 1943-45
  • 1945 the end of the war and strange months of disorientation back in the International Settlement
  • 1946 travels back to England with his mother and younger sister
  • 1946-49 public school in Cambridge
  • 1949 undergraduate at Cambridge studying medicine
  • 1954 packs it in to go and train to be an RAF pilot in Canada
  • 1955 returns to England and takes a string of unsatisfactory jobs, as an advertising copywriter, a porter in a London market, door to door encyclopedia salesman; marries Mary Matthews
  • sells first short story in 1956, commencing a prolific burst of story writing – over the next ten years he writes some 70 stories
  • This Is Tomorrow art exhibition at Whitechapel Gallery kick starts Pop Art and confirms his sense that he should be writing about the psychological impact of the new world of consumer capitalism, advertising, TV and so on
  • 1957 daughter Fay born
  • 1959 daughter Beatrice born
  • knocks out first pulp novel The Wind From Nowhere on a fortnight’s holiday in 1961
  • second, more serious novel, The Drowned World  published in 1963
  • summer 1963 his wife Mary dies of pneumonia on holiday in Spain, leaving him a widower to bring up three small children; he never remarries
  • after wife’s death his subject matter becomes darker (according to critics), more radical and penetrating (in his opinion)
  • 1966 starts writing the short pieces which go to make The Atrocity Exhibition
  • 1970 supervises an exhibition of (three) crashed cars at the Arts Lab
  • 1973 Crash
  • 1974 Concrete Island
  • 1975 High Rise
  • 1984 Empire of the Sun, the novel
  • 1988 Empire of The Sun, the movie, directed by Steven Spielberg

So the basic outline is not that different from what we’d read in The Kindness of Women, and has been sketched out in the biographical blurb at the front of all his books since the 1960s.

Also, it’s no great revelation but it’s worth noting how much the book is weighted towards those 15 formative years in China – it’s only on page 121 of the 278 pages of my paperback edition that Jim finally arrives back in Blighty i.e. nearly half the text covers about a fifth of his life (he died, aged 79, in 2009).


New learnings

Fantasyland Shanghai was a surreal phantasmagoria, from its exotic street life, to its markets, aromatic food, crooks and gangsters and whores, to the dead bodies which lined the streets and the public stranglings which he attended, and streets full of food vendors and shiny American cars cruising past people in rags literally starving to death, and first nights of new glamorous Hollywood movies. His childhood in Shanghai marked him for life, even before the Japs turned on the Europeans and interned them all. As he eloquently puts it:

Anything was possible, and everything could be bought and sold. In many ways, it seems like a stage set, but at the time it was real, and I think a large part of my fiction has been an attempt to evoke it by means other than memory.

‘A large part of my fiction has been an attempt to evoke it by means other than memory.’ That’s quite a thought-provoking comment. If you add together the descriptions of Shanghai in Kindness and here, it does add up to an extraordinary phantasmagoria of possibilities, and the often comic-book exaggeration of many of his scenarios and characters may well derive from a child’s cartoon version of an already garish reality.

Cynical By the age of 14 he had become quite as blasé and cynical about life as the long-suffering Chinese around him. His boyhood was just full of dead bodies, the peasants who died overnight in Shanghai, poor beggars who died in doorways, the river full of corpses floating gently to the sea because they couldn’t afford decent burials. And over and above this the public stranglings as a form of justice. And then when the Japanese took over in 1937, public beheadings.

A vast cruelty lay over the world, and was all we knew.

Chilly sex This primal, founding view of the world – as packed with brutal cruelty – helps to explain Ballard’s clinical description of bodies and the thousand and one horrific mutilations they are vulnerable to. And it underpins his view of sex, which – as any reader knows – he depicts with a compellingly clinical detachment.

America From an early age he devoured American comics (Buck Rogers, Superman) and worshipped the big American cars he saw cruising the streets of Shanghai, the American suits worn by Chinese gangsters.

In the confusion of traffic on the Bund he pointed out ‘Two-Gun’ Cohen, the then famous bodyguard of Chinese warlords, and I gazed with all a small boy’s awe at a large American car with armed men standing on the running-boards, Chicago-style

He read comic books by the score and, a little later, Time and Newsweek, and soaked American can-do optimism into every pore of his body. It is interesting to learn that his father was also a can-do optimist, a fan of H.G. Wells and ‘an enthusiast for all things American’.

This worship of Americana underpins the first 25 years of his fiction, with its obsessions with the American space programme and the Kennedy assassination and Vietnam and Hollywood movie stars, and its many stories set in America – for example the entire Vermilion Sands series about a desert resort much like Palm Springs – and finds an unsatisfactory climax in the strangely disappointing novel Hello America.

Reading this book you get a really deep sense of the vast cultural and economic difference between America and Britain after the war and can totally understand why America represented money and gadgets and big shiny cars and exciting music and The Future, a feeling which lasted through the 1960s and then somehow went astray during the 1970s.

The last clutch of novels, from Running Wild to Kingdom Come may be problematic in various ways, but at least they have escaped from the America-worship which dominates the earlier ones.

Lunghua There are two massive revelations about Ballard’s time in Lunghua internment camp:

1. He was there with his parents Both Empire of the Sun and The Kindness of Women depict young Jim as being entirely on his own, abandoned and thrown back on his own resources. In both books it is said that his parents were taken by the Japanese to a different internment camp. But they weren’t. They were with him throughout.

This is a staggering deception and/or aesthetic choice because it quite clearly makes the prison accounts of both books massively more intense. Whereas his real life wasn’t, it was far more mediated by the fact that, at the end of every day’s adventures, he returned to the ‘Ballard family room’ in the block of the abandoned teacher training college which was used as the camp.

Something confirmed by…

He says in many ways his years in the Lunghua internment camp were the happiest of his life! Well, this is a stunning surprise.

All in all, this was a relaxed and easy-going world that I had never known, except during our holidays in Tsingtao, and this favourable first impression stayed with me to the end, when conditions in the camp took a marked turn for the worse. I enjoyed my years in Lunghua, made a huge number of friends of all ages (far more than I did in adult life) and on the whole felt buoyant and optimistic.

Lunghua Camp may have been a prison of a kind, but it was a prison where I found freedom… Despite the food shortages in the last year, the bitterly cold winters (we lived in unheated concrete buildings) and the uncertainties of the future, I was happier in the camp than I was until my marriage and children.

This is a staggering sentiment to set beside the searingly intense text of Empire of the Sun.

Empire’s End Maybe it’s a truism, but I was fascinated to read here, as we did in The Kindness of Women, how decisive the sinking of British ships and the surrender at Singapore (February 1942) were in ending all respect for the British across the Far East. (dream of empire)

The fall of Singapore, and the sinking of the British battleships Repulse and Prince of Wales, devastated us all. British prestige plummeted from that moment. The surrender of Singapore, the capture of the Philippines and the threat to India and Australia sounded the death knell of Western power in the Far East and the end of a way of life. It would take the British years to recover from Dunkirk, and the German armies were already deep inside Russia. Despite my admiration for the Japanese soldiers and pilots, I was intensely patriotic, but I could see that the British Empire had failed.

Again, it’s one thing to read about this in histories, but more impactful to read about its impact from someone who was there.

Pro the atom bomb Here, as in Kindness it is mildly surprising, given the baleful shadow they cast over his early fiction, to learn that Ballard was whole-heartedly in favour of the dropping of the atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki:

Fortunately the Hiroshima and Nagasaki A-bombs brought the war to an abrupt end. Like my parents, and everyone else who lived through Lunghua, I have long supported the American dropping of the bombs. Prompted by Emperor Hirohito’s surrender broadcast, the still-intact Japanese war machine ground to a complete halt within days, so saving millions of Chinese lives, as well as our own. For a hint of what might otherwise have happened, we can look at the vicious battle for Manila, the only large city in the Pacific War fought for by the Americans, where some 100,000 Philippine civilians died.

Part of the psychosis of the post-war years was that the bombs quite clearly saved many (especially American) lives, and so can be justified by this argument; but also incinerated nearly 100,000 mostly innocent civilians, men, women and children and so, on another level, are utterly indefensible. The psychosis derives from the way both these opposite views are ‘true’.

The railway station The startling image which is described in chapter three of The Kindness of Women and which dominates the rest of that book – the experience of coming across four Japanese soldiers at a small train station in the midst of the abandoned rice paddies between Lunghua and Shanghai, and being forced to watch as one of them garrots a young Chinese peasant to death with telegraph wire – in Kindness the scene had a gruesome perfection, and is then made to haunt adult Jim for the rest of his life – in a way I thought was too good (or too bad) to be true. Yet it is described here as being true. Or at least it is repeated here (which may not be the same thing).

Back to Blighty Ballard only first visited England when he was 16. This explains why he felt and writes about it as a bizarre foreign country. His father’s memories of the Lancashire he had lived in during the Great Depression had already primed the pump.

Most of his memories of Lancashire before and after the First World War seemed fairly bleak, and he would shake his head as he described the dreadful poverty. Eating an apple as he left school, he was often followed by working-class boys badgering him for the core.

Now, arriving at Southampton, he immediately saw how small and shabby and badly designed and impoverished everything was. It was immediately clear to him that Britain had, in effect, lost the war, and this impression of post-war shabbiness, rationing and austerity never left him, compared and contrasted with the amazing consumer boom the American economy underwent during those years.

Looking at the English people around me, it was impossible to believe that they had won the war. They behaved like a defeated population. I wrote in The Kindness of Women that the English talked as if they had won the war, but acted as if they had lost it. They were clearly exhausted by the war, and expected little of the future. Everything was rationed – food, clothing, petrol – or simply unobtainable. People moved in a herd-like way, queueing for everything. Ration books and clothing coupons were all-important, endlessly counted and fussed over, even though there was almost nothing in the shops to buy. Tracking down a few light bulbs could take all day. Everything was poorly designed – my grandparents’ three-storey house was heated by one or two single-bar electric fires and an open coal fire. Most of the house was icy, and we slept under huge eiderdowns like marooned Arctic travellers in their survival gear, a frozen air numbing our faces, the plumes of our breath visible in the darkness. More importantly, hope itself was rationed, and people’s spirits were bent low.

His mother dumped 16-year-old Jim with her parents in the West Midlands when she returned to Shanghai, and had a very bad time. ‘Narrow-minded’ doesn’t begin to convey the sense of his grand-parents’ claustrophobic provincialism.

I met him at the worst time, when England was exhausted by the war. There had been heavy bombing in the Birmingham area, and I suspect that they felt my mother’s years in Lunghua were a holiday by comparison. The war had made them mean, as it made a lot of the English mean…

His grandfather loathed the Labour government, which he thought was a form of fascism.

Yet all around him was the desperate poverty of the Black Country, with some of the most ill-housed and poorly educated people in western Europe, still giving their lives after the war to maintain an empire that had never been of the least benefit to them. My grandfather’s attitude was common, and based less on feelings of social class than on a visceral resistance to change. Change was the enemy of everything he believed in.

Later, when he got a job as a door to door encyclopedia salesman in the West Midlands, he for the first time really got to meet the working class and appreciate what poverty means.

For the first time, I was meeting large numbers of working-class people, with a range of regional accents that took a trained ear to decode. Travelling around the Birmingham area, I was amazed at how bleakly they lived, how poorly paid they were, poorly educated, housed and fed. To me they were a vast exploited workforce, not much better off than the industrial workers in Shanghai. I think it was clear to me from the start that the English class system, which I was meeting for the first time, was an instrument of political control, and not a picturesque social relic. Middle-class people in the late 1940s and 1950s saw the working class as almost another species, and fenced themselves off behind a complex system of social codes.

When he phrases it like that you can see why teenage Jim developed a sense that change was vital, that only radical change could revive this dead country; and how the obvious source of hope for change was from rich, powerful and glamorous America.

Contempt for Cambridge In Kindness Jim is amusingly contemptuous of almost everything about Cambridge University, and its fake medievalism. Its only justification was as a tourist trap. In this book we get a bit more detail: he respected the science done at Cambridge, the Rutherfords et al, the work being done in physics and medicine. But he has nothing but contempt for all its traditions of scholars gowns and High Table and madrigals in the college chapel.

There’s a one line reminiscence of him attending an English lecture by F.R. Leavis who was a kind of god among critics, with his insistence that readers feel the life evinced in Jane Austen and Henry James and D.H. Lawrence – and being appalled at the man’s narrowness of understanding; and telling a fellow undergraduate that ‘It’s more important to go to T-Men (a classic noir film) than to Leavis’s lectures. He loathed it all. As in Kindness, his main interest was in investigating the US air force bases dotted all across the Fens.

No one seemed aware that the nostalgic pageant called ‘Cambridge’ was made possible by the fleets of American bombers waiting in the quiet fields around the city.

Francis Bacon He thinks Bacon is central though there is a chastening reminiscence of actually meeting the great man and being dismayed at how little he talked about the inspiration for his work, preferring to erect a buffer, a barrier and talking about perspective and paint and its formal qualities. Nonetheless, Bacon is right up Ballard’s alley:

Bacon’s paintings were screams from the abattoir, cries from the execution pits of World War II. His deranged executives and his princes of death in their pontiffs’ robes lacked all pity and remorse. His popes screamed because they knew there was no God. Bacon went even further than the surrealists, assuming our complicity in the mid-century’s horrors. It was we who sat in those claustrophobic rooms, like TV hospitality suites in need of a coat of paint, under a naked light bulb that might signal the arrival of the dead, the only witnesses at our last interview.

Yet Bacon kept hope alive at a dark time, and looking at his paintings gave me a surge of confidence. I knew there was a link of some kind with the surrealists, with the dead doctors lying in their wooden chests in the dissecting room, with film noir and with the peacock and the loaf of bread in Crivelli’s Annunciation. There were links to Hemingway and Camus and Nathanael West. A jigsaw inside my head was trying to assemble itself, but the picture when it finally emerged would appear in an unexpected place.

This passage conveys the sense which dominates the middle part of the book, that Ballard was driven into paroxysms of frustration by everything he saw wrong about stuffy and impoverished and class-ridden and nostalgic post-war England, and which he was determined to undermine and change.

Friends

  • Kingsley Amis from 1962 to 1964 – Amis was a keen science fiction buff and wrote a glowing review of Ballard’s first novel, and then was personally helpful and supportive after Ballard’s wife died; Ballard emphasises all Amis’s good qualities before he became disillusioned with England, and then life, and turned into a professional curmudgeon
  • Michael Moorcock who became editor of Britain’s leading sci fi magazine New Worlds in 1964 and worked with Ballard to shake up the staid world of SF
  • Eduardo Paolozzo the sculptor and artist who remained a close friend for 30 years

About writing

There’s more here about his writing and his career as a writer than in The Kindness of Women, which isn’t difficult because there was next to nothing about it in that book. In several places he gives several overarching speculations about the nature or motivation of his entire career. Was it all an attempt to recapture the strangeness of his boyhood in Shanghai? Was it all an attempt to stitch together all the psychotic impressions of his boyhood, along with the senseless death of his wife?

My direction as a writer changed after Mary’s death, and many readers thought that I became far darker. But I like to think I was much more radical, in a desperate attempt to prove that black was white, that two and two made five in the moral arithmetic of the 1960s. I was trying to construct an imaginative logic that made sense of Mary’s death and would prove that the assassination of President Kennedy and the countless deaths of the Second World War had been worthwhile or even meaningful in some as yet undiscovered way. Then, perhaps, the ghosts inside my head, the old beggar under his quilt of snow, the strangled Chinese at the railway station, Kennedy and my young wife, could be laid to rest.

This really helps to explain the content and approach of The Atrocity Exhibition.

Later on he gives us another wording of what is basically the same idea:

My years in the [Cambridge Medical School] dissection room were important because they taught me that though death was the end, the human imagination and the human spirit could triumph over our own dissolution. In many ways my entire fiction is the dissection of a deep pathology that I had witnessed in Shanghai and later in the post-war world, from the threat of nuclear war to the assassination of President Kennedy, from the death of my wife to the violence that underpinned the entertainment culture of the last decades of the century.

Either of these notions provide plenty to chew over, but one aspect of them stands out to me. His beloved wife Mary died of pneumonia on a holiday in Spain in August 1963. Three months later Kennedy was shot in Dallas. The closeness of the dates suggests how Ballard must have still been in deep grief over his wife when the Kennedy assassination traumatised a generation, and this helps explain why his writings evince just such a deeply traumatised reaction.

Science fiction It is fascinating to read his opinions about the science fiction of the day and why he gravitated towards it. Basically, the ‘serious’ literature of the 1950s simply seemed ludicrously remote from the realities of everyday life. Even the Angry Young Men were still stuck in a world of public schools and tweed jackets, which – coming from Americanised Shanghai – he simply found ridiculous.

And, if that wasn’t enough, Ballard was reaching for some way to investigate what he saw as the psychopathologies underlying that everyday life – the new forces of consumerism and advertising and television which he watched slowly wash over wrecked, grey England in the 1950s. Nobody was capturing the new psychological and social forces which were being unleashed.

The combination of the two motives explains why he a) wanted to write science fiction – because it seemed untrammelled, liberated, free to explore in a way the novels of old buffers like CP Snow or Anthony Powell never could b) but at the same time he wanted to drastically change what science fiction was about, from soap operas about hunky heroes in space suits brandishing ray guns on distant planets, to an exploration of the weird implications of life in the here and now. It was a two-fold rebellion.

Above all, the s-f genre had a huge vitality. Without thinking up a plan of action, I decided that this was a field I should enter. I could see that here was a literary form that placed a premium on originality, and gave a great deal of latitude to its writers, many of whom had their own trademark styles and approaches. I felt too that for all its vitality, magazine science fiction was limited by its ‘what if?’ approach, and that the genre was ripe for change, if not outright takeover. I was more interested in a ‘what now?’ approach. After weekend trips across the border [this is from the period when he was in Canada briefly training to become an RAF pilot] I could see that both Canada and the USA were changing rapidly, and that change would in time reach even Britain. I would interiorise science fiction, looking for the pathology that underlay the consumer society, the TV landscape and the nuclear arms race, a vast untouched continent of fictional possibility.

As he famously declared, he wanted to explore not outer, but inner space, and he gives a couple of handy clarifications of what this meant for him:

[E.J. Carnell, editor of New Worlds magazine] urged me not to imitate the American writers, and to concentrate on what I termed ‘inner space’, psychological tales close in spirit to the surrealists.

And:

My first decade as a writer coincided with a period of sustained change in England, as well as in the USA and Europe. The mood of post-war depression had begun to lift, and the death of Stalin eased international tensions, despite the Soviet development of the H-bomb. Cheap jet travel arrived with the Boeing 707, and the consumer society, already well established in America, began to appear in Britain. Change was in the air, affecting the nation’s psychology for good or bad. Change was what I wrote about, especially the hidden agendas for change that people were already exposing. Invisible persuaders were manipulating politics and the consumer market, affecting habits and assumptions in ways that few people fully realised. It seemed to me that psychological space, what I termed ‘inner space’, was where science fiction should be heading.

And:

In 1964 Michael Moorcock took over the editorship of the leading British science fiction magazine, New Worlds, determined to change it in every way he could. For years we had carried on noisy but friendly arguments about the right direction for science fiction to take. American and Russian astronauts were carrying out regular orbital flights in their spacecraft, and everyone assumed that NASA would land an American on the moon in 1969 and fulfil President Kennedy’s vow on coming to office. Communications satellites had transformed the media landscape of the planet, bringing the Vietnam War live into every living room. Surprisingly, though, science fiction had failed to prosper. Most of the American magazines had closed, and the sales of New Worlds were a fraction of what they had been in the 1950s. I believed that science fiction had run its course, and would soon either die or mutate into outright fantasy. I flew the flag for what I termed ‘inner space’, in effect the psychological space apparent in surrealist painting, the short stories of Kafka, noir films at their most intense, and the strange, almost mentalised world of science labs and research institutes where [his friend, psychologist] Chris Evans had thrived, and which formed the setting for part of The Atrocity Exhibition.

And this is what he did. After his dystopia trilogy of the early 1960s, almost all the rest of Ballard’s novels are set in the present day, and deal with psychosis and mental collapse or obsession i.e. with

the psychological space apparent in surrealist painting, the short stories of Kafka, noir films at their most intense, and the strange, almost mentalised world of science labs

Which is linked to the fact, or helps explain why, so many of his characters are doctors or psychiatrists, from Dr Kerans in his first novel The Drowned World through to the wicked psychiatrist Dr Wilder Penrose in Cocaine Nights.

(although many of his short stories, including some of the best of them continued to be set in the future or in outer space).

Swimming pools Anybody familiar with the first half of Ballard’s career knows that one of his recurring images is the drained swimming pool, which recurs with obsessive regularity, charged with ominous meaning. In Miracles of Life Ballard finally gives his own interpretation of what all those drained swimming pools meant, going back (as so many things in his fiction do) to his boyhood experiences in Shanghai:

In the coming years I would see a great many drained and half-drained pools, as British residents left Shanghai for Australia and Canada, or the assumed ‘safety’ of Hong Kong and Singapore, and they all seemed as mysterious as that first pool in the French Concession. I was unaware of the obvious symbolism that British power was ebbing away, because no one thought so at the time, and faith in the British Empire was at its jingoistic height. Right up to, and beyond, Pearl Harbour it was taken for granted that the dispatch of a few Royal Navy warships would send the Japanese scuttling back to Tokyo Bay. I think now that the drained pool represented the unknown, a concept that had played no part in my life. Shanghai in the 1930s was full of extravagant fantasies, but these spectacles were designed to promote a new hotel or airport, a new department store, nightclub or dog-racing track. Nothing was unknown.

As it happens, I disagree. The symbolism of the drained swimming pool and their function seem simpler to me: swimming pools are a luxury and so drained swimming pools are symbols of a society which, at one point, had it all and has now lost it all.

So, in my view, the drained pools (and their cousins, the drained fountains) are powerful symbols of the collapse of the kind of moneyed and advanced civilisation which is necessary to maintain them. And, indeed, later in the book Ballard acknowledges this – I think – more obvious interpretation.

Other, more sympathetic readers of my earlier novels and short stories were quick to spot echoes of Empire of the Sun. The trademark images that I had set out over the previous thirty years – the drained swimming pools, abandoned hotels and nightclubs, deserted runways and flooded rivers – could all be traced back to wartime Shanghai. For a long time I resisted this, but I accept now that it is almost certainly true. The memories of Shanghai that I had tried to repress had been knocking at the floorboards under my feet, and had slipped quietly into my fiction.

Quietly? Shouting and screaming more like.

Taste for the abandoned Because the drained swimming pools are merely a sub-set of Ballard’s absolute obsession with abandoned buildings, with the trappings of cities and advanced civilisations which have gone into terminal decline and been left abandoned and derelict by their creators.

His short stories are absolutely rammed with abandoned hotels, drained swimming pools and dead or dying airplanes – think of all those stories set amid the rusting gantries of the abandoned space centre at Cape Canavarel, the abandoned resort in Low Flying Aircraft or the entire abandoned city in The Ultimate City or the vision of New York a hundred years after it has been abandoned and filled with sand dunes in Hello America.

Anyway, in this book there’s a memory of exploring a casino in Shanghai which had been abandoned after the Japanese invasion of the city in 1937, and which expands to explain the importance of ‘the abandoned building’ for him. His father had told him not to go inside, but:

After a few minutes I could no longer restrain myself, and walked on tiptoe through the silent gaming rooms where roulette tables lay on their sides and the floor was covered with broken glasses and betting chips. Gilded statues propped up the canopy of the bars that ran the length of the casino, and on the floor ornate chandeliers cut down from the ceiling tilted among the debris of bottles and old newspapers. Everywhere gold glimmered in the half-light, transforming this derelict casino into a magical cavern from the Arabian Nights tales.

But it held a deeper meaning for me, the sense that reality itself was a stage set that could be dismantled at any moment, and that no matter how magnificent anything appeared, it could be swept aside into the debris of the past. I also felt that the ruined casino, like the city and the world beyond it, was more real and more meaningful than it had been when it was thronged with gamblers and dancers. Abandoned houses and office buildings held a special magic and on my way home from school I often paused outside an empty apartment block. Seeing everything displaced and rearranged in a haphazard way gave me my first taste of the surrealism of everyday life, though Shanghai was already surrealist enough.

It’s that feel for the strange magic of abandoned buildings, eerily empty cities and drained swimming pools which absolutely drenches Ballard’s best and most distinctive short stories.

Miracles of Life Lastly, what makes the book truly wonderful is the quality of love which permeates it. He has nothing but kind words for his wife who died so tragically, so long ago, and then for the strong, intelligent and funny woman, Claire Walsh, who became his lifelong partner in the mid-1960s (the one who appears in two of Ballard’s subversive advertisements, which I’ve reviewed elsewhere).

But it’s the passages about his children which overflow with love and pride and set the tone of the book, from his descriptions of helping at the actual births, through bringing them up by himself and spending all his time with them, through to the pride he felt when they married, and in his grandchildren.

Despite the atrocities described in the war years, and the terrible poverty he saw in post-war England, and then his determination to subvert and change the hidebound worlds of literature and science fiction, as he himself points out, all this was froth compared to the deep, rich core of his family life. His easy-going expressions of love for his children are enough to move any parent to tears.

Concs

Miracles of Life is a wonderfully clear, intelligent and warm book. Its leading feature for me is the intelligence of the content. What I mean is that every paragraph says something interesting. It isn’t a meandering ramble. Every paragraph makes a point, paints a scene, depicts a character, and contains thoughtful and thought-provoking insights.

As with all Ballard there’s a chilly, if not clinical feel to some of it. And yet, paradoxically, at the same time, its very honesty and candour, first about his parents, and then overwhelmingly about his children, creates a powerful sense of warmth and affection. It isn’t sentimental, he regards the whole of life and the world with a detached and lucid eye: but that makes the love which suffuses the book all the more valuable and moving.

We spent hours with little fish nets, hunting for shrimps, which were always taken home in jam jars and watched as they refused to cooperate and gave up the ghost. Fay and Bea were fascinated by the daisies that seemed to grow underwater when the stream rose to flood the meadow. Shepperton Studios were easy to enter in those wonderful summers nearly fifty years ago, and I would take the children past the sound stages to the field where unwanted props were left to the elements: figureheads of sailing ships, giant chess-pieces, half an American car, stairways that led up to the sky and amazed my three infants. And their father: days of wonder that I wish had lasted for ever. I thought of my children then, and still think of them, as miracles of life, and I dedicate this autobiography to them.


Related links

Reviews of other Ballard books

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Pornography, simile and surrealism in The Atrocity Exhibition and Crash

WARNING: This review contains quotations and images of an extremely brutal and/or sexually explicit nature.

The Atrocity Exhibition (1970) is packed with deviant sexual activity, described with a cold clinical detachment, and Crash (1973) is notorious for being one of the most pornographic ‘serious’ novels of the post-war period, not just pornographic but deliberately and studiedly perverse, in that the story is about how the lead characters – both men and women – become fixated on the erotic potential of car crashes.

All this can easily appear gratuitous, designed purely to shock, or to generate publicity and sales.

But apart from all the external arguments we can invoke to defend Ballard, there are arguments in the works themselves which go some way to explaining their extremity.

In particular, one of the recurring characters in The Atrocity Exhibition, the psychiatrist Dr Nathan, is given several speeches where he explains the reason behind the lead character’s obsession with sex – and with extreme, fetishistic sex of the kind Ballard describes in these two books. These two or three speeches explain Ballard’s motivation, contain interesting insights about modern society, and unwittingly shed light on Ballard’s broader approach and technique.

1. Perverse sex resists the trivialisation & commercialisation of sexuality

During the 1960s sex came out of the closet and into all forms of art and media, advertising, music and movies, the mini-skirt, the pill. Ballard’s shock novels both became possible because of this swift liberalisation of social attitudes, but they are also in some measure a reaction against the modern ubiquity of sex:

‘Now that sex is becoming more and more a conceptual act, an intellectualization divorced from affect and physiology alike, one has to bear in mind the positive merits of the sexual perversions. Talbert’s library of cheap photo-pornography is in fact a vital literature, a kindling of the few taste buds left in the jaded palates of our so-called sexuality.’

The argument is that, as the imagery of sex becomes more ubiquitous in advertising and popular culture, our personal enactments of it unavoidably repeat images, positions, postures, maybe even words and phrases, which we have all seen in the tide of increasingly ‘liberated’ movies and TV dramas. So how can we escape from the sense of simply going through motions done much better on the silver screen by glamorous movie stars, or detailed in a thousand ‘How To Have Better Sex’ books and magazine articles, or in the highly sexualised fiction that we can now read? How can we escape from the nagging feeling that our sex lives have been colonised and occupied by the mass media?

By doing things ‘normal people’ would never dream of.

Thus, at a basic level – level 1 – the characters’ obsession with perverse sex is to some extent justifiable as a rejection of the safe, tame, commercially packaged and sanitised sex lives which are increasingly pushed on us from all directions.

(The irony of David Cronenberg making a glossy movie out of Crash was that he was incorporating into film a glaring example of a work which was trying to rebel against being incorporated into film. Hollywood eats everything. Turns everything into two-hour glamorisation and trivialisation, converts the weird and uncanny into a tried and trusted set of gestural and facial clichés. Which is why I loathe film as a medium.)

2. Car crashes are sexually liberating

But not only is extreme fetishistic sex a way of escaping the stifling ‘norms’ of how-to guides in magazines and on daytime TV – Dr Nathan goes on to assert that there is something specifically exciting and arousing about car crashes.

‘Talbot’s belief – and this is confirmed by the logic of the scenario – is that automobile crashes play very different roles from the ones we assign them. Apart from its ontological function, redefining the elements of space and time in terms of our most potent consumer durable, the car crash may be perceived unconsciously as a fertilizing rather than a destructive event – a liberation of sexual energy – mediating the sexuality of those who have died with an intensity impossible in any other form: James Dean and Miss Mansfield, Camus and the late President.’

Think how vital car crashes are to Hollywood movies, both comedies and catastrophes. Think of the orgasmic pleasure it gave hundreds of millions of cinema-goers to watch the whole world blow up in an orgy of crashing cars, airplanes and tube trains in the blockbuster Armageddon movie 2012, and all the many others like it.

Disaster movies are just a shallow, celluloid re-enactment of something much darker and fiercer in human nature: that we revel in destruction. Ballard is just taking this meme – embedded in countless examples of the most popular popular culture – and pushing it to one absolute limit.

The notion that witnessing car crashes allows the release of sexual energy among onlookers lies behind the semi-satirical ‘survey’s which make up the last sections of The Atrocity Exhibition. These assure us, in the po-faced language of questionnaires and social science, that witnesses of car crashes experience a sharp increase in their libido and report marked increases of sexual activity with their partners in the weeks that follow. Car crashes are hot!

3. Car crash sex is one way into a new form of sexuality

If you combine the two ideas above – 1. that fetishistic sex is a way of avoiding the commercialisation of our own sex lives, and 2. that car crashes are exciting – then you move towards a conclusion, a third idea: that car crash sexual fetishisation may be the gateway into a brand new form of human sexuality.

The deformed body of the crippled young woman, like the deformed bodies of the crashed automobiles, revealed the possibilities of an entirely new sexuality.

This view is repeated again and again in Atrocity Exhibition and Crash, that humans are evolving new relationships with their brutal built environment and with each other, and that the combination of the two – of concrete motorways and shopping precincts and multi-story car parks – is creating a new, dissociated, alienated psychology which is giving rise to a new, hard-edge psychology of sex.

4. Car crashes are telling us something

But then there is a fourth level of meaning: beneath the (normally forbidden and repressed) sexual elements which are liberated (in Ballard’s view) by car crashes, there is another, much deeper level of significance. For while we consciously deplore the loss of life etc, we are nonetheless attracted, compulsively attracted, to the scene of car crashes and to re-enact them over and over again. Why?

For Ballard, the assassination of President Kennedy forms a kind of religious apotheosis of the theme: and God knows American culture, from Oliver Stone to Don DeLillo, has been compelled to replay that moment in Dealey Plaza over and over again, picking at the scar, endlessly hoping the psychological devastation of that one fateful moment can be forced to reveal its true secret, to unfold the real conspiracy which led to the president’s death.

The fruitless investigations and countless personal obsessions with the Kennedy assassination are all trying to do the same thing – to get to the bottom, to find the truth about the world. For it all to make sense.

This is a fourth way of interpreting the meaning of car crashes: they are a weird and perverse emblem of humanity’s obsessive need to make sense of the world.

Dr Nathan, in The Atrocity Exhibition, describes one of the other characters as attempting to restage the Kennedy assassination but this time ‘so it makes sense’, and in the annotations he later wrote for the book, Ballard is (as usual) totally candid about the importance of the JFK assassination to the entire book.

Kennedy’s assassination presides over The Atrocity Exhibition, and in many ways the book is directly inspired by his death, and represents a desperate attempt to make sense of the tragedy, with its huge hidden agenda. The mass media created the Kennedy we know, and his death represented a tectonic shift in the communications landscape, sending fissures deep into the popular psyche that have not yet closed.

For all the characters in Crash, the crashes they’ve been involved and the systems of scars and scar tissue left woven into their bodies are telling them something, are codes whose code books have been lost, ciphers of some meaning trembling just beyond reach.

If you think this sounds eccentric or exaggerated, just cast your mind back to the public reaction to Princess Diana’s death in a car crash: it was epic, it was awesome, the entire nation came to a halt, vast crowds gathered outside Kensington Palace and queued for days to sign the book of condolence. And then her funeral. Every commentator at the time highlighted the sense of excess, that the nation seemed to be traumatised far more than the facts of the matter seemed to justify. My own interpretation was that it was us we were grieving for, for all our lost illusions, dreams and hopes which this fairytale princess had come to symbolise.

And then consider the conspiracy theories about the role of the driver, and the pursuing cars, and the role of MI6 or the Royal Family in ‘assassinating’ her, or was it the Russians or… or… Anything, no matter how far-fetched, in order to give meaning, purpose, shape and coherence to what was, in fact, just a stupid pointless car crash, like so many hundreds of thousands of others.

Well, it is the same forlorn, doomed quest for the elusive meaning at the heart of the violent confrontation between man and machine, for the sense of any meaning at the heart of our lives, which the characters of Crash are condemned to pursue, right up to the book’s logical and senseless climax.

5. Car crashes are examples of Ballard’s obsession with junctures and juxtapositions

But these four interpretations of car crash sex – the sexual and the psychological and the ontological  – themselves overlay an even deeper level of meaning: for in The Atrocity Exhibition in particular we come to realise that the protagonist’s obsession with sex is in fact a sub-set of a much deeper obsession – an obsession with the way things are put together – with the modern world of junctions and conjunctions.

Seen from this perspective, sex is just the most garish and compelling avatar of a far deeper and more abstract structure which exists throughout the world as we know it, which is the joining together of disparate parts.

The Primary Act. As they entered the cinema, Dr Nathan confided to Captain Webster, ‘Talbert has accepted in absolute terms the logic of the sexual union. For him all junctions, whether of our own soft biologies or the hard geometries of these walls and ceilings, are equivalent to one another. What Talbert is searching for is the primary act of intercourse, the first apposition of the dimensions of time and space. In the multiplied body of the film actress – one of the few valid landscapes of our age – he finds what seems to be a neutral ground. For the most part the phenomenology of the world is a nightmarish excrescence. Our bodies, for example, are for him monstrous extensions of puffy tissue he can barely tolerate. The inventory of the young woman is in reality a death kit.’ Webster watched the images of the young woman on the screen, sections of her body intercut with pieces of modern architecture. All these buildings. What did Talbert want to do – sodomize the Festival Hall?

This passage explains in a flash the bizarre linkage of sex and architecture which runs throughout The Atrocity Exhibition and recurs in Crash, in its fetishisation of concrete motorways and multi-story car parks.

Modern brutalist architecture reveals the junctions of floors and ceilings, uprights and flats, struts and pillars, with crushing candour – and it is not altogether irrational to see the brutal slotting of concrete floors into concrete stanchions, stark geometric arrangements of prefabricated parts slotted together to create complicated cantilevered structures – with even the most basic sexual positions; even the missionary position, seen from outside, is quite an unwieldy network of limbs arranged in funny and strikingly geometric angles, four arms, four legs, bearing weights or bent at strange angles – all to arrange for the slotting of a vertical member into an oval orifice.

Seen – just seen – actually observed with no moral or sentimental framework whatsoever – sex is a complicated assemblage of moving parts for dubious ends.

Above all, the interest in angles, angles of entry or penetration, the rectilinear arrangements and poses of the human body, can be quite easily made to seem half-abstract.

The identification of splayed human bodies with the splayed metal plates of cars which have been in catastrophic crashes is not, in the end, that far-fetched.


Modern art and angles

This fetishistic approach seems less exceptional when taken out of the context of novels and literature altogether, and placed in the tradition of modern art.

Remember Ballard was very interested indeed in modern art, confessed in interviews to wanting to have been an artist, and litters his stories with art references. In these respects – exploring sexual perversion, and the geometric aspect of the human body – art was waaaaay ahead of written literature, having discovered the geometry beneath the skin of human beings fifty years before Ballard was writing his rude books.

Nude Descending a Staircase by Marcel Duchamp (1912)

Indeed, Duchamp’s famous painting Nude Descending a Staircase is directly referenced in The Atrocity Exhibition, in The Great American Nude chapter:

Koester parked the car outside the empty production offices. They walked through into the stage. An enormous geometric construction filled the hangar-like building, a maze of white plastic convolutions. Two painters were spraying pink lacquer over the bulbous curves. ‘What is this?’ Koester asked with irritation. ‘A model of A/ 3 1 ?’ Dr Nathan hummed to himself. ‘Almost,’ he replied coolly. ‘In fact, you’re looking at a famous face and body, an extension of Miss Taylor into a private dimension. The most tender act of love will take place in this bridal suite, the celebration of a unique nuptial occasion. And why not? Duchamp’s nude shivered her way downstairs, far more desirable to us than the Rokeby Venus, and for good reason.’

‘Far more desirable to us than the Rokeby Venus’? Discuss.

Bellmer and fetish dolls

Ballard was particularly attracted by the Surrealists, and The Atrocity Exhibition references a dozen or so Surrealist paintings and artists, and the idea of bodies regarded as weird fragments, taken to pieces and reassembled to make bizarre new biologies, was one of Surrealism’s basic strategies.

This is most crudely obvious in the obscene and disturbing mannequins made by the German Surrealist artist and photographer Hans Bellmer (1902-1975). Bellmer made his first recombined ‘dolls’ in 1933, was forced to flee to the Nazis, was welcomed to France by the Surrealists, and after the war continued to produce a stream of erotic drawings, etchings, sexually explicit photographs, paintings and prints, often – the transgressive little tinker – of pubescent girls.

Plate from La Poupée (1936) by Hans Bellmer

This is not just like Ballard, it virtually is the Ballard of The Atrocity Exhibition and Crash, in which men fetishise parts of the female body, pose women in awkward and anti-romantic positions, imagine women’s bodies as multiple fragments or as specific zones blown up to the size of billboard hoardings.

Bellmer explained his thinking thus:

What is at stake here is a totally new unity of form, meaning and feeling: language-images that cannot simply be thought up or written up … They constitute new, multifaceted objects, resembling polyplanes made of mirrors … As if the illogical was relaxation, as if laughter was permitted while thinking, as if error was a way and chance, a proof of eternity.

This could be Ballard talking.

Or take the surprise final work by Marcel Duchamp, the notorious (for the tiny number of people who have heard of it) Étant donnés, which Duchamp laboured over (allegedly) from 1946 to 1966 in his Greenwich Village studio, and which was only discovered after his death.

It consists of a common-or-garden wooden door which contains a peephole through which you see a brutal photo of a nude woman lying on her back with her face hidden, legs spread, and one hand holding a gas lamp against a landscape backdrop.

Étant donnés: 1° la chute d’eau / 2° le gaz d’éclairage (Given: 1. The Waterfall, 2. The Illuminating Gas) by Marcel Duchamp (1946-1966)

Shocked? You’re meant to be. Puzzled? Ditto.

Ballard and the French tradition of épatant la bourgeoisie

In fact, the more you think about it, the more ‘traditional’ Ballard’s two extreme books seem – just not in the well-mannered English tradition.

The Atrocity Exhibition and Crash have nothing in common with the polite and subtle novels about upper-middle-class life of an Anthony Powell from this period, or the works of the so-called Angry Young Men (Osborne, Amis), or the kitchen-sink dramas which came in in the early 60s (Saturday Night and Sunday morning et al).

But they are entirely in the tradition, the very long tradition, of French literary attempts to ‘épater la bourgeoisie’ or shock the middle classes.

This French tradition goes back at least as far as the self-consciously decadent poets and writers of the 1890s, or further back to Arthur Rimbaud writing in the 1870s or further back to Baudelaire’s poems about hashish and prostitutes, Les Fleurs du Mal in 1857, or maybe all the way back to the Marquis de Sade and works like The Hundred Days of Sodom (1785) which set out to scientifically catalogue every kind of sexual position and perversion conceivable to the mind of man.

By 1924 when André Breton published his Surrealist Manifesto France had had seventy years or so of ‘radical’ artists determined to use sex and obscenity to disrupt what they saw as the placid banality of bourgeois life.

Courbet scandalised the bourgeoisie with his Realism, Flaubert with the ‘immorality’ of Madame Bovary. Monet scandalised the bourgeoisie with his naked women at a picnic, the Impressionists with their shapeless ‘daubs’. Zola scandalised the bourgeoisie with his blunt Naturalism and frank depictions of Paris prostitutes (in Nana). The Decadents scandalised the bourgeoisie with their over-ripe dreams of drugs and unmentionable perversions. The Cubists scandalised the bourgeoisie with their collages and geometric shapes. The Surrealists shocked the bourgeoisie with their revelation of the sexual perversions lurking just beneath the surface of human consciousness. And so on…

In other words, in France, there is a very well-established and totally assimilated tradition of artists, novelists and playwrights doing their best to shock the bourgeoisie. Seen from this perspective Ballard is hardly a pioneer, more of a late-comer which, I think, sometimes explains the rather bloodless and placid feel of even his most ‘scandalous’ novels. Even when I first read them in the 1970s I had the sense that I’d somehow already read them and now, 40 years later, I think that’s because he was in fact channelling well-established tropes and notions (albeit from the Continental tradition) and simply updating them for the age of helicopters, napalm and multi-story car parks.

Surrealism, the art of juxtaposition and Ballard

At the core of Surrealist practice was the idea of the jarring juxtaposition of completely disparate elements.

It was while reading Les Chants de Maldoror, published in 1869 by Isidore-Lucien Ducasse under the pseudonym the Comte de Lautréamont, that the godfather of the French surrealists, André Breton, discovered the phrase that became foundational to the surrealist doctrine of objective chance:

as beautiful as the chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on an operating table.

Striking juxtapositions are a core element of the Surrealist aesthetic.

Thus when Ballard makes systematic, obsessive and repeated comparisons between the splayed bodies of naked women and a) the hard angles of brutalist concrete architecture, and b) the splayed metal and shattered windscreens of car crashes, he is following the Surrealist aesthetic to a T.

Although our imaginations are bombarded with adverts, films and novels encouraging us to think of sex as a smooth and sensual affair, not very different from eating a Cadburys Flake, anybody who’s actually had sex knows that it can also be quite energetic and brutal, that it contains elements of aggression and domination, compliance and submission which are hovering on the brink of possibility, waiting to be isolated and encouraged.

Since Fifty Shades of Grey became the fastest-selling novel of all time, we as a culture have become much more open about aspects of bondage or BDSM as it is now known and marketed in High Street sex shops, leading to a great deal more sexual experimentation of the kind Ballard describes in his books.

The identification of sex with car crashes was deeply shocking in the repressed 1960s, and upsets the simple-minded to this day, but both visually and conceptually, I am persuaded by Ballard that it is born of a deep, latent similarity between the two events.

Similes and Surreal juxtapositions

This gesture, the idea of the unexpected linking together of disparate elements, echoes some of the points I made in my essay about the importance of similes in Ballard’s writing.

Ballard uses similes a lot. So do other writers, but from his earliest novels Ballard as a writer is notable for the striking and outré comparisons he makes: a woman’s eyes are like dragonflies, wrecked cars look like Saurian lizards, high rise buildings tower overhead like glass coffins.

Ballard’s mind is always making comparisons and correlations, moving from the real concrete thing being described to often wild and unlikely analogies so that when you read a Ballard text you are not only reading about things themselves but are continually projected or flung into the full flood of his uncanny imaginarium.

This is another way to understand the obsession with geometry, planes and angles in The Atrocity Exhibition. It is like the technique of simile but converted into the language of geometry. You can think of all the references to angles and geometry as like being structural containers for similes, but without the actual content. Lines from the draft of a painting waiting to be filled in.

Looked at from this point of view, the linkage of porno sex to car crashes, and the various angles and shapes made by women’s bodies to the architectural shapes of concrete flyovers or modernist hotels, is in a sense only taking the metaphor-making tendency intrinsic in all Ballard’s fiction to extremes.

Ballard himself acknowledges the weirdness and extremity of some of his analogies at various points in the text:

This can be carried to remarkable lengths – for example, the jutting balconies of the Hilton Hotel have become identified with the lost gill-slits of the dying film actress, Elizabeth Taylor.

Extremes of disgust, in some critics’ minds; but extremes of delirious insight and extraordinary beauty, in my opinion. I am particularly haunted by his obsessive use of the idea that human faces contain implicit lines and planes which project outwards, forming complex three-dimensional geometries.

His eyes stared at Travis, their focus sustained only by a continuous effort. For some reason the planes of his face failed to intersect, as if their true resolution took place in some as yet invisible dimension

The planes of their lives interlocked at oblique angles, fragments of personal myths fusing with the commercial cosmologies.

The planes of his cheekbones and temples intersected with the slabs of rainwashed cement, together forming a strange sexual modulus.

For English readers in 1970 this was weird and revolutionary stuff and it still has the power to stun and disorient today. But deep down, is it anything more than a putting into words of the visual effects created by about ten thousand cubist portraits from fifty years earlier?

Young Man in a Gray Sweater (1914) by Diego Rivera

Ballard’s fundamental strategy in these two shattering books is to contrast the soft and (for most people) precious and sentimental idea of the human body, especially its most sensitive, erogenous and private zones – breast and pubis, penis and vulva – and juxtapose them with the most public, hard-edged, angular and manufactured objects of the modern world – cars, roads, brutalist buildings.

Although the books contain hundreds of individually brilliant similes and metaphors, I couldn’t help thinking that underlying most of them and the deeper structures of the books’ themes and ideas, were the profoundly disruptive and innovative strategies of early 20th century Modernist art.


Reviews of J.G. Ballard’s books

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Surrealism reviews

Exhibitions

Books

The Atrocity Exhibition by J.G. Ballard (1970)

WARNING: This review contains quotations which are extremely brutal and/or sexually explicit.

Fingers fretting at the key in her pocket, she watched Travers search through the montage photographs which the volunteers had assembled during anaesthesia. Disquieting diorama of pain and mutilation: strange sexual wounds, imaginary Vietnam atrocities, the deformed mouth of Jacqueline Kennedy. (p.68)

The fact that American edition of the book was titled Love and Napalm gives you fair warning of what to expect.

The Atrocity Exhibition is only a short book, 110 pages in the Granada paperback edition I’ve got, and yet it opens up wide, jagged horizons and makes a tremendous impact because of its format.

The human organism is an atrocity exhibition at which he is an unwilling spectator. (p.13)

Experiments and collage

Ballard was keenly interested in experimental fiction and art, an interest which reached its peak in the late-1960s. As early as the late 1950s he’d created a series of collages assembled from texts cut out of scientific magazines. In 1967 he began a series of what came to be called ‘Advertiser’s Announcements’, being surreal or collagist parodies of traditional adverts. And we know that Ballard originally wanted The Atrocity Exhibition to be a book of collage illustrations.

I originally wanted a large-format book, printed by photo-offset, in which I would produce the artwork – a lot of collages, material taken from medical documents and medical photographs, crashing cars and all that sort of iconography.

In the event this proved impractical and Ballard ended up creating a kind of verbal equivalent of collage from a sequence of stand-alone prose pieces. These were originally published as stand-alone ‘stories’ in various art and sci fi magazines.

The final text of The Atrocity Exhibition is divided into 15 of these pieces or stories or texts, and then each of these is sub-divided into very short sections, often only a paragraph long. Each paragraph has a title of its own, in bold. The result is to make the book a highly fragmented read and certainly not a ‘novel’ with a consistent linear narrative in any traditional sense. Here’s a typical paragraph, or fragment, or angle.

Auto-erotic. As he rested in Catherine Austin’s bedroom, Talbot listened to the helicopters flying along the motorway from the airport. Symbols in a machine apocalypse, they seeded the cores of unknown memories in the furniture of the apartment, the gestures of unspoken affections. He lowered his eyes from the window. Catherine Austin sat on the bed beside him. Her naked body was held forward like a bizarre exhibit, its anatomy a junction of sterile cleft and flaccid mons. He placed his palm against the mud-coloured areola of her left nipple. The concrete landscape of underpass and overpass mediated a more real presence, the geometry of a neural interval, the identity latent within his own musculature.

1. You immediately see the intense but detached pornography of the female body, which never uses swearwords but refers to intercourse and all aspects of sexuality by their strict scientific names, ‘sterile cleft and flaccid mons’.

2. And you immediately see how the sex is intimately and intricately interwoven with equally precise descriptions of architecture and modern transport machines – helicopters flying over the motorway from the airport, a concrete landscape of overpasses and underpasses.

3. And beneath it all, initially obscured by the novelty of the clinical sexuality and the obsessed concrete-mania, lies the characteristic Ballard exorbitance, the Edgar Allen Poe hysteria ‘mediated’, as he would put it, through the detachment of the science journalist, summarising his perceptions as ‘symbols in a machine apocalypse’.

And yet there is no apocalypse. A few cars crash, one helicopter crashes and burns (I think), but there’s nothing like an ‘apocalypse’. The apocalypse – the extremity of all the situations – is all in the mind – of the cipher-characters and, ultimately, of Ballard himself.

The chapters of The Atrocity Exhibition

Here’s a list of the fifteen ‘chapters’/stories and the magazines they were first published in, and dates of first publication. You can see how the composition of the pieces stretched over three years from spring 1966 to late 1969 i.e. was a relatively slow and scattered process.

  1. The Atrocity Exhibition (New Worlds, Vol. 50, # 166, September 1966, excerpt)
  2. The University of Death (Transatlantic Review, No. 29, London, Summer 1968)
  3. The Assassination Weapon (New Worlds, Vol. 50, # 161, April 1966)
  4. You: Coma: Marilyn Monroe (Ambit # 27, Spring 1966)
  5. Notes Towards a Mental Breakdown (New Worlds July 1967, excerpt)
  6. The Great American Nude (Ambit # 36 Summer 1968)
  7. The Summer Cannibals (New Worlds # 186 January 1969)
  8. Tolerances of the Human Face (Encounter Vol. 33, No. 3, September 1969)
  9. You and Me and the Continuum (Impulse, Vol. 1, No. 1, March 1966) FIRST
  10. Plan for the Assassination of Jacqueline Kennedy (Ambit # 31, Spring 1967 [the 26 paragraph titles are in alphabetical order])
  11. Love and Napalm (Export USA Circuit #6, June 1968)
  12. Crash! (ICA-Eventsheet February 1969, excerpt) LAST
  13. The Generations of America (New Worlds # 183, October 1968)
  14. Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan (Brighton: Unicorn Bookshop, 1968)
  15. The Assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy Considered as a Downhill Motor Race (Ambit # 29, Autumn 1966)

Condensed novels

In one interview Ballard described the chapters or stories as each forming an individual, ‘condensed’ novel.

They’re certainly condensed in the sense that, as you read them, it feels as if lots of the action and description and linking passages which would create an ordinary ‘story’ have been surgically removed. Instead the paragraphs jump between isolated moments or scenes, between characters, between settings, so that it’s often difficult to see how they’re at all related, apart from featuring the same names. I’m not sure I really followed the ‘narrative’ of any of them.

And the prose style is just as ‘condensed’. Although it’s only 110 pages long, The Atrocity Exhibition is a chewy read because every single sentence feels packed with meaning and significance. There’s no filler or run-of-the-mill description or dialogue. It makes you realise how slack the texture of most normal novels is.

The Geometry of Her Face. In the perspectives of the plaza, the junctions of the underpass and embankment, Talbot at last recognized a modulus that could be multiplied into the landscape of his consciousness. The descending triangle of the plaza was repeated in the facial geometry of the young woman. The diagram of her bones formed a key to his own postures and musculature, and to the scenario that had preoccupied him at the Institute. He began to prepare for departure. The pilot and the young woman now deferred to him. The fans of the helicopter turned in the dark air, casting elongated ciphers on the dying concrete.

Threads and themes

So the book consists of fifteen short (7, 8 or 9 page) sections, themselves sharply cut up into 20 or 30 fragments or perspectives which superficially justifies the term ‘condensed novels’.

But actually, the term is quite misleading because the sections are not as free-standing as it implies. In fact there are clear, indeed dominating, threads, themes, images and ideas which link almost all the chapters and make the assembly of the texts together much bigger than just the sum of a bunch of disparate parts.

For a start the same ‘characters’ recur in almost all of them – Dr Nathan the psychiatrist, Catherine Austen a mature love object and Karen Novotnik, a younger woman.

The first three or four sections all feature a central male protagonist who leads the action and the other characters comment on although, in an approach which I enjoyed, this character’s name changes from chapter to chapter – from Travis to Talbot to Tallis and so on – and in each incarnation he’s not quite the same person, as if reality shifts subtly in each story, or as if each avatar each one represents an alternative possible reality. This would explain why the young woman Karen Novotnik appears to die not once but several times, each time in a different scenario.

Celebration. For Talbot the explosive collision of the two cars was a celebration of the unity of their soft geometries, the unique creation of the pudenda of Ralph Nader. The dismembered bodies of Karen Novotny and himself moved across the morning landscape, re-created in a hundred crashing cars, in the perspectives of a thousand concrete embankments, in the sexual postures of a million lovers.

As well as these recurring names, the texts are held together by their obsessive circling round the same handful of images, ideas and names. In fact, the way that the central male figure keeps reappearing under different names made me realise that without much difficulty you could say that the characters aren’t carrying the plot, the obsessions are.

So that the book can really be seen as about the circulation, meeting, mingling, parting and interaction of certain obsessive ideas, images and phrases. It’s as if the obsessions are the real, rounded, multi-dimensional entities, the ones we get to know in detail, who feature in various adventures and permutations, while the so-called human ‘characters’ are just vectors or mediums through which the idées fixes are channelled.

Over and over, the same images, situations, ideas and phrases recur with a claustrophobic, obsessive repetition. Dominant are images of death, war, car crashes, apocalypse. They include:

  • World War III
  • the atom bomb and atomic test sites
  • cars and car crashes and the wounds car crashes create in soft human bodies
  • helicopters flying ominously overhead, Vietnam-style
  • utterly impersonal sexual congress conceived as a form of geometric investigation
  • images over-familiar film stars such as Elizabeth Taylor or Brigitte Bardot
  • newsreel footage of war atrocities, from Auschwitz to Vietnam via Biafra and the Congo
  • the Kennedy assassination (one character is described as obsessively trying to recreate the Kennedy assassination ‘in a way that makes sense’)
  • concrete motorways and multi-storey car parks

Each chapter contains a specific mix of these ingredients, but the same overall list of ingredients recurs across all 15, rotating in ever-changing combinations like a kaleidoscope.

Chapter one – The Atrocity Exhibition

Thus chapter one features characters named Travis, his wife Margaret Travis, Catherine Austen who he’s having an affair with, his psychiatrist Dr Nathan who is analysing Travis’s obsession with creating a kind of one-man, psychological World War III, and Captain Webster who is having an affair with Margaret.

Travis is collecting ‘terminal documents’ (just like Kaldren in the short story The Voices of Time). Travis dreams of starting World War III, if only in his head (‘For us, perhaps, World War III is now little more than a sinister pop art display…’). These terminal documents appear pleasingly random and in a note Ballard tells us they were the result of free association:

  1. A spectrohelion of the sun
  2. front elevation of balcony units, Hilton Hotel, London
  3. transverse section through a pre-Cambrian trilobite
  4. ‘chronograms’ by E.J. Marey
  5. photograph taken at noon 7 August 1945 in the Qattara Depression Egypt
  6. a reproduction of Max Ernst’s Garden Airplane Traps
  7. fusing sequences for ‘Little Boy’ and ‘Fat Boy’, the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atom bombs

They’re actually quite a good cross-section of JG’s obsessions: the atom bomb, the alienating effect of modernist architecture, deep geological time (which Ballard had painted as returning to dominate the modern world with its dinosaurs and tropical swamps in The Drowned World or the short story Now Awakes The Sea), a Surrealist painting, the obsession with time indicated by the fictional ‘chronographs’.

And hotels, hotels are classic locations for alienation and ennui for Ballard, if they’re abandoned in one of his dystopian futures, surrounded by drained swimming pools, all the better.

So far, so sort-of reasonable, after all characters and themes occur in all novels. But it’s difficult to convey the chaotic and deliberately dissociative texture of the book.

Brachycephalic. They stopped beneath the half-painted bowl of the radio-telescope. As the blunt metal ear turned on its tracks, fumbling at the sky, he put his hands to his skull, feeling the still-open sutures. Beside him Quinton, the dapper pomaded Judas, was waving at the distant hedges where the three limousines were waiting. ‘If you like we can have a hundred cars – a complete motorcade.’ Ignoring Quinton, he took a piece of quartz from his flying jacket and laid it on the surf. From it poured the code-music of the quasars.

There is no joined-up, consecutive narrative. Each paragraph is genuinely a fragment in the sense that they don’t cohere into any kind of ‘story’. Instead they are snapshots of the characters’ obsessions. Certainly the ‘people’ in the stories meet, encounter each other, have sex, drive cars because we see this in individual paragraphs. But each consecutive paragraph charts a new scene. They are like fragments from a lot of different jigsaws all jumbled together.

At the end of ‘chapter’ one the bodies of Dr Nathan, Captain Webster and Catherine Austen form a small tableau by the bunker. Maybe they were killed in bombing of the target zone in the disused military zone which Travis seems to have organised.

But the second ‘chapter’ begins with these same ‘dead’ characters – Dr Nathan, Catherine Austen – brought back to life, in new scenes as if nothing had happened. Now they are taking part in a screenshow in a university organised by one ‘Talbot'( a sort of structural variation on Travis) and whose students are ostensibly studying World War III, inspired by the jealous student Koester. Talbot is having an affair with Catherine but sees her body chiefly as a ‘geometry’ of vents and clefts and is more interested in the sculpture he’s building on the roof, metal aerials constructed to hold glass faces to the sun. He is clearly cracking up.

And so it continues, tangling and rethreading a narrow and obsessive networks of themes and images…

Key words

If certain key ideas recur and repeat in endless permutations, so do key words. As so often, I find the words more interesting than the ‘ideas’:

geometry

  • her own body, with its endless familiar geometry…
  • in the postures they assumed, the contours of thigh and thorax, Travis explored the geometry and volumetric time of the bedroom
  • only an anatomist could have identified these fragments, each represented as a formal geometric pattern
  • his wife’s body with its familiar geometry
  • His room was filled with grotesque magazine photographs: the obsessive geometry of overpasses, like fragments of her own body; X-rays of unborn children; a series of genital deformations; a hundred close-ups of hands.
  • the concrete landscape of underpass and flyover mediated a more real presence, the geometry of a neural interval…
  • the obsessive geometry of flyovers, like fragments of her own body
  • the geometry of the plaza exercised a unique fascination upon Talbot’s mind
  • a crushed fender; in its broken geometry Talbot saw the dismembered body of Karen Novotny
  • the danger of an assassination attempt seems evident, one hypotenuse in this geometry of a murder
  • For Talbot the explosive collision of the two cars was a celebration of the unity of their soft geometries…

mimetised

  • he assumed the postures of the fragmented body of the film actress, mimetising his past dreams and anxieties in the dune-like fragments of her body
  • the mimetised disasters of Vietnam and the Congo
  • segments of his postures mimetised in the processes of time and space
  • our anxieties mimetised in the junction between wall and ceiling

terminal

  • A Terminal Posture. Lying on the worn concrete of the gunnery aisles, he assumed the postures of the film actress, assuaging his past dreams and anxieties in the dune-like fragments of her
    body.
  • Dr Nathan gazed at the display photographs of terminal syphilitics in the cinema foyer
  • He remembered the aloof, cerebral Kline, and their long discussions on this terminal concrete beach…
  • The Terminal Zone. He lay on the sand with the rusty bicycle wheel. Now and then he would cover some of the spokes with sand, neutralizing the radial geometry. The rim interested him. Hidden behind a dune, the hut no longer seemed a part of his world. The sky remained constant, the warm air touching the shreds of test papers sticking up from the sand. He continued to examine the wheel. Nothing happened.

neural

  • Overhead the glass curtain-walls of the apartment block presided over this first interval of neural calm.
  • The concrete landscape of underpass and overpass mediated a more real presence, the geometry of a neural interval, the identity latent within his own musculature.
  • Impressions of Africa. A low shoreline; air glazed like amber; derricks and jetties above brown water; the silver geometry of a petrochemical complex, a Vorticist assemblage of cylinders and cubes superimposed upon the distant plateau of mountains; a single Horton sphere – enigmatic balloon tethered to the fused sand by its steel cradles; the unique clarity of the African light: fluted tablelands and jigsaw bastions; the limitless neural geometry of the landscape.

planes

  • For some reason the planes of his face failed to intersect, as if their true resolution took place in some as yet invisible dimension, or required elements other than those provided by his own character and musculature.
  • The planes of their lives interlocked at oblique angles, fragments of personal myths fusing with the commercial cosmologies.
  • Her blanched skin revealed the hollow planes of her face.
  • His rigid face was held six inches from her own, his mouth like the pecking orifice of some unpleasant machine. The planes of his cheekbones and temples intersected with the slabs of rainwashed cement, together forming a strange sexual modulus.
  • The planes of her face seemed to lead towards some invisible focus, projecting an image that lingered on the walls, as if they were inhabiting her skull
  • The apartment was a box clock, a cubicular extrapolation of the facial planes of the yantra, the cheekbones of Marilyn Monroe.

This sketchy review of his key vocabulary establishes that what Ballard’s key words have in common is the way they are hard and technical, continually shifting the imagination away from soft human bodies to hard geometries, from sentimental ‘feelings’ towards impersonal, scientific and mathematical notions of ‘neural’ events, planes and geometries.

Art

Ballard made no secret of the immense influence on him of Surrealist painting. He mentions it in pretty much every interview he ever gave, lards his stories with the adjective ‘surrealist’, and frequently refers to specific Surrealist paintings. The Atrocity Exhibition contains references to the following works of art:

  • Max Ernst – Garden Airplane Traps
  • Max Ernst – Europe after the Rain (p.15)
  • Salvador Dali – Hypercubic Christ
  • Max Ernst – Silence (p.21)
  • Salvador Dali – The Persistence of Memory (p.22)
  • Magritte – The Annunciation (p.31)
  • Duchamp – The Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, Even
  • Max Ernst, The Stolen Mirror (p.47)
  • Bellmer sculptures (p.54)
  • Duchamp – Nude descending a Staircase (p.55)
  • Tanguy – Jours de Lenteur (p.85)
  • Max Ernst – the Robing of the Bride (p.85)
  • de Chirico – The Dream of the Poet (p.85)

The art references tend to occur in contexts where they add, expand and complicate existing descriptions.

The ‘Soft’ Death of Marilyn Monroe. Standing in front of him as she dressed, Karen Novotny’s body seemed as smooth and annealed as those frozen planes. Yet a displacement of time would drain away the soft interstices, leaving walls like scraped clinkers. He remembered Ernst’s ‘Robing’: Marilyn’s pitted skin, breasts of carved pumice, volcanic thighs, a face of ash. The widowed bride of Vesuvius.

On reflection, I realise that you could see each of the individual paragraphs as the equivalent of free-standing paintings. That makes a lot of sense. Treating each paragraph as a painting treating a different mood, or angle, or perspective on similar events, covering similar subjects, but each from a different angle and approach – and yourself sauntering past them as they’re hung up on a gallery wall.

Sex and pornography

The text is soaked in sex and sexual perversions and pornography regarded as a clinically detached exercise.

This is justified, if needs be, by Ballard’s view that we are in a hyper-advanced technological society where all experience is mediated by a bombardment of media and advertising imagery to such an extent that naive notions of simple sentimental sex have been scorched out of existence.

The need for more polymorphic roles has been demonstrated by television and news media. Sexual intercourse can no longer be regarded as a personal and isolated activity, but is seen to be a vector in a public complex involving automobile styling, politics and mass communications

The satirical surveys

With a satire which is so straight-faced it’s hard to tell whether he’s laughing or not, the later chapters of The Atrocity Exhibition are notably different from the earlier ones.

They are still laid out as fragmented paragraphs but they more or less cease being (fragmented) narratives and consist of collections of pseudo-scientific surveys and reports.

And these focus relentlessly, obsessively on the conjunction of atrocity and sex, specifically the impact of viewing a) President Kennedy’s assassination b) Vietnam war footage c) general atrocity footage (Auschwitz, the Congo) on the sex lives of an amusingly random and surreal cross-section of audience types, including children, the mentally ill and housewives.

Satirically, the ‘research’ presents evidence that atrocity footage improves workplace efficiency and stimulates a healthy sex drive. Conclusion? Wars of the Vietnam type are good for society.

Using assembly kits of atrocity photographs, groups of housewives, students and psychotic patients selected the optimum child-torture victim. Rape and napalm burns remained constant preoccupations, and a wound profile of maximum arousal was constructed. Despite the revulsion expressed by the panels, follow-up surveys of work-proficiency and health patterns indicate substantial benefits. The effects of atrocity films on disturbed children were found to have positive results that indicate similar benefits for the TV public at large. These studies confirm that it is only in terms of a psychosexual module such as provided by the Vietnam war that the United States can enter into a relationship with the world generally characterized by the term ‘love.’

This fairly blunt satire – although presented in the same-chopped-up paragraphs each headed by a title in bold type as the earlier ‘stories’ – feels drastically different in intention from the earlier stories.

Maybe they reflect the quick escalation in protest against the war which took place in the last few years of the 1960s, and which prompted the equally savage satirical short story The Killing Ground of 1969.

Nuclear satire

Also: In one of his notes to the book, Ballard points out that from the late 1950s and early 1960s, the heyday of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, the fact that the world was living under the shadow of impending nuclear holocaust meant that, to anybody who thought about it, everything was permissible. How could you believe in the fuddy-duddy old values of Church and State, all those crowns and gowns, if the world could be incinerated tomorrow?

Not only that, but how can you think about the end of the world and the destruction of the planet except via extremity and satire? As demonstrated by the Stanley Kubrick movie Dr Strangelove which was a) released in 1964 only 2 years before the first Atrocity story was published, and b) filmed at Shepperton studios just round the corner from Ballard’s house. Serendipities. Zeitgeist. Spirit of the Age.

Conclusion for philistines

If Ballard’s obsession with car crashes and clinical pornography seems sick, ask yourself who’s the sickest – novelists who write blistering porno-satire or generals who order napalm by the lakeful to be dropped on peasant villages?

That was the reality of the times Ballard was writing in, and for. Remember the American version of the book was titled Love and Napalm

  • The billboards multiplied around them, walling the streets with giant replicas of napalm bombings in Vietnam, the serial deaths of Elizabeth Taylor and Marilyn Monroe terraced in the landscapes of Dien Bien Phu and the Mekong Delta.
  • Homage to Abraham Zapruder Each night, as Travers moved through the deserted auditorium, the films of simulated atrocities played above the rows of empty seats, images of napalm victims, crashing cars and motorcade attacks.
  • On the basis of viewers’ preferences an optimum torture and execution sequence was devised involving Governor Reagan, Madame Ky and an unidentifiable eight-year-old Vietnamese girl napalm victim.

Remember the photo of that little naked Vietnamese girl running down the road her skin flapping off her where the napalm had burned her? Those photos were all around in 1966, 67, 68. Atrocity Exhibition is Ballard’s response to the TV-mediated hyper-violence and psychic disturbance of the times.

Conclusion for Ballardians

I think it’s his best book. It’s an über-intense encyclopedia of Ballard’s distinctive obsessions and visions. Some people read it as an experimental depiction of the psyche of a man undergoing a nervous breakdown.

I think it’s bigger than that, it presents an (in)coherent way of verbalising a number of the visual, psychological and imaginative pressures anyone living in the modern era is subjected to. The constant, hammering pressure of the motorways, the thundering traffic, the massive planes grinding overhead, the aggressive billboard hoardings, the saturated mediascape, the faces of the same handful of celebrities dinned into our brains, and the deadening and at the same time hysterical impact that has on our imaginative lives, and emotional lives, and sex lives (if we have them).

Joy Division

Wrote a song based on the book, released on their 1980 album Closer, which is a fair attempt to capture the book’s weirdness in another medium.


Related links

Reviews of other Ballard books

Novels

Short story collections

Other science fiction reviews

Late Victorian
1888 Looking Backward 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy – Julian West wakes up in the year 2000 to discover a peaceful revolution has ushered in a society of state planning, equality and contentment
1890 News from Nowhere by William Morris – waking from a long sleep, William Guest is shown round a London transformed into villages of contented craftsmen

1895 The Time Machine by H.G. Wells – the unnamed inventor and time traveller tells his dinner party guests the story of his adventure among the Eloi and the Morlocks in the year 802,701
1896 The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells – Edward Prendick is stranded on a remote island where he discovers the ‘owner’, Dr Gustave Moreau, is experimentally creating human-animal hybrids
1897 The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells – an embittered young scientist, Griffin, makes himself invisible, starting with comic capers in a Sussex village, and ending with demented murders
1899 When The Sleeper Wakes/The Sleeper Wakes by H.G. Wells – Graham awakes in the year 2100 to find himself at the centre of a revolution to overthrow the repressive society of the future
1899 A Story of the Days To Come by H.G. Wells – set in the same future London as The Sleeper Wakes, Denton and Elizabeth defy her wealthy family in order to marry, fall into poverty, and experience life as serfs in the Underground city run by the sinister Labour Corps

1900s
1901 The First Men in the Moon by H.G. Wells – Mr Bedford and Mr Cavor use the invention of ‘Cavorite’ to fly to the moon and discover the underground civilisation of the Selenites
1904 The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth by H.G. Wells – scientists invent a compound which makes plants, animals and humans grow to giant size, prompting giant humans to rebel against the ‘little people’
1905 With the Night Mail by Rudyard Kipling – it is 2000 and the narrator accompanies a GPO airship across the Atlantic
1906 In the Days of the Comet by H.G. Wells – a comet passes through earth’s atmosphere and brings about ‘the Great Change’, inaugurating an era of wisdom and fairness, as told by narrator Willie Leadford
1908 The War in the Air by H.G. Wells – Bert Smallways, a bicycle-repairman from Kent, gets caught up in the outbreak of the war in the air which brings Western civilisation to an end
1909 The Machine Stops by E.M. Foster – people of the future live in underground cells regulated by ‘the Machine’ until one of them rebels

1910s
1912 The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – Professor Challenger leads an expedition to a plateau in the Amazon rainforest where prehistoric animals still exist
1912 As Easy as ABC by Rudyard Kipling – set in 2065 in a world characterised by isolation and privacy, forces from the ABC are sent to suppress an outbreak of ‘crowdism’
1913 The Horror of the Heights by Arthur Conan Doyle – airman Captain Joyce-Armstrong flies higher than anyone before him and discovers the upper atmosphere is inhabited by vast jellyfish-like monsters
1914 The World Set Free by H.G. Wells – A history of the future in which the devastation of an atomic war leads to the creation of a World Government, told via a number of characters who are central to the change
1918 The Land That Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs – a trilogy of pulp novellas in which all-American heroes battle ape-men and dinosaurs on a lost island in the Antarctic

1920s
1921 We by Evgeny Zamyatin – like everyone else in the dystopian future of OneState, D-503 lives life according to the Table of Hours, until I-330 wakens him to the truth
1925 Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov – a Moscow scientist transplants the testicles and pituitary gland of a dead tramp into the body of a stray dog, with disastrous consequences
1927 The Maracot Deep by Arthur Conan Doyle – a scientist, engineer and a hero are trying out a new bathysphere when the wire snaps and they hurtle to the bottom of the sea, where they discover…

1930s
1930 Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon – mind-boggling ‘history’ of the future of mankind over the next two billion years – surely the most sweeping vista of any science fiction book
1938 Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis – baddies Devine and Weston kidnap Oxford academic Ransom and take him in their spherical spaceship to Malacandra, as the natives call the planet Mars

1940s
1943 Perelandra (Voyage to Venus) by C.S. Lewis – Ransom is sent to Perelandra aka Venus, to prevent a second temptation by the Devil and the fall of the planet’s new young inhabitants
1945 That Hideous Strength: A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-ups by C.S. Lewis– Ransom assembles a motley crew to combat the rise of an evil corporation which is seeking to overthrow mankind
1949 Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell – after a nuclear war, inhabitants of ruined London are divided into the sheep-like ‘proles’ and members of the Party who are kept under unremitting surveillance

1950s
1950 I, Robot by Isaac Asimov – nine short stories about ‘positronic’ robots, which chart their rise from dumb playmates to controllers of humanity’s destiny
1950 The Martian Chronicles – 13 short stories with 13 linking passages loosely describing mankind’s colonisation of Mars, featuring strange, dreamlike encounters with Martians
1951 Foundation by Isaac Asimov – the first five stories telling the rise of the Foundation created by psychohistorian Hari Seldon to preserve civilisation during the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1951 The Illustrated Man – eighteen short stories which use the future, Mars and Venus as settings for what are essentially earth-bound tales of fantasy and horror
1952 Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov – two long stories which continue the future history of the Foundation set up by psychohistorian Hari Seldon as it faces attack by an Imperial general, and then the menace of the mysterious mutant known only as ‘the Mule’
1953 Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov – concluding part of the  Foundation Trilogy, which describes the attempt to preserve civilisation after the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1953 Earthman, Come Home by James Blish – the adventures of New York City, a self-contained space city which wanders the galaxy 2,000 years hence, powered by ‘spindizzy’ technology
1953 Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury – a masterpiece, a terrifying anticipation of a future when books are banned and professional firemen are paid to track down stashes of forbidden books and burn them until one fireman, Guy Montag, rebels
1953 The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester – a breathless novel set in a 24th century New York populated by telepaths and describing the mental collapse of corporate mogul Ben Reich who starts by murdering his rival Craye D’Courtney and becomes progressively more psychotic as he is pursued by telepathic detective, Lincoln Powell
1953 Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke a thrilling narrative involving the ‘Overlords’ who arrive from space to supervise mankind’s transition to the next stage in its evolution
1954 The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov – set 3,000 years in the future when humans have separated into ‘Spacers’ who have colonised 50 other planets, and the overpopulated earth whose inhabitants live in enclosed cities or ‘caves of steel’, and introducing detective Elijah Baley to solve a murder mystery
1956 The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov – 3,000 years in the future detective Elijah Baley returns, with his robot sidekick, R. Daneel Olivaw, to solve a murder mystery on the remote planet of Solaria
Some problems with Isaac Asimov’s science fiction
1956 They Shall Have Stars by James Blish – explains the invention, in the near future, of i) the anti-death drugs and ii) the spindizzy technology which allow the human race to colonise the galaxy
1956 The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester – a fast-paced phantasmagoria set in the 25th century where humans can teleport, a terrifying new weapon has been invented, and tattooed hard-man, Gulliver Foyle, is looking for revenge
1959 The Triumph of Time by James Blish – concluding novel of Blish’s ‘Okie’ tetralogy in which mayor of New York John Amalfi and his friends are present at the end of the universe
1959 The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut – Winston Niles Rumfoord builds a space ship to explore the solar system where encounters a chrono-synclastic infundibula, and this is just the start of a bizarre meandering fantasy which includes the Army of Mars attacking earth and the adventures of Boaz and Unk in the caverns of Mercury

1960s
1961 A Fall of Moondust by Arthur C. Clarke a pleasure tourbus on the moon is sucked down into a sink of moondust, sparking a race against time to rescue the trapped crew and passengers
1962 The Drowned World by J.G. Ballard – Dr Kerans is part of a UN mission to map the lost cities of Europe which have been inundated after solar flares melted the worlds ice caps and glaciers, but finds himself and his colleagues’ minds slowly infiltrated by prehistoric memories of the last time the world was like this, complete with tropical forest and giant lizards, and slowly losing their grasp on reality.
1962 The Voices of Time and Other Stories – Eight of Ballard’s most exquisite stories including the title tale about humanity slowly falling asleep even as they discover how to listen to the voices of time radiating from the mountains and distant stars, or The Cage of Sand where a handful of outcasts hide out in the vast dunes of Martian sand brought to earth as ballast which turned out to contain fatal viruses. Really weird and visionary.
1962 A Life For The Stars by James Blish – third in the Okie series about cities which can fly through space, focusing on the coming of age of kidnapped earther, young Crispin DeFord, aboard space-travelling New York
1962 The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick In an alternative future America lost the Second World War and has been partitioned between Japan and Nazi Germany. The narrative follows a motley crew of characters including a dealer in antique Americana, a German spy who warns a Japanese official about a looming surprise German attack, and a woman determined to track down the reclusive author of a hit book which describes an alternative future in which America won the Second World War
1962 Mother Night by Kurt Vonnegut – the memoirs of American Howard W. Campbell Jr. who was raised in Germany and has adventures with Nazis and spies
1963 Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut – what starts out as an amiable picaresque as the narrator, John, tracks down the so-called ‘father of the atom bomb’, Felix Hoenniker for an interview turns into a really bleak, haunting nightmare where an alternative form of water, ice-nine, freezes all water in the world, including the water inside people, killing almost everyone and freezing all water forever
1964 The Drought by J.G. Ballard – It stops raining. Everywhere. Fresh water runs out. Society breaks down and people move en masse to the seaside, where fighting breaks out to get near the water and set up stills. In part two, ten years later, the last remnants of humanity scrape a living on the vast salt flats which rim the continents, until the male protagonist decides to venture back inland to see if any life survives
1964 The Terminal Beach by J.G. Ballard – Ballard’s breakthrough collection of 12 short stories which, among more traditional fare, includes mind-blowing descriptions of obsession, hallucination and mental decay set in the present day but exploring what he famously defined as ‘inner space’
1964 Dr. Strangelove, or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb by Peter George – a novelisation of the famous Kubrick film, notable for the prologue written as if by aliens who arrive in the distant future to find an earth utterly destroyed by the events described in the main narrative
1966 Rocannon’s World by Ursula Le Guin – Le Guin’s first novel, a ‘planetary romance’ or ‘science fantasy’ set on Fomalhaut II where ethnographer and ‘starlord’ Gaverel Rocannon rides winged tigers and meets all manner of bizarre foes in his quest to track down the aliens who destroyed his spaceship and killed his colleagues, aided by sword-wielding Lord Mogien and a telepathic Fian
1966 Planet of Exile by Ursula Le Guin – both the ‘farborn’ colonists of planet Werel, and the surrounding tribespeople, the Tevarans, must unite to fight off the marauding Gaal who are migrating south as the planet enters its deep long winter – not a good moment for the farborn leader, Jakob Agat Alterra, to fall in love with Rolery, the beautiful, golden-eyed daughter of the Tevaran chief
1966 – The Crystal World by J.G. Ballard – Dr Sanders journeys up an African river to discover that the jungle is slowly turning into crystals, as does anyone who loiters too long, and becomes enmeshed in the personal psychodramas of a cast of lunatics and obsessives
1967 The Disaster Area by J.G. Ballard – Nine short stories including memorable ones about giant birds, an the man who sees the prehistoric ocean washing over his quite suburb.
1967 City of Illusions by Ursula Le Guin – an unnamed humanoid with yellow cat’s eyes stumbles out of the great Eastern Forest which covers America thousands of years in the future when the human race has been reduced to a pitiful handful of suspicious rednecks or savages living in remote settlements. He is discovered and nursed back to health by a relatively benign commune but then decides he must make his way West in an epic trek across the continent to the fabled city of Es Toch where he will discover his true identity and mankind’s true history
1966 The Anti-Death League by Kingsley Amis
1968 2001: A Space Odyssey a panoramic narrative which starts with aliens stimulating evolution among the first ape-men and ends with a spaceman being transformed into a galactic consciousness
1968 Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick In 1992 androids are almost indistinguishable from humans except by trained bounty hunters like Rick Deckard who is paid to track down and ‘retire’ escaped ‘andys’ – earning enough to buy mechanical animals, since all real animals died long ago
1969 Ubik by Philip K. Dick In 1992 the world is threatened by mutants with psionic powers who are combated by ‘inertials’. The novel focuses on the weird alternative world experienced by a group of inertials after they are involved in an explosion on the moon
1969 The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin – an envoy from the Ekumen or federation of advanced planets – Genly Ai – is sent to the planet Gethen to persuade its inhabitants to join the federation, but the focus of the book is a mind-expanding exploration of the hermaphroditism of Gethen’s inhabitants, as Genly is forced to undertake a gruelling trek across the planet’s frozen north with the disgraced native lord, Estraven, during which they develop a cross-species respect and, eventually, a kind of love
1969 Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut – Vonnegut’s breakthrough novel in which he manages to combine his personal memories of being an American POW of the Germans and witnessing the bombing of Dresden in the character of Billy Pilgrim, with a science fiction farrago about Tralfamadorians who kidnap Billy and transport him through time and space – and introduces the catchphrase ‘so it goes’

1970s
1970 Tau Zero by Poul Anderson – spaceship Leonora Christine leaves earth with a crew of fifty to discover if humans can colonise any of the planets orbiting the star Beta Virginis, but when its deceleration engines are damaged, the crew realise they need to exit the galaxy altogether in order to find space with low enough radiation to fix the engines – and then a series of unfortunate events mean they find themselves forced to accelerate faster and faster, effectively travelling forwards through time as well as space until they witness the end of the entire universe – one of the most thrilling sci-fi books I’ve ever read
1970 The Atrocity Exhibition by J.G. Ballard – Ballard’s best book, a collection of fifteen short experimental texts in stripped-down prose bringing together key obsessions like car crashes, mental breakdown, World War III, media images of atrocities and clinical sex
1971 Vermilion Sands by J.G. Ballard – nine short stories including Ballard’s first, from 1956, most of which follow the same shape, describing the arrival of a mysterious, beguiling woman in the fictional desert resort of Vermilion Sands, the setting for extravagantly surreal tales of the glossy, lurid and bizarre
1971 The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula Le Guin – thirty years in the future (in 2002) America is an overpopulated environmental catastrophe zone where meek and unassuming George Orr discovers that is dreams can alter reality, changing history at will. He comes under the control of visionary neuro-scientist, Dr Haber, who sets about using George’s powers to alter the world for the better with unanticipated and disastrous consequences
1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic, leading to harum scarum escapades in disaster-stricken London
1972 The Word for World Is Forest by Ursula Le Guin – novella set on the planet Athshe describing its brutal colonisation by exploitative Terrans (who call it ‘New Tahiti’) and the resistance of the metre-tall, furry, native population of Athsheans, with their culture of dreamtime and singing
1972 The Fifth Head of Cerberus by Gene Wolfe – a mind-boggling trio of novellas set on a pair of planets 20 light years away, the stories revolve around the puzzle of whether the supposedly human colonists are, in fact, the descendants of the planets’ shape-shifting aboriginal inhabitants who murdered the first earth colonists and took their places so effectively that they have forgotten the fact and think themselves genuinely human
1973 Crash by J.G. Ballard – Ballard’s most ‘controversial’ novel, a searingly intense description of its characters’ obsession with the sexuality of car crashes, wounds and disfigurement
1973 Rendezvous With Rama by Arthur C. Clarke – in 2031 a 50-kilometre-long object of alien origin enters the solar system, so the crew of the spaceship Endeavour are sent to explore it in one of the most haunting and evocative novels of this type ever written
1973 Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut – Vonnegut’s longest and most experimental novel with the barest of plots and characters allowing him to sound off about sex, race, America, environmentalism, with the appearance of his alter ego Kilgore Trout and even Vonnegut himself as a character, all enlivened by Vonnegut’s own naive illustrations and the throwaway catchphrase ‘And so on…’
1974 Concrete Island by J.G. Ballard – the short and powerful novella in which an advertising executive crashes his car onto a stretch of wasteland in the juncture of three motorways, finds he can’t get off it, and slowly adapts to life alongside its current, psychologically damaged inhabitants
1974 Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said by Philip K. Dick – America after the Second World War is a police state but the story is about popular TV host Jason Taverner who is plunged into an alternative version of this world where he is no longer a rich entertainer but down on the streets among the ‘ordinaries’ and on the run from the police. Why? And how can he get back to his storyline?
1974 The Dispossessed by Ursula Le Guin – in the future and 11 light years from earth, the physicist Shevek travels from the barren, communal, anarchist world of Anarres to its consumer capitalist cousin, Urras, with a message of brotherhood and a revolutionary new discovery which will change everything
1974 Inverted World by Christopher Priest – vivid description of a city on a distant planet which must move forwards on railway tracks constructed by the secretive ‘guilds’ in order not to fall behind the mysterious ‘optimum’ and avoid the fate of being obliterated by the planet’s bizarre lateral distorting, a vivid and disturbing narrative right up until the shock revelation of the last few pages
1975 High Rise by J.G. Ballard – an astonishingly intense and brutal vision of how the middle-class occupants of London’s newest and largest luxury, high-rise development spiral down from petty tiffs and jealousies into increasing alcohol-fuelled mayhem, disintegrating into full-blown civil war before regressing to starvation and cannibalism
1976 Slapstick by Kurt Vonnegut – a madly disorientating story about twin freaks, a future dystopia, shrinking Chinese and communication with the afterlife
1979 The Unlimited Dream Company by J.G. Ballard – a strange combination of banality and visionary weirdness as an unhinged young man crashes his stolen plane in suburban Shepperton, and starts performing magical acts like converting the inhabitants into birds, conjuring up exotic foliage, convinced his is on a mission to liberate them
1979 Jailbird by Kurt Vonnegut – the satirical story of Walter F. Starbuck and the RAMJAC Corps run by Mary Kathleen O’Looney, a baglady from Grand Central Station, among other satirical notions including the new that Kilgore Trout, a character who recurs in most of his novels, is one of the pseudonyms of a fellow prison at the gaol where Starbuck serves a two year sentence, one Dr Robert Fender

1980s
1980 Russian Hide and Seek by Kingsley Amis – set in an England of 2035 after a) the oil has run out and b) a left-wing government left NATO and England was promptly invaded by the Russians – ‘the Pacification’, who have settled down to become a ruling class and treat the native English like 19th century serfs
1980 The Venus Hunters by J.G. Ballard – seven very early and often quite cheesy sci-fi short stories, along with a visionary satire on Vietnam (1969), and then two mature stories from the 1970s which show Ballard’s approach sliding into mannerism
1981 The Golden Age of Science Fiction edited by Kingsley Amis – 17 classic sci-fi stories from what Amis considers the ‘Golden Era’ of the genre, basically the 1950s
1981 Hello America by J.G. Ballard – a hundred years from now an environmental catastrophe has turned America into a vast, arid desert, except for west of the Rockies which has become a rainforest of Amazonian opulence, and it is here that a ragtag band of explorers from old Europe discover a psychopath has crowned himself President Manson, has revived an old nuclear power station in order to light up Las Vegas, and plays roulette in Caesar’s Palace to decide which American city to nuke next
1981 The Affirmation by Christopher Priest – an extraordinarily vivid description of a schizophrenic young man living in London who, to protect against the trauma of his actual life (father died, made redundant, girlfriend committed suicide) invents a fantasy world, the Dream Archipelago, and how it takes over his ‘real’ life
1982 Myths of the Near Future by J.G. Ballard – ten short stories showing Ballard’s range of subject matter from Second World War China to the rusting gantries of Cape Kennedy
1982 2010: Odyssey Two by Arthur C. Clarke – Heywood Floyd joins a Russian spaceship on a two-year journey to Jupiter to a) reclaim the abandoned Discovery and b) investigate the monolith on Japetus
1984 Neuromancer by William Gibson – Gibson’s stunning debut novel which establishes the ‘Sprawl’ universe, in which burnt-out cyberspace cowboy, Case, is lured by ex-hooker Molly into a mission led by ex-army colonel Armitage to penetrate the secretive corporation, Tessier-Ashpool, at the bidding of the vast and powerful artificial intelligence, Wintermute
1986 Burning Chrome by William Gibson – ten short stories, three or four set in Gibson’s ‘Sprawl’ universe, the others ranging across sci-fi possibilities, from a kind of horror story to one about a failing Russian space station
1986 Count Zero by William Gibson – second in the ‘Sprawl trilogy’
1987 2061: Odyssey Three by Arthur C. Clarke – Spaceship Galaxy is hijacked and forced to land on Europa, moon of the former Jupiter, in a ‘thriller’ notable for Clarke’s descriptions of the bizarre landscapes of Halley’s Comet and Europa
1988 Mona Lisa Overdrive by William Gibson – third of Gibson’s ‘Sprawl’ trilogy in which street-kid Mona is sold by her pimp to crooks who give her plastic surgery to make her look like global simstim star Angie Marshall, who they plan to kidnap but is herself on a quest to find her missing boyfriend, Bobby Newmark, one-time Count Zero; while the daughter of a Japanese gangster who’s sent her to London for safekeeping is abducted by Molly Millions, a lead character in Neuromancer

1990s
1990 The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling – in an alternative version of history, Charles Babbage’s early computer, instead of being left as a paper theory, was actually built, drastically changing British society, so that by 1855 it is led by a party of industrialists and scientists who use databases and secret police to keep the population suppressed

Vermilion Sands by J.G. Ballard (1971)

All summer the cloud-sculptors would come from Vermilion Sands and sail their painted gliders above the coral towers that rose like white pagodas beside the highway to Lagoon West. The tallest of the towers was Coral D, and here the rising air above the sand-reefs was topped by swan-like clumps of fair-weather cumulus. Lifted on the shoulders of the air above the crown of Coral D, we would carve sea-horses and unicorns, the portraits of presidents and film-stars, lizards and exotic birds. As the crowd watched from their cars, a cool rain would fall on to the dusty roofs, weeping from the sculptured clouds as they sailed across the desert floor towards the sun.

Those who come looking for classic Ballard – all car crashes and multi-story car parks – will be disappointed. The nine stories Ballard wrote about Vermilion Sands are, for the most, part, among his earliest – in fact Prima Belladonna, the first story in the series, is also the first short story he ever had published – and they all reek of early period, fin-de-siecle-cum-surrealist dreams rather than the hard psychoses of the modern world which he became famous for later on.

The idea is that Vermilion Sands is a holiday resort of the very near future, but not a holiday resort as we know it in the real world of Ibiza or the Costas. For the most striking aspect of Vermilion Sands is that there is no sea. No sea, no beaches, no sunbathing and all that vulgar paraphernalia. Instead the town appears to be surrounded by a vista of endless rolling dunes, sand-lakes and quartz reefs, among which grow the mysterious ‘sound sculptures’ and out of whose dark grottos fly the ominous sand-rays.

Perfectly at home with this nearly other-planet-like landscape, the denizens of this alternative reality are all well educated and middle class, all seem to work in the arts (we meet an increasingly predictable series of artists, singers, film makers, architects, painters and fashion designers), and indulge strange dreamy fantasies which involve making singing sculptures, tending plants which emit music, selling houses which shape themselves to their owners’ moods and, in the most characteristic story, The Cloud-Sculptors of Coral D, use gliders to carve faces and shapes out of clouds for the entertainment of the jaded inhabitants below.

The stories appear to take place in the present or near future:

  • in Venus Smiles the narrator references the Expo 75 and the Venice Biennale as contemporary events; later he tells us that the artist Lorraine Drexel hobnobbed with Giacommetti and John Cage (making her a very 1950s character)
  • in The Thousand Dreams of Stellavista the architect who is shot dead is described as having hung out in the 1950s with Le Corbusier and Lloyd Wright, and then moved on to Vermilion Sands, ‘1970 shots of him, fitting into the movie colony like a shark into a goldfish bowl’, and since we know he was shot soon after arriving at the resort that sets his murder in the Seventies, and the story is being told some ten years after the trial (p.194)
  • in Say Goodbye To the Wind the lead female character Raine Channing, was a world famous model in the 1970s and the ‘now’ of the story is barely ten years later (p.132)

But the stories take place in a location which is not the same earth or the same present as the rest of us inhabit. Everyone is comfortably off and lazy. All the houses have balconies and verandas where the characters do a good deal of daydreaming and musing. Everyone takes the endless dunes, the singing sculptures, and the flying manta rays for granted.

Ballard is often heralded as the prophet of late-twentieth century urban psychoses but these stories really reveal the late Victorian in him, the man in thrall to a Tennysonian love of euphony, given to long lazy paragraphs describing pre-Raphaelite women who sleepwalk through the dunes under the shimmering moonlight, combined with an 1890s, decadent, Oscar Wilde intoxication with jewels (jeweled eyes, jeweled insects) and the uncanny attraction of the macabre. In these stories Ballard is more of a Symbolist than a modernist.

Standing with one hand on the cabin rail, the brass portholes forming halos at her feet, was a tall, narrow-hipped woman with blonde hair so pale she immediately reminded me of the Ancient Mariner’s Life-in-Death. Her eyes gazed at me like dark magnolias. Lifted by the wind, her opal hair, like antique silver, made a chasuble of the air.

In a short preface Ballard says the stories are his best guess at what ‘the future will actually be like’, a snapshot of ‘the day after tomorrow’ – but I think we can take that with a pinch of salt: the future will obviously look very much like the world of today, only more crowded and polluted; that’s certainly how the future has turned out for the last 40 years that I’ve been experiencing it.

In the 1970s they told us that by the year 2000 there’d be colonies on the moon or even Mars, and we’d all be living in the Leisure Society where the only challenge would be deciding whether to fill your spare time by being an artist or a poet. 40 years later the Space Age is over, everyone works harder than ever, and the world is just more crowded and polluted.

What the Vermilion Sands stories really are is a mental realm where Ballard could go to indulge the most rococo and whimsical of his decadent fantasies, untroubled by any constraints of realism or logic. He is closer to the mark when, later in the Preface, he says that the stories consciously celebrate ‘the neglected virtues of the glossy, lurid and bizarre.’ They are exercises in the strange and the fantastical, the weird and surreal, all told in the calm, bejewelled prose of a latter-day Oscar Wilde.

Memories, caravels without sails, crossed the shadowy deserts of her burnt-out eyes. (p.21)

References in the text to Vermilion Sands

Vermilion Sands is my guess at what the future will actually be like.

Vermilion Sands is a place where I would be happy to live. I once described this overlit desert resort as an exotic suburb of my mind…

Vermilion Sands has more than its full share of dreams and illusions, fears and fantasies, but the frame for them is less confining. I like to think, too, that it celebrates the neglected virtues of the glossy, lurid and bizarre.

Where is Vermilion Sands? I suppose its spiritual home lies somewhere between Arizona and Ipanema Beach, but in recent years I have been delighted to see it popping up elsewhere — above all, in sections of the 3,000-mile-long linear city that stretches from Gibraltar to Glyfada Beach along the northern shores of the Mediterranean, and where each summer Europe lies on its back in the sun. That posture, of course, is the hallmark of Vermilion Sands and, I hope, of the future — not merely that no-one has to work, but that work is the ultimate play, and play the ultimate work. (Preface)

‘tourist haunts like Vermilion Sands’ (The Singing Statues)

Ten years ago the colony ‘was still remembered as the one-time playground of movie stars, delinquent heiresses and eccentric cosmopolites…

All the houses in Vermilion Sands, it goes without saying, were psychotropic…

‘Darling, Vermilion Sands is Vermilion Sands. Don’t expect to find the suburban norms. People here were individualists.’ (Stellavista)

… to Vermilion Sands, to this bizarre, sand-bound resort with its lethargy, beach fatigue and shifting perspectives

The Recess is referred to in several places as a worldwide economic slump which reduced most people to working a few hours a day (Referred to in The Thousand Dreams of Stellavista and the Cloud Sculptors), but this is as airily vague and meaningless as everything else in the stories.

Vermilion

Prima Belladonna (1956)

Steve Parker keeps a shop of singing flowers, Parker’s Choro-Fauna. A lot of effort is put into explaining the complexity of singing plants and, in particular, the way they need tuning and Steve does this using the monstrous Khan-Arachnid orchid, a difficult bloom with a range of 24 octaves. When he’s not fussing about these rare and expensive musical plants, Steve hangs out with his pals Tony and Harry, drinking cool beers on his balcony.

What is maybe most characteristic about the story is the notion that it is set during ‘The Recess’, a decade of economic stasis. There’s no socio-economic explanation of this, it just reinforces the sense of slow, lazy, easy-going torpor which hangs over the story.

Into their relaxed, passive lives arrives the stunningly beautiful Jane Cyracylides, long and lean with golden skin and disconcerting eyes which seem like insects. The boys ogle her from their balcony and then one day she comes to the shop.

Tony gets to know here and discovers Jane’s astonishing singing ability, an ability which, if not restrained, badly upsets the flowers in his shop. She starts to make a living singing in nightclubs and becomes famous so Tony is thrilled when they become an item, cruising round together and hanging at the beach.

One day he is awoken by music from the shop, strange, it’s locked up and should be quiet. He goes in to discover the Khan-Arachnid orchid in mad tumescence, rearing up to over nine feet tall and sucking into its core the willing body of Jane Cyracylides. When he tries to pull her free she pushes him away. Later, when he re-enters the shop, the Khan-Arachnid has returned to its normal size and Jane is nowhere to be seen. Has it eaten her?!

Venus Smiles (1957)

A broadly comic story. The narrator – Mr Hamilton – is on a small committee which commissioned a sonic sculpture for the central square of Vermilion Sands and awarded the gig to Lorraine Drexel. Unfortunately the finished product looks like a radar aerial with a car radiator grill broken in two so the bars stick up like a big metal comb. And the sound it emits instead of being calm and reassuring is a high pitched whine, a sitar-like caterwauling. The crowd gathered to see the unveiling starts booing.

Quite quickly the statue is withdrawn and ends up in the narrator’s own front garden, and Lorraine Drexel leaves town, laughing. This is because she knows what’s coming next. Which is the statue starts growing, and sprouting more and more sound cores which start broadcasting various classical lollipops like Mendelsohn’s Italian Symphony or Grieg’s Piano Concerto.

Hamilton chops it up with a hacksaw but the parts only grow back. They call in an expert, a Dr Blackett, who spouts some typical half-plausible pseudo-scientific explanation about the sculpture extracting its new content from oxygen in the air and its metal core, creating a dynamic form of rust.

Hamilton wakes up to find the thing smashing through his bedroom window and stretching all over his garden, caterwauling umpteen different pieces of classical music. His colleague on the Art committee, Raymond, comes round with an oxy-acetylene kit and they spend a day chopping the monster singing sculpture up into thousands of tiny pieces. They pay a local contractor to take it away to a steel mill and get it all recycled.

But the sculptress Lorraine Drexel reads about it in the press and sues. The case spends months dragging through the courts and the final verdict is delivered in Vermilion Sands’s new courthouse. They lose the case because the judge doesn’t believe – despite the eye witness testimony – in a growing singing sculpture.

But as they leave the courthouse, Hamilton feels a vibration in his feet. He leans to the floor and hears music. He walks to a window and looks out at some of the unfinished parts of the courthouse. Yes, there are new struts and stanchions growing out from the building even as he watches and new ‘sonic cores’ forming, from which emits louder and louder music.

The sculpture! Its melted-down parts have been mixed with other metal and sent off to construction jobs all over the city. Not only buildings but cars and planes, all the artifacts of modern technology will start budding soundboxes and singing!

Studio 5, The Stars (1960)

Studio 5, the Stars is an address – studio 5 is a house half way along a road in Vermilion Sands called The Stars.

It’s a good-humoured joke that the narrator is Paul Ransom, editor of Wave IX, a poetry magazine all of whose works are produced by modern VT technology – punch in your requirements of stanza form, genre, style, metre and so on into an IBM machine and it coughs out as many lines as you like.

Into his life wafts a late-Victorian beauty, the mysterious figure of Aurora Day (much like the slender and mysterious beauties Leonora Chanel and Jane Ciracylades in the other stories), given to mysterious sleepwalking in her billowing white gown or feeding the white fish in her pond or stretching on her divan, her ‘beautiful body uncoiling like a python.’

She is a real poet in that she writes the old fashioned way, with a pen. Once she learns Ransom is editor of a poetry mag she sends her pink Cadillac round every morning so that the hunchback chauffeur can deliver her latest compositions, and in the evening the tapes on which she has written her texts comes roiling and blowing across the sand from her house across the dunes, Studio 5.

But this is just the start. When Ransom rejects her poems, she magically co-opts the entire issue he’s sent to the printers, deleting all the computer-generated poems and replacing them with hers. Far more dramatic, when Ransom gets over burning the tampered copies, he lifts his glass to find a quote of poetry engraved on it, and poetry engraved on the steps of his, and on the doors, and on the walls, and on the floors. Then he looks at his arms and realises they are live with hand-written verse and when he looks in the mirrors he sees that his face it is covered in poetry.

He vaults the balcony, lands on the sand and runs over to Aurora’s house. There she is lazily feeding her fish and asks him if he knows the Greek myth about Melander, goddess of poetry, and Melander, the only true poet of the day who kills himself to prove his devotion to the art of poetry. As she tells it him, Ransom realises there are paintings of the two characters all round the walls. Is she… is she the goddess Melander?

Quickly the plot develops. Ransom utterly gives in to Aurora’s demand that the next edition of his magazine be filled with original, hand-made poetry. But when he gets home he discovers his lovely IBM poetry-making computer has been trashed. He phones the other 23 poets in Vermilion Sands and same has happened to them. How the devil is he going to fill his magazine?

One alone among the other poets isn’t fazed, the good-looking youth Tristram Caldwell. He not only offers to submit some of his verse but comes over and introduces himself to Aurora. Over the next few days they become inseparable. He suggests they go on a sand-ray hunt, sand-rays being things like bats which fly about above the ‘reefs’ but have a sharp and fatal sting.

To cut a long passage short, Tristram fools Aurora into going into a mazy grotto of the reefs and there whipping the sand-rays into such a frenzy that they appear to attack and kill Tristram. Aurora runs off screaming and is driven away the goatish chauffeur who Ransom has, by now, realised must be a reincarnation of the Greek god Pan.

Ransom a) tries to follow them but their big Cadillac loses him b) drives to Aurora’s house only to find it empty, deserted and feeling as if it has never been inhabited (as in a thousand clichéd ghost stories) and c) gets home to find Tristram lazing on his divan. What!

It was a scam by Tristram. He learned how seriously Aurora took the Melander story and how she had cast him as the tragic devotee. So he staged the entire sand-ray hunt in order to fulfil her psychological need. Only he among the little hunting party knew that they are in the ‘off’ season for the rays, and so their blades aren’t poisonous.

And the punchline of the story? Ransom is still stressing about how to fill his next issue when he gets a call from one of the poets who, strange to say, has had a moment of inspiration and has knocked out quite a decent sonnet. And then another phone call. And another. Somehow, Aurora’s presence, or her (probably) commissioning the hunchback to smash up all the poetry computers, has had the desired effect. The poets have learned how to write again.

The Singing Statues (1961)

Another story about a beautiful willowy woman who enters the life of the male narrator and entrances him.

In this case he is Milton, an artist, a maker of sonic sculptures and she is Lunora Goalen (what, not the Lunora Goalen, yes!! the Lunora Goalen!!), rich patron of the arts with apartments in Venice, Paris, New York (funny how some things haven’t changed in 60 years), doyenne of the news magazines and celebrity columns and society pages.

Lunora has rented a luxury house in the resort. She has dropped into the art gallery where Milton was just adjusting his latest sound sculpture which looks like an enormous totem pole with wings at the top. Out of the wings come sounds. Milton happens to be inside when the rich client strolls his way and – knowing the musical range of his sculpture is actually pitifully thin – he grabs the microphone and as Ms Rich arrives in range, singes the Creole Love Call which is transmogrified by the computers into a haunting melody which enchants Lunora and she buys it on the spot, turning and walking out to climb back into her white Rolls Royce, leaving it for her sharp-eyed assistant Mme Charcot to make out the cheque to the flustered gallery owner.

Next day they get an angry call complaining that the sculpture only seems to emit a dull booming noise. Milton drives out to the luxury house (like ‘a Frank Lloyd Wright design for an experimental department store’) and pretends to be doing maintenance when he is in fact installing a tape of classical music. This should fix the problem for a day or two.

On successive nights he sneaks back across the dry lake climbs over the wall into the garden, sneaks up onto the unrailed terrace and instals a new tape. Then spends increasing amounts of time looking down to the ground floor where Lunora is sleeping on an open-air divan, topless.

On the climactic day he is rung up by Mma Charcot who insists he comes straight away. Lunora is distraught, her hair undone, dishevelled, crouching beside the sculpture. Milton crouches down beside her and takes her hands in his but Mme Charcot sniggers, it is not him she cares for – it isn’t even the sculpture – it is herself she is in love with.

Appalled, Milton turns and walks away. Next day Lunora, her secretary and chauffeur have gone, When he revisits the house it is cold and empty, the muted statuary standing around like corpses. Months later, in preparation to make a new statue, Milton goes out among the actual living sound sculptures, among the sand dunes and reefs of the desert, and there discovers the sculpture he had sold her, chopped up into pieces and scattered around the sand, some of the fragments still making a sad, whining lament.

The Thousand Dreams of Stellavista (1961)

Talbot and his wife Fay are looking for a house to rent in Vermilion Sands. The resort is now past its prime and these new buyers are aware of the history of movie stars and celebrities who populated it in its prime.

The story is based on the idea of Psychotropic Homes – these are homes built in a kind of bioplastic which respond to their owners’ moods and personalities. This immediately leads Ballard into a comic tour of totally unsuitable homes, such as the mock-Assyrian ziggurat whose previous owner had St Vitus dance and so which was still nervously jitterbugging even years after he’d left. Or the converted submarine pen which was the home of an alcoholic and whose vast concrete walls still reek of gloom and helplessness. You get the idea.

Anyway they finally take a nice house with a pool and it’s only when the estate agent ‘turns it on’ (you turn on psychotropic houses) that he reveals it was the home of 70s movie star Gloria Tremayne, who was the defendant at the Trial of the Century, accused of shooting dead her architect husband, Miles Vanden Starr. Now we learn that Talbot, who’d already told us he was a lawyer, was actually a junior defence lawyer on Gloria’s team. Lots of guff about how mysterious and aloof and Greta Garbo she was.

To cut to the chase, Talbot and Fay find themselves beginning to act out the characters of its previous inhabitants. In particular, we learn from Fay’s comments to him, that Talbot has become obsessive, vengeful, permanently angry. One day the house tries to kill her by melting and bending down the ceiling in the living room where she’s sleeping to crush her onto the sofa. Her screams waken Talbot who comes running in to save her.

Next day she’s gone, a note on the memogram saying she’s gone to stay with her sister. Two months later she demands a divorce. Talbot goes on a bender, drinks too much, raves the car back across the lawn, smashing into the automatic garage, throws his coat in the swimming pool, necks a bottle of whiskey and wakes up sprawled across his bed to witness a strange sight.

A pressure zone enters the doorway, but no person, The pressure zone crosses the bedroom towards the bed, there’s a pause, then a convulsion in the air and the house goes into spasm, has a fit. The room he’s in starts to contract, within moments the door and control panel are covered in melting blob, huge veins stand out on the walls. Luckily his lighter is in his pocket and Talbot holds it up to the ceiling which starts to fizz and melt apart and he’s able to pull himself up into the from above, though that is melting and bending, the swimming pool has been upturned and draining.

He realises the house is reliving the moment Gloria Tremayne went into his bedroom to shoot Starr. The spasm was the house re-enacting Starr’s death spasm, the contraction was his lungs and heart ceasing to work, his life force contracting as the room contracted around Talbot.

Talbot makes it to the control panel and turns the house off. Hours later the police leave deciding there’s nothing they can do to prosecute a house for murder. The estate agent looks in horror at the wrecked, erupted shell of the desirable property he sold Talbot only a few months previously, then leaves.

For the time being Starr will remain. He can’t afford to move and the house is turned off. But one day… one day, he will turn it back on… the threat being that he will subsume himself in the damaged psyche of the murderess.

The Screen Game (1962)

Paul Golding is an artist, well, an artist in the Vermilion Sands sense, meaning he rarely actually paints anything. He’s co-opted by his friend Tony Sapphire into painting the sets for an avant-garde movie being produced by the millionaire playboy Charles van Stratten (two ex-wives and a controlling mother who mysteriously died in an ‘accident’) who owns a massive house out across the sand lakes.

There’s a cast of distractions including the outrageous director, but the point of the story is to introduce us to the beautiful, slender and (inevitably) troubled young woman at the heart of it. Emerelda Garland used to be a famous actress, darlings, but had a breakdown after her mother died. Now van Stratten (who is, of course, devoted to her) has organised the filming solely to recreate the milieu of her glory years and try and effect a cure.

As an typically eerie and oblique aspect of this cure the narrator is tasked with building a series of twelve enormous screens, which are painted with the signs of the zodiac and are to be moved around what seems to be an enormous chessboard on a terrace below the producer’s summer house.

As the story progresses, Golding produces many more screens than are required and he and his friends develop a strange complicated ‘game’ of moving them around, creating strange patterns and mazes.

Emerelda does indeed find walking among their ever-changing patterns and mazes somehow consoling, although Golding finds it disconcerting that she is followed everywhere or surrounded by an eerie troop of scorpions and spiders with jewels embedded in their heads, jewelled insects which foreshadow the jewelled world created in The Crystal World. (Leonora Chanel is referred to on almost page of her story as having ‘jewelled eyes’, which, we eventually realise, means small decorative jewels stuck around her eyes.)

The climax comes one morning when Charles himself deigns to come down from the summer house and play ‘the screen game’, by now a complex process using the 40 huge screens Paul has painted. But suddenly an abandoned sonic sculpture down on the empty beach sets up a wailing and they realise something is wrong.

Charles starts tearing apart the screens which form the protective carapace the mad Emerelda has made for himself. But when he penetrates to the core and strips away the screens shielding her, exposing her to the harsh sunlight, her entourage of jewelled insects, scorpions and spiders, protects her by leaping onto Charles’s body and covering his face, and stinging him to death as he runs away down the sand embankment screaming in time to the sonic sculpture’s mournful wail.

Cry Hope, Cry Fury! (1966)

The first-person narrator, Robert Melville, goes sailing on his sand-yacht across the bone-dry dunes of the sand-sea, in hunt of the eerie sand-rays which fly just out of reach. When one of the tyres of his sand yacht gets a puncture he sets off on foot but the razor sharp sand cuts his feet. Back at the yacht an enormous ray flies overhead till he shoots it dead and it falls out of the sky wrecking his sails and knocking him unconscious.

When he comes to he is being rescued by a much larger sand-yacht under the command of the windswept beauty, Hope Cunard, who tends him in her cabin as they cruise over the smooth dry sand lakes towards her luxury home on the bone dry Lizard Key. Here Melville meets Hope’s small and characteristically troubled entourage, namely her pockmarked half-brother, Foyle, and her secretary Barbara Quimby.

Hope is, of course, a painter, she paints portraits. In a nod to his sci-fi audience Ballard invents a kind of paint which, once you’ve set the basic parameters, you leave out on the canvas in front of the subject and it automatically takes the shape of whatever you intend to paint – similar to the computer programs for making poems in Studio 5, The Stars.

The subject of painting does two things. One, it brings out a profusion of references to artists, including Monet, Renoir, Gainsborough, Reynolds, Balthus, Gustave Moreau, the surrealists as a group and ‘the last demented landscapes of Van Gogh’, as well as literary references to Coleridge’s poem The Ancient Mariner and one of the Surrealists’ holy books, Maldoror. Two, it triggers a glut of sensuous, decadent description, of the desert, the gleaming sand, the  sand-rays wheeling above the rock spires and so on. And, of course, the human body as a junction or meeting point of the organic and the crystalline.

Sometimes at night, as she lay beside me in the cabin, the reflected light of the quartz veins moving over her breasts like necklaces, she would talk to me as if completely unaware p.103

It emerges that Hope had a tempestuous affair (underneath the psychological flim-flam there’s quite a lot of Mills and Boon about a Ballard story) with a tall dark stranger who is identified in the story with the Flying Dutchman. He even left a jacket behind with a tell-tale bullet hole in the chest.

Hope lets a portrait of herself and Melville be painted but over the following days it twists and distorts into the macabre figure of a skull-faced woman in a blonde wig and a pig-faced mannequin. The narrator thinks this is a reflection on the weird psychic processes at work in the isolated house, but at the climax of the story we learn that the two other occupants – Foyle and Barbara – have been dressing up in costumes and standing in front of the self-painting paintings, nothing weird and psychic about it at all, it’s a twisted attempt at humour and control.

The climax come when the Flying Dutchman or some such young man does indeed arrive, but Hope has been driven into a state of hysteria and fires a pistol at him, wounding him in the wrist and he and Melville both make their escape, running across the piazza and onto the man’s sand-schooner.

The Cloud-Sculptors of Coral D (1966)

This might be the best, the most representative of the stories. Major Raymond Parker has been invalided out of the air force after an accident, hence the crutches. He is building gliders in a disused garage. two freaks pass by, the hunchback Petit Manuel and tall artist Nolan. They’re joined by playboy Charles van Eyck and form the cloud-sculptors of Coral D. a) Coral D is the fourth and largest of the four large coral towers outside vermilion Sands b) cloud sculptors glide among the clouds and release scythes of silver iodide to carve and sculpt them into the shapes of celebrities, presidents and actresses.

Till the day when beautiful reclusive heiress Leonora Chanel (daughter of one of the world’s leading financiers) is driven up in her white Rolls Royce, accompanied by her secretary Beatrice Lafferty (it does feel as if Ballard is writing the same story again and again and again).

As we get to know her we realise Leonora is a monster of egotism. She puts on a massive party at her huge villa and invites the cloud sculptors to perform. Van Eyck and Nolan are vying for her attention and outdo each other. Parker quickly starts an affair with Miss Lafferty and they jointly observe what happens next which is

1. That night there is some kind of argument or fight up on the terrace and Nolan goes running off into the night. We learn that he has in fact already had an affair with Leonora and painted a very unflattering portrait of her. Out of the shadows emerges smooth playboy Van Eyck who now tries his chances with Leonora.

2. Next day there is another party (easy to get the fact there are two, a bit confused) and this time the clouds darken into a storm. First Manuel begs to go up, in order to impress Leonora who had not tried to hide her revulsion at the hunchback. He goes up and his glider is smashed to bits in a storm cloud. Parker and Lafferty go and recover his body which means they are out in the desert when the storm turns into a real tornado and – apparently driven by the vengeful Nolan in his glider -heads straight for Leonora’s villa, where it wreaks tremendous damage.

Emerging from their hidey-hole, Parker and Lafferty tour the ruined, devastated villa, with its wreckage of party chairs, marquee and smashed champagne glasses. They find Leonora dead among her peacock feathers, her face covered by shreds of the many portraits of herself she’d commissioned over the years. And Van Eyck hanging strangled in the wires of the party lights.

Say Goodbye to the Wind (1966)

The narrator, Mr Samson, keeps a fashion boutique jokily called ‘Topless in Gaza’, the snazzy sci-fi angle being that the clothes are all bio-clothes, animated clothes, which shape and mould themselves around the owner and are also prone to hysterical fits (much like the sensitive plants and the sensitive houses and the sensitive musical sculptures).

One day a glamorous former supermodel, Raine Channing, turns up at the shop (just as Lunora Goalen turns up at Milton’s art gallery and Jane Cyracylides turns up at Tony Parker’s flower shop) and buys a carful of clothes. This is paid for by her secretary Mme Fournier (same figure as the Mme Charcot who handles everything for Lunora) and has an aggressive chauffeur (as did Lunora and Aurora Day).

Basically, Raine was used and moulded by her svengali, fashion designer Gavin Kaiser. Now she imagines he is coming back to get her and her behaviour becomes increasingly unhinged, particularly her habit of wafting from her hotel room through the empty streets to the abandoned nightclub and dancing by herself to the one record left on the old-fashioned gramophone.

At the climax of the novel the narrator is watching her, when someone creeps up behind him and biffs him on the head. When he regains consciousness he is in a hand-tailored biomorphic golden suit which almost immediately starts contracting and strangling him to death. there’s a couple of sentences of over-the-top description of this Poe-esque fate before strong hands grip him and a macho man cuts open the constricting fabric. It is none other than Jason Kaiser, brother of the dead Gavin Kaiser who has rescued him for obscure reasons.

Five miles away they watch the headlights of Miss Channing’s chauffeur-driven car as it disappears into the night, just like all the other psycho-goddesses in every other one of these stories, disappears back into the shadows of Ballard’s obsessive psyche.


Ballard’s goddesses

Hope Cunard stepped through the open window, her white gown shivering around her naked body like a tremulous wraith. (p.102)

Into all this Emerelda Garland had now emerged, like a beautiful but nervous wraith. (p.65)

Almost all the stories rotate around women of a particular type. Each of Ballard’s narrators meets and falls under the intoxicating influence of glamorous female figures with golden skin and mysterious pasts, former movie stars, reborn goddesses, alluring divas from myth, beguiling heiresses, elusive millionairesses:

  • Jane Ciracylades – mysterious and sexy woman who has a superhuman singing ability
  • Aurora Day – a witch with magic powers who can project poetry quotations into solid objects and onto human skin and murders (she thinks) her lover
  • Leonora Chanel – ‘this beautiful but insane woman’, millionairess who inspires the cloud sculptors, spurring them on to death and destruction
  • Gloria Tremayne – former actress who shot her husband and went mad
  • Emerelda Garland – former actress who had a collapse after her mother died and ends up trying to shoot her lover
  • Hope Cunard – millionaire heiress owner of mansion on Lizard Key who tries to shoot the narrator and her former lover
  • Lunora Goalen – neurotically self-obsessed millionaire art collector who has a breakdown by a sculpture
  • Raine Channing – former teenage supermodel who tries to kill the narrator by dressing him in constricting bio-fabric

These femmes fatales involve the narrator in their strange and dreamlike psychodramas which spiral up towards some kind of often violent climax before they abruptly disappear. He uses the stock phrase – ‘I never saw XX again’ – in so many of these stories it becomes a trademark, a cliché. ‘Of course I never saw her again’ (Gloria); ‘That was the last I saw of Aurora Day’ (p.180) and so on. They come; they entrance and beguile; they disappear – like women in a (very male) dream.

In fact the basic structure – glamorous woman enters life of man with an interesting speciality (animated clothes, musical plants, cloud-carving gliders, computer-generated poetry), after some fencing they ‘fall in love’ i.e. go to bed, before the plot moves to some kind of climax to which she is central and then the woman disappears as abruptly as she arrived – reminds me of the basic template of the James Bond stories (Bond’s interesting speciality being that he is the sexiest spy in the world). The Bond books began appearing only a few years before Ballard’s (first Bond novel 1953, first Ballard short story 1956).

There’s another point worth making: almost all the women are topless or scantily clad at some point; there are quite a few bare bosoms about. Lunora Goalen sleeps topless every night out on the desert terrace where Milton the sound sculptor spends hours watching her. When you see the contemporary illustrations for Ballard’s stories in contemporary sci-fi magazines, you see why coming up with a steady supply of nubile, slender and topless or diaphanously dressed women was required to keep the fans happy.

Cover of the October 1963 issue of Fantastic Stories showing an illustration of The Screen Game – jewelled insects, moveable screens painted with signs of the zodiac and – of course – a slender, half-naked young woman

Some of this – the recurrence of film stars and the entire story about making an avant-garde movie (The Screen Game) – sheds light on Ballard’s later obsession with real-life movie stars like Greta Garbo, Jayne Mansfield and especially Elizabeth Taylor in Atrocity and Crash.

These later texts are usually read as deconstructions of the mediascape in a consumer capitalist society, of the way Hollywood iconography and huge advertising hoardings mediate, focus and exploit primal human longings (for sex, for a better, perfect life) for profit. But a simpler interpretation is that Ballard himself had a deep devotion to the figure of the goddess, the muse, the Perfect Woman, which has more to do with Tennyson and the pre-Raphaelites than the hectic commercial world of the 1960s.

It’s characteristic that even though some of his male narrators sleep with these other-worldly muse figures – as Steve Parker does with Jane Cyracylides and Robert Melville with Hope Cunard – little if anything is made of the sex, as such. It is more important as a symbol of the often oblique psychological bond between the narrator and the goddess-figure.

But even that is not quite accurate, because there is actually little if any psychology in a Ballard novel. Or, to put it another way, Ballard’s novels are full of psychology but it is Ballard’s psychology – the characters are little more than ciphers in the strange trance-worlds Ballard creates, as their generally anonymous names clearly signal – Ransom, Golding, Milton, Talbot, Melville, they’re all dream figures acting out Ballard’s compulsive scenarios, again and again and in Vermilion Sands it’s striking how many of these obsessions are more or less the same one – being entranced by a beautiful, sexy, but mad and dangerous young woman.

As a footnote, they all arrive in very nice cars, and they all have chauffeurs:

  • Leonora Chanel – white Rolls Royce, chauffeur and secretary (p.11)
  • Lunor Goalen – white Rolls Royce, chauffeur and secretary (p.75)
  • Aurora Day – pink cadillac and chauffeur (p.154)

Once I’d noticed this, I couldn’t help thinking about Lady Penelope, driven about in her pink six-wheeled Rolls Royce by the faithful Parker in Thunderbirds (which was broadcast 1965-66).

Ballard’s buzzwords

There’s a lot of detail and imagination in all of the stories – a lot of sci-fi gags, like the houses which change shape or the mutant plants which can make music or the eerie sand sculptures and so on – but, in the end, I found it a struggle to read the book right to the end. The atmosphere, which starts off as dreamy symbolism, ends up becoming too one-dimensional, the effects too shrill and tinny.

I began to notice the way he throws around the adjective ‘insane’ a lot – insane wishes, insane people, insane ideas, insane landscape, insane logic,

  • fighting the insane air, Manuel piloted the glider downward…
  • For a moment the ambiguous nature of my role, and the questionable morality of abducting a beautiful but insane woman, made me hesitate. (p.67)
  • Convinced at the time of this insane logic, I drove my fists through the canvas… (p.105)
  • I raised my hands to my face, in horror saw that the surface of my skin was interlaced by a thousand tattoos, writhing and coiling across my hands and arms like insane serpents. (p.163)
  • The fragments of Aurora Day’s insane poems caught the dying desert light as they dissolved about my feet… (p.181)
  • I stood up, wondering what insane crisis this psychotropic grand mal duplicated. (p.205)
  • ‘The place must have been insane.’ (p.207)
  • There’s a subtle charm about the house even in its distorted form, like the ambiguous smile of a beautiful but insane woman. (p.208)

And bizarre:

  • the portraits recapitulated in reverse, like some bizarre embryo, a complete phylogeny of modern art… (p.98)
  • a character’s shirt makes him look like ‘some bizarre harlequin’ (104)
  • She seemed to be concealed in this living play-nest like a bizarre infant Venus (p.134)

And demented:

  • We barely noticed the strange landscape we were crossing, the great gargoyles of red basalt that uncoiled themselves into the air like the spires of demented cathedrals. (p.52)
  • In the wardrobe the racks of gowns hung in restive files, colours pulsing like demented suns. (p.136)
  • I woke on Raine’s bed in the deserted villa, the white moonlight like a waiting shroud across the terrace. Around me the shadows of the demented shapes seethed along the walls, the deformed inmates of some nightmare aviary. (p.141)

Yes, nightmare:

  • What had begun as a pleasant divertimento… had degenerated into a macabre charade, transforming the terrace into the exercise area of a nightmare. (p.69)
  • Kicking back the door I had a full glimpse of these nightmare figures. (p.106)
  • The macabre spectacle of the strange grave-flora springing from cracked tombs, like the nightmare collection of some Quant or Dior of the netherworld… (p.130)
  • The cloud if insects returned to the summer house, where Dr Gruber’s black-suited figure was silhouetted against the sky, poised on the white ledge like some minatory bird of nightmare. (p.71)

And macabre. And grotesque. And hell.

  • The livid colours of Hope’s pus-filled face ran like putrefying flesh. Beside her the pig-faced priest in my own image presided over her body like a procurator in hell. (p.107)
  • I remembered the clothes I had seen on a woman killed in a car crash at Vermilion Sands, blooming out of the wreckage like a monstrous flower of hell, and the demented wardrobe offered to me by the family of an heiress who had committed suicide. (p.137)
  • Three nights later, tired of conducting my courtship of Emerelda Garland within a painted maze, I drove out to Lagoon West, climbing through the darkened hills whose contorted forms reared in the swinging headlights like the smoke clouds of some sunken hell. (p.67)

And nightmares. And Bosch.

  • My pig-snouted face resembled a nightmare visage from the black landscapes of Hieronymus Bosch. (p.105)
  • With his beaked face and insane eyes, his hunched figure hung about with the nets of writhing rays, he looked like a figure from Hieronymus Bosch. (p.177)

There’s a tired business mantra that if everything’s a priority then nothing’s a priority. Same here. If everything is ‘insane’ and a ‘landscape from hell’ then, eventually, nothing is.

My point is that it’s too easy and glib to chuck around extreme adjectives like that. It devalues them and they quickly lose their evocative affect.

The obsessive repetition of the same basic structure – mysterious glamorous woman entrances naive male protagonists against the backdrop of the endless dunes, sand reefs and sonic sculptures – gets pretty boring after the fourth or fifth iteration. The details of things like the psychotropic houses and the moments when the house tries to kill Fay, then the narrator, are weird and hallucinatory, the details of the gliders flying among the clouds and sculpting them into shapes and faces is wonderful, but:

  1. the human plots which he concocts amid the sand-seas and reefs of quartz are often shallow and disappointing
  2. Ballard’s language is too often cranked up to maximum all the way through; there’s little light or shade, the whole thing does indeed become ‘glossy, lurid and bizarre’ to such an extent that, in the end, it runs the risk of ceasing to register or matter

Maybe literature is something to do with restraint, and the reason Ballard is hard to take seriously as a literary figure is because, although his novels are brilliant (the three disaster novels are breath-taking and Atrocity and Crash are all outstanding visions), nonetheless Ballard’s writing – considered solely as written prose – is so ridiculously over the top.

In the silence of the villa I listened to [the shadows of the demented shapes] tearing themselves to pieces like condemned creatures tormenting themselves on their gibbets. (p. 141)

Edgar Allen Poe on acid.


Related links

Reviews of other Ballard books

Novels

Short story collections

Other science fiction reviews

Late Victorian
1888 Looking Backward 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy – Julian West wakes up in the year 2000 to discover a peaceful revolution has ushered in a society of state planning, equality and contentment
1890 News from Nowhere by William Morris – waking from a long sleep, William Guest is shown round a London transformed into villages of contented craftsmen

1895 The Time Machine by H.G. Wells – the unnamed inventor and time traveller tells his dinner party guests the story of his adventure among the Eloi and the Morlocks in the year 802,701
1896 The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells – Edward Prendick is stranded on a remote island where he discovers the ‘owner’, Dr Gustave Moreau, is experimentally creating human-animal hybrids
1897 The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells – an embittered young scientist, Griffin, makes himself invisible, starting with comic capers in a Sussex village, and ending with demented murders
1899 When The Sleeper Wakes/The Sleeper Wakes by H.G. Wells – Graham awakes in the year 2100 to find himself at the centre of a revolution to overthrow the repressive society of the future
1899 A Story of the Days To Come by H.G. Wells – set in the same future London as The Sleeper Wakes, Denton and Elizabeth defy her wealthy family in order to marry, fall into poverty, and experience life as serfs in the Underground city run by the sinister Labour Corps

1900s
1901 The First Men in the Moon by H.G. Wells – Mr Bedford and Mr Cavor use the invention of ‘Cavorite’ to fly to the moon and discover the underground civilisation of the Selenites
1904 The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth by H.G. Wells – scientists invent a compound which makes plants, animals and humans grow to giant size, prompting giant humans to rebel against the ‘little people’
1905 With the Night Mail by Rudyard Kipling – it is 2000 and the narrator accompanies a GPO airship across the Atlantic
1906 In the Days of the Comet by H.G. Wells – a comet passes through earth’s atmosphere and brings about ‘the Great Change’, inaugurating an era of wisdom and fairness, as told by narrator Willie Leadford
1908 The War in the Air by H.G. Wells – Bert Smallways, a bicycle-repairman from Kent, gets caught up in the outbreak of the war in the air which brings Western civilisation to an end
1909 The Machine Stops by E.M. Foster – people of the future live in underground cells regulated by ‘the Machine’ until one of them rebels

1910s
1912 The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – Professor Challenger leads an expedition to a plateau in the Amazon rainforest where prehistoric animals still exist
1912 As Easy as ABC by Rudyard Kipling – set in 2065 in a world characterised by isolation and privacy, forces from the ABC are sent to suppress an outbreak of ‘crowdism’
1913 The Horror of the Heights by Arthur Conan Doyle – airman Captain Joyce-Armstrong flies higher than anyone before him and discovers the upper atmosphere is inhabited by vast jellyfish-like monsters
1914 The World Set Free by H.G. Wells – A history of the future in which the devastation of an atomic war leads to the creation of a World Government, told via a number of characters who are central to the change
1918 The Land That Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs – a trilogy of pulp novellas in which all-American heroes battle ape-men and dinosaurs on a lost island in the Antarctic

1920s
1921 We by Evgeny Zamyatin – like everyone else in the dystopian future of OneState, D-503 lives life according to the Table of Hours, until I-330 wakens him to the truth
1925 Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov – a Moscow scientist transplants the testicles and pituitary gland of a dead tramp into the body of a stray dog, with disastrous consequences
1927 The Maracot Deep by Arthur Conan Doyle – a scientist, engineer and a hero are trying out a new bathysphere when the wire snaps and they hurtle to the bottom of the sea, where they discover…

1930s
1930 Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon – mind-boggling ‘history’ of the future of mankind over the next two billion years – surely the most sweeping vista of any science fiction book
1938 Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis – baddies Devine and Weston kidnap Oxford academic Ransom and take him in their spherical spaceship to Malacandra, as the natives call the planet Mars

1940s
1943 Perelandra (Voyage to Venus) by C.S. Lewis – Ransom is sent to Perelandra aka Venus, to prevent a second temptation by the Devil and the fall of the planet’s new young inhabitants
1945 That Hideous Strength: A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-ups by C.S. Lewis– Ransom assembles a motley crew to combat the rise of an evil corporation which is seeking to overthrow mankind
1949 Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell – after a nuclear war, inhabitants of ruined London are divided into the sheep-like ‘proles’ and members of the Party who are kept under unremitting surveillance

1950s
1950 I, Robot by Isaac Asimov – nine short stories about ‘positronic’ robots, which chart their rise from dumb playmates to controllers of humanity’s destiny
1950 The Martian Chronicles – 13 short stories with 13 linking passages loosely describing mankind’s colonisation of Mars, featuring strange, dreamlike encounters with Martians
1951 Foundation by Isaac Asimov – the first five stories telling the rise of the Foundation created by psychohistorian Hari Seldon to preserve civilisation during the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1951 The Illustrated Man – eighteen short stories which use the future, Mars and Venus as settings for what are essentially earth-bound tales of fantasy and horror
1952 Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov – two long stories which continue the future history of the Foundation set up by psychohistorian Hari Seldon as it faces attack by an Imperial general, and then the menace of the mysterious mutant known only as ‘the Mule’
1953 Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov – concluding part of the  Foundation Trilogy, which describes the attempt to preserve civilisation after the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1953 Earthman, Come Home by James Blish – the adventures of New York City, a self-contained space city which wanders the galaxy 2,000 years hence, powered by ‘spindizzy’ technology
1953 Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury – a masterpiece, a terrifying anticipation of a future when books are banned and professional firemen are paid to track down stashes of forbidden books and burn them until one fireman, Guy Montag, rebels
1953 The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester – a breathless novel set in a 24th century New York populated by telepaths and describing the mental collapse of corporate mogul Ben Reich who starts by murdering his rival Craye D’Courtney and becomes progressively more psychotic as he is pursued by telepathic detective, Lincoln Powell
1953 Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke a thrilling narrative involving the ‘Overlords’ who arrive from space to supervise mankind’s transition to the next stage in its evolution
1954 The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov – set 3,000 years in the future when humans have separated into ‘Spacers’ who have colonised 50 other planets, and the overpopulated earth whose inhabitants live in enclosed cities or ‘caves of steel’, and introducing detective Elijah Baley to solve a murder mystery
1956 The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov – 3,000 years in the future detective Elijah Baley returns, with his robot sidekick, R. Daneel Olivaw, to solve a murder mystery on the remote planet of Solaria
Some problems with Isaac Asimov’s science fiction
1956 They Shall Have Stars by James Blish – explains the invention, in the near future, of i) the anti-death drugs and ii) the spindizzy technology which allow the human race to colonise the galaxy
1956 The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester – a fast-paced phantasmagoria set in the 25th century where humans can teleport, a terrifying new weapon has been invented, and tattooed hard-man, Gulliver Foyle, is looking for revenge
1959 The Triumph of Time by James Blish – concluding novel of Blish’s ‘Okie’ tetralogy in which mayor of New York John Amalfi and his friends are present at the end of the universe
1959 The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut – Winston Niles Rumfoord builds a space ship to explore the solar system where encounters a chrono-synclastic infundibula, and this is just the start of a bizarre meandering fantasy which includes the Army of Mars attacking earth and the adventures of Boaz and Unk in the caverns of Mercury

1960s
1961 A Fall of Moondust by Arthur C. Clarke a pleasure tourbus on the moon is sucked down into a sink of moondust, sparking a race against time to rescue the trapped crew and passengers
1962 The Drowned World by J.G. Ballard – Dr Kerans is part of a UN mission to map the lost cities of Europe which have been inundated after solar flares melted the worlds ice caps and glaciers, but finds himself and his colleagues’ minds slowly infiltrated by prehistoric memories of the last time the world was like this, complete with tropical forest and giant lizards, and slowly losing their grasp on reality.
1962 The Voices of Time and Other Stories – Eight of Ballard’s most exquisite stories including the title tale about humanity slowly falling asleep even as they discover how to listen to the voices of time radiating from the mountains and distant stars, or The Cage of Sand where a handful of outcasts hide out in the vast dunes of Martian sand brought to earth as ballast which turned out to contain fatal viruses. Really weird and visionary.
1962 A Life For The Stars by James Blish – third in the Okie series about cities which can fly through space, focusing on the coming of age of kidnapped earther, young Crispin DeFord, aboard space-travelling New York
1962 The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick In an alternative future America lost the Second World War and has been partitioned between Japan and Nazi Germany. The narrative follows a motley crew of characters including a dealer in antique Americana, a German spy who warns a Japanese official about a looming surprise German attack, and a woman determined to track down the reclusive author of a hit book which describes an alternative future in which America won the Second World War
1962 Mother Night by Kurt Vonnegut – the memoirs of American Howard W. Campbell Jr. who was raised in Germany and has adventures with Nazis and spies
1963 Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut – what starts out as an amiable picaresque as the narrator, John, tracks down the so-called ‘father of the atom bomb’, Felix Hoenniker for an interview turns into a really bleak, haunting nightmare where an alternative form of water, ice-nine, freezes all water in the world, including the water inside people, killing almost everyone and freezing all water forever
1964 The Drought by J.G. Ballard – It stops raining. Everywhere. Fresh water runs out. Society breaks down and people move en masse to the seaside, where fighting breaks out to get near the water and set up stills. In part two, ten years later, the last remnants of humanity scrape a living on the vast salt flats which rim the continents, until the male protagonist decides to venture back inland to see if any life survives
1964 The Terminal Beach by J.G. Ballard – Ballard’s breakthrough collection of 12 short stories which, among more traditional fare, includes mind-blowing descriptions of obsession, hallucination and mental decay set in the present day but exploring what he famously defined as ‘inner space’
1964 Dr. Strangelove, or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb by Peter George – a novelisation of the famous Kubrick film, notable for the prologue written as if by aliens who arrive in the distant future to find an earth utterly destroyed by the events described in the main narrative
1966 Rocannon’s World by Ursula Le Guin – Le Guin’s first novel, a ‘planetary romance’ or ‘science fantasy’ set on Fomalhaut II where ethnographer and ‘starlord’ Gaverel Rocannon rides winged tigers and meets all manner of bizarre foes in his quest to track down the aliens who destroyed his spaceship and killed his colleagues, aided by sword-wielding Lord Mogien and a telepathic Fian
1966 Planet of Exile by Ursula Le Guin – both the ‘farborn’ colonists of planet Werel, and the surrounding tribespeople, the Tevarans, must unite to fight off the marauding Gaal who are migrating south as the planet enters its deep long winter – not a good moment for the farborn leader, Jakob Agat Alterra, to fall in love with Rolery, the beautiful, golden-eyed daughter of the Tevaran chief
1966 – The Crystal World by J.G. Ballard – Dr Sanders journeys up an African river to discover that the jungle is slowly turning into crystals, as does anyone who loiters too long, and becomes enmeshed in the personal psychodramas of a cast of lunatics and obsessives
1967 The Disaster Area by J.G. Ballard – Nine short stories including memorable ones about giant birds, an the man who sees the prehistoric ocean washing over his quite suburb.
1967 City of Illusions by Ursula Le Guin – an unnamed humanoid with yellow cat’s eyes stumbles out of the great Eastern Forest which covers America thousands of years in the future when the human race has been reduced to a pitiful handful of suspicious rednecks or savages living in remote settlements. He is discovered and nursed back to health by a relatively benign commune but then decides he must make his way West in an epic trek across the continent to the fabled city of Es Toch where he will discover his true identity and mankind’s true history
1966 The Anti-Death League by Kingsley Amis
1968 2001: A Space Odyssey a panoramic narrative which starts with aliens stimulating evolution among the first ape-men and ends with a spaceman being transformed into a galactic consciousness
1968 Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick In 1992 androids are almost indistinguishable from humans except by trained bounty hunters like Rick Deckard who is paid to track down and ‘retire’ escaped ‘andys’ – earning enough to buy mechanical animals, since all real animals died long ago
1969 Ubik by Philip K. Dick In 1992 the world is threatened by mutants with psionic powers who are combated by ‘inertials’. The novel focuses on the weird alternative world experienced by a group of inertials after they are involved in an explosion on the moon
1969 The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin – an envoy from the Ekumen or federation of advanced planets – Genly Ai – is sent to the planet Gethen to persuade its inhabitants to join the federation, but the focus of the book is a mind-expanding exploration of the hermaphroditism of Gethen’s inhabitants, as Genly is forced to undertake a gruelling trek across the planet’s frozen north with the disgraced native lord, Estraven, during which they develop a cross-species respect and, eventually, a kind of love
1969 Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut – Vonnegut’s breakthrough novel in which he manages to combine his personal memories of being an American POW of the Germans and witnessing the bombing of Dresden in the character of Billy Pilgrim, with a science fiction farrago about Tralfamadorians who kidnap Billy and transport him through time and space – and introduces the catchphrase ‘so it goes’

1970s
1970 Tau Zero by Poul Anderson – spaceship Leonora Christine leaves earth with a crew of fifty to discover if humans can colonise any of the planets orbiting the star Beta Virginis, but when its deceleration engines are damaged, the crew realise they need to exit the galaxy altogether in order to find space with low enough radiation to fix the engines – and then a series of unfortunate events mean they find themselves forced to accelerate faster and faster, effectively travelling forwards through time as well as space until they witness the end of the entire universe – one of the most thrilling sci-fi books I’ve ever read
1970 The Atrocity Exhibition by J.G. Ballard – Ballard’s best book, a collection of fifteen short experimental texts in stripped-down prose bringing together key obsessions like car crashes, mental breakdown, World War III, media images of atrocities and clinical sex
1971 Vermilion Sands by J.G. Ballard – nine short stories including Ballard’s first, from 1956, most of which follow the same shape, describing the arrival of a mysterious, beguiling woman in the fictional desert resort of Vermilion Sands, the setting for extravagantly surreal tales of the glossy, lurid and bizarre
1971 The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula Le Guin – thirty years in the future (in 2002) America is an overpopulated environmental catastrophe zone where meek and unassuming George Orr discovers that is dreams can alter reality, changing history at will. He comes under the control of visionary neuro-scientist, Dr Haber, who sets about using George’s powers to alter the world for the better with unanticipated and disastrous consequences
1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic, leading to harum scarum escapades in disaster-stricken London
1972 The Word for World Is Forest by Ursula Le Guin – novella set on the planet Athshe describing its brutal colonisation by exploitative Terrans (who call it ‘New Tahiti’) and the resistance of the metre-tall, furry, native population of Athsheans, with their culture of dreamtime and singing
1972 The Fifth Head of Cerberus by Gene Wolfe – a mind-boggling trio of novellas set on a pair of planets 20 light years away, the stories revolve around the puzzle of whether the supposedly human colonists are, in fact, the descendants of the planets’ shape-shifting aboriginal inhabitants who murdered the first earth colonists and took their places so effectively that they have forgotten the fact and think themselves genuinely human
1973 Crash by J.G. Ballard – Ballard’s most ‘controversial’ novel, a searingly intense description of its characters’ obsession with the sexuality of car crashes, wounds and disfigurement
1973 Rendezvous With Rama by Arthur C. Clarke – in 2031 a 50-kilometre-long object of alien origin enters the solar system, so the crew of the spaceship Endeavour are sent to explore it in one of the most haunting and evocative novels of this type ever written
1973 Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut – Vonnegut’s longest and most experimental novel with the barest of plots and characters allowing him to sound off about sex, race, America, environmentalism, with the appearance of his alter ego Kilgore Trout and even Vonnegut himself as a character, all enlivened by Vonnegut’s own naive illustrations and the throwaway catchphrase ‘And so on…’
1974 Concrete Island by J.G. Ballard – the short and powerful novella in which an advertising executive crashes his car onto a stretch of wasteland in the juncture of three motorways, finds he can’t get off it, and slowly adapts to life alongside its current, psychologically damaged inhabitants
1974 Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said by Philip K. Dick – America after the Second World War is a police state but the story is about popular TV host Jason Taverner who is plunged into an alternative version of this world where he is no longer a rich entertainer but down on the streets among the ‘ordinaries’ and on the run from the police. Why? And how can he get back to his storyline?
1974 The Dispossessed by Ursula Le Guin – in the future and 11 light years from earth, the physicist Shevek travels from the barren, communal, anarchist world of Anarres to its consumer capitalist cousin, Urras, with a message of brotherhood and a revolutionary new discovery which will change everything
1974 Inverted World by Christopher Priest – vivid description of a city on a distant planet which must move forwards on railway tracks constructed by the secretive ‘guilds’ in order not to fall behind the mysterious ‘optimum’ and avoid the fate of being obliterated by the planet’s bizarre lateral distorting, a vivid and disturbing narrative right up until the shock revelation of the last few pages
1975 High Rise by J.G. Ballard – an astonishingly intense and brutal vision of how the middle-class occupants of London’s newest and largest luxury, high-rise development spiral down from petty tiffs and jealousies into increasing alcohol-fuelled mayhem, disintegrating into full-blown civil war before regressing to starvation and cannibalism
1976 Slapstick by Kurt Vonnegut – a madly disorientating story about twin freaks, a future dystopia, shrinking Chinese and communication with the afterlife
1979 The Unlimited Dream Company by J.G. Ballard – a strange combination of banality and visionary weirdness as an unhinged young man crashes his stolen plane in suburban Shepperton, and starts performing magical acts like converting the inhabitants into birds, conjuring up exotic foliage, convinced his is on a mission to liberate them
1979 Jailbird by Kurt Vonnegut – the satirical story of Walter F. Starbuck and the RAMJAC Corps run by Mary Kathleen O’Looney, a baglady from Grand Central Station, among other satirical notions including the new that Kilgore Trout, a character who recurs in most of his novels, is one of the pseudonyms of a fellow prison at the gaol where Starbuck serves a two year sentence, one Dr Robert Fender

1980s
1980 Russian Hide and Seek by Kingsley Amis – set in an England of 2035 after a) the oil has run out and b) a left-wing government left NATO and England was promptly invaded by the Russians – ‘the Pacification’, who have settled down to become a ruling class and treat the native English like 19th century serfs
1980 The Venus Hunters by J.G. Ballard – seven very early and often quite cheesy sci-fi short stories, along with a visionary satire on Vietnam (1969), and then two mature stories from the 1970s which show Ballard’s approach sliding into mannerism
1981 The Golden Age of Science Fiction edited by Kingsley Amis – 17 classic sci-fi stories from what Amis considers the ‘Golden Era’ of the genre, basically the 1950s
1981 Hello America by J.G. Ballard – a hundred years from now an environmental catastrophe has turned America into a vast, arid desert, except for west of the Rockies which has become a rainforest of Amazonian opulence, and it is here that a ragtag band of explorers from old Europe discover a psychopath has crowned himself President Manson, has revived an old nuclear power station in order to light up Las Vegas, and plays roulette in Caesar’s Palace to decide which American city to nuke next
1981 The Affirmation by Christopher Priest – an extraordinarily vivid description of a schizophrenic young man living in London who, to protect against the trauma of his actual life (father died, made redundant, girlfriend committed suicide) invents a fantasy world, the Dream Archipelago, and how it takes over his ‘real’ life
1982 Myths of the Near Future by J.G. Ballard – ten short stories showing Ballard’s range of subject matter from Second World War China to the rusting gantries of Cape Kennedy
1982 2010: Odyssey Two by Arthur C. Clarke – Heywood Floyd joins a Russian spaceship on a two-year journey to Jupiter to a) reclaim the abandoned Discovery and b) investigate the monolith on Japetus
1984 Neuromancer by William Gibson – Gibson’s stunning debut novel which establishes the ‘Sprawl’ universe, in which burnt-out cyberspace cowboy, Case, is lured by ex-hooker Molly into a mission led by ex-army colonel Armitage to penetrate the secretive corporation, Tessier-Ashpool, at the bidding of the vast and powerful artificial intelligence, Wintermute
1986 Burning Chrome by William Gibson – ten short stories, three or four set in Gibson’s ‘Sprawl’ universe, the others ranging across sci-fi possibilities, from a kind of horror story to one about a failing Russian space station
1986 Count Zero by William Gibson – second in the ‘Sprawl trilogy’
1987 2061: Odyssey Three by Arthur C. Clarke – Spaceship Galaxy is hijacked and forced to land on Europa, moon of the former Jupiter, in a ‘thriller’ notable for Clarke’s descriptions of the bizarre landscapes of Halley’s Comet and Europa
1988 Mona Lisa Overdrive by William Gibson – third of Gibson’s ‘Sprawl’ trilogy in which street-kid Mona is sold by her pimp to crooks who give her plastic surgery to make her look like global simstim star Angie Marshall, who they plan to kidnap but is herself on a quest to find her missing boyfriend, Bobby Newmark, one-time Count Zero; while the daughter of a Japanese gangster who’s sent her to London for safekeeping is abducted by Molly Millions, a lead character in Neuromancer

1990s
1990 The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling – in an alternative version of history, Charles Babbage’s early computer, instead of being left as a paper theory, was actually built, drastically changing British society, so that by 1855 it is led by a party of industrialists and scientists who use databases and secret police to keep the population suppressed

The Drought by J.G. Ballard (1964)

I ended my review of The Drowned World by pointing out that Ballard’s protagonists are often doctors because it places them in the privileged position of both a) taking part in the general psychosis and psychological displacement triggered by social and environmental collapse (which is what his novels are usually about) – but b) at the same time being outsiders, trained to watch, observe, note down symptoms and make diagnoses with a professional detachment – even when the psychological malaise affects them themselves.

So I wasn’t very surprised when the first sentence of The Drought reveals that the protagonist is one Dr Charles Ransom.

Mise en scène

The world is in the tenth year of a global drought. To be more precise, there have been ten years of steadily growing drought, at first affecting specific regions – former agricultural centres which have now been transformed into dustbowls – but the novel opens in the year when there has been no rainfall for five months anywhere on earth.

Why? What’s causing it? The explanation is disarmingly simple and worryingly plausible. For generations mankind has been pouring industrial waste, pollutants, run-offs of agricultural pesticides and fertilisers, plus unhealthy amounts of radioactive waste, into the world’s oceans… Now, it is discovered that all these elements have combined into a new chemical process to create extremely thin but very durable polymers – long filaments like microscopic plastic, which have merged to form a mesh or net over the entire ocean.

And although the mesh is light enough to float on the surface of the sea, it is tough enough to prevent sea water evaporating and forming clouds. No clouds, no rain. No rain, all water sources – streams, rivers and lakes – dry up. (I explained the plot to my son: he said, What about the aquifers? I think we can take it that the aquifers, too, will eventually run dry.)

So. Imagine a world without water. Without any running water, drinking water, freshwater. None. Anywhere. It’s a disturbing and frightening thought, and this novel makes it feel very real. The second half of this novel genuinely upset me, scared me, gave me nightmares.

Part one

The first hundred pages are set in the fictional town of Hamilton, on the edge of the bigger city of Mount Royal. (It seems to be set in America, though nowhere does it actually say so, certainly almost all the characters are white and Anglo-Saxon.)

Dr Ransom is, in a perverse and disturbed way, enjoying watching everything fall apart. For five months there’s been no rain. At first the government thought it could seed the clouds. But there are no clouds to seed. Most people have some fresh water stored, but a finite and shrinking supply.

More to the point, most people have left for the coast. Part one of the book records the week or two when most of the population of Hamilton and the nearby city leave for the coast, setting off in their cars along the nearby motorway, leaving the town abandoned, houses empty, unneeded second cars strewn around the roads.

A few years earlier Ransom had broken up with his wife who, typically, he had never been able to relate to or understand. She’s now going out with the local young chief of police.

On impulse, after the divorce, Ransom had bought a houseboat and moved to live on the river and had discovered a typically Ballardian, dysfunctional community already living there, including:

  • the strong cackling retard, Quilty, and his slovenly alcoholic mother, living on another houseboat
  • the mysterious teenager Philip Jordan who poles his lonely skiff around the lake, disappearing mysteriously
  • from time to time he sees the rather lovely young woman, Catherine Austen, who lives in a house near the river
  • and on a low hill nearby is the luxury apartment of a preening, coiffed millionaire architect, Richard Foster Lomax, who asks Ransom over several times for cocktails, who is – I think – intended to be a portrait of a certain kind of gay aesthete, and who, in a Gothic spin, has a malevolent spoiled ‘sister’ living with him, Miranda. Between them they employ the thuggish, threatening Quilty on a number of chores or missions.

Anyway, the the point is that the river has almost completely dried up. The lake it passes through is now a series of puddles separated by stinking mudflats, a potent symbol of the decline and fall of human ambitions.

Ransom has various adventures in this terminal zone, this psychic desert, this drained landscape.

He visits Catherine at the zoo where she works, unnerved by the huge lions. Even more unnerved to discover spooky Quilty loitering, obviously sent to spy on him. Ransom foresees the moment when the psychopathic Quilty, either on Lomax’s orders or his own volition, releases the big cats on the remaining population.

He encounters the vicar of the nearby church back in Hamilton, the Reverend Johnstone, and discovers he has gathered a small, armed militia around him to defend their families.

The reason why becomes apparent when Ransom is kidnapped by one of the gangs of unemployed fisherman who have come under the influence of the wild-eyed visionary Jonas. An innocent walk back from the zoo turns into a terrifying urban chase as faceless men in black fishing gear are glimpsed running through the alleyways parallel to the street he’s walking along, till Ransom panics and starts running himself. Eventually, they catch him in a fishing net and he’s swung up into the air, banging his head against a car fender and blacking out.

Ransom comes to in the stinking hold of a rusting fishing vessel and has just enough dialogue with the men’s leader, Jonas, to realise he is mad. He is gathering more recruits before they set off in search of the gleaming river Jonas claims to have seen far inland. When Jonas’s back is momentarily turned, Ransom manages to escape, although later on the fisher gang reappears and tries to capture him and Catherine a second time.

Eventually, although he’d been toying with staying in the abandoned town, Ransom realises he, too, must make the journey to the coast. He leaves as Lomax and Quilty appear to have fulfilled the promise the architect had made Ransom, and have set the entire city of Mount Royal ablaze, so that ash falls on the surrounding area, a grey patina on roofs and trees and roads and cars, through which Ransom and his motley crew set off.

Ransom takes with him Catherine and skinny Philip Jordan. In a characteristically surreal and just odd scene, before they leave, skinny teenager Jordan first takes the couple on his skiff way out into the drained lake, skimming along the last few water channels till they reach a distant and remote houseboat, where Jordan introduces them to the wizened old black man who he refers to his as his father. He obviously isn’t, but by this stage Ransom is well advanced into the bizarre, surreal and dissociated world they’re all now more or less inhabiting.

And on the way back across the drained lake, now carrying with them old Mr Jordan who is chairbound, they pass mad old Mrs Quilter who shouts across from her houseboat, asking to come, too.

So that by the time Ransom finds a car which still works, it is a ripe and eccentric crew which drives with him out of the burning city and down the highway lined by abandoned vehicles, south towards the dead zone of the beach.

After changing cars several times, they are finally forced abandon the car and walk over the last hills which finally give onto a view looking down onto the coast and an apocalyptic scene. The entire coast in both directions, as far as the eye can see, is packed with people, cars, trucks, with tents and cabins and caravans littering the view and the smoke from countless cooking fires rising into the hot dry air.

On closer examination the actual beach zone has been fenced off with barbed wire by the army. As he goes down into the crowd to reconnoitre, Ransom is repeatedly told to back off by angry men with shotguns. They are all waiting their turn in line to get to the seawater, waiting for the angry mutinous crowd to rush the fences.

And that evening an attempted storming does take place – only to result in hundreds being mown down by army machine guns. At its height a hysterical man in front of Ransom tells him to back off, he was here first – a certain Grady who Ransom and the reader remembers the doctor giving some of his precious spare water to way back at the beginning of the novel. Now he doesn’t remember Ransom and is willing to shoot him in order to save his place in the queue to get to the beach. After he’s taken a few potshots at Ransom, Ransom himself slowly stands up from the sand dune, takes aim, and shoots him through the heart.

All this feels like it could be made into a modern Hollywood movie, given the presence of a tall white male hero (Ransom), an attractive ‘caring’ heroine (Catherine who keeps worrying about her zoo animals), a cast of eccentrics and baddies (cynical Lomax, his witchy sister Miranda, their creepy servant Quilter, referred to as Quilty), and the ragbag assortment of the helpless and the crippled which the strong white man saves (Philip Jordan, old man Jordan and mad Mrs Quilty).

Not so part two.

Part two

It is ten long years later. Human civilisation has disappeared. The only remaining humans live on the coasts. There aren’t many left since there appear to have been many massacres in the early days, and the survivors are from time to time further decimated by tidal waves and tsunamis.

These survivors have been refining seawater for so long that, in a twist I hadn’t anticipated, they have generated vast amounts of salt. This salt now extends over a mile from the end of the sand dunes to the actual sea itself, although the interface with the sea is harder and harder to detect. These creatures survive by waiting till high tide and then working as teams to paddle the rising seawater into lagoons or lakes which they’v created by banking up the salt into perimeter walls.

But given that there are no rocks or sand or earth or anything solid, only salt to work with, given that the seawater immediately dissolves any little banks or dykes which they construct, it is a job of immense labour to paddle the pools of water in teams, through roughly scooped canals all the way back to the settlements, built on the dry, reasonable secure salt flats near the true shore.

So each day more pools of seawater must be scooped and paddled back to the settlements where home-made stills run continuously, powered by oil or petrol salvaged from the thousands of cars behind the dunes.

One such settlement is run by Johnstone, the priest of the church who we saw organising a trigger-happy militia in part one. About 300 people live in this Mad Max-style settlement, built out of scraps of car and rusting ship. We see old man Johnstone seated on a throne made from a wrecked dinghy, a purblind Lear who seems to have handed power over to his two shrouded, knitting malevolent daughters.

And we rejoin Ransom, to discover that he is one of the ‘pirates’ who wait till the main crew have shepherded a large pool or small lake-full of seawater, and then hijack an unprotected part of it and push it with paddles back to their own pathetic shanties.

Ransom has wasted away. He paddles a pathetic amount of seawater back to the scrofulous shack which looks like the shell of a cancerous turtle. There will be enough water to add to his gimcrack still, and half a dozen fish in it. Like a fool, five years ago he allowed the wife, Judith, who he had separated from to join him when she was kicked out of the Johnstone settlement. Now they live in utter destitution together.

On this day, as part two opens, after Ransom returns with a miserable amount of water and just five fish, Judith harangues him. He sits on the bed and strokes her grey wisps of hair. Later that day, after she’s fallen asleep, he sneaks off, driving a pool of water before him all the way to the Johnstone settlement.

Here he uses it to parlay entrance asking to see Captain Hendry, one-time police officer in Hamilton and his wife’s former lover. Ransom asks if he and Judith can join the community. But really it’s an opportunity to let the reader see how utterly sterile, colourless and bleak human life has become, as Ransom tours round the settlement, with some workers tending the edible kelp reservoirs, others feeding the ever-burning stills to provide the salt-free drinking water. Hendry tells Ransom that No, he can’t join the community. And explains that the last vestiges of his identity would be drained from him if he did.

On his way out, Ransom explores the various levels of the ruined tanker which forms one wall of the settlement, where old blind Johnstone has his throne room, and where Ransom makes a detour to see Vanessa, the youngest of Johnstone’s three daughters, who had a chronic illness and who he had treated back in the pre-drought days.

She is on her bed in a small cabin, staring out the window. They chat desultorily. It’s not described, but implied, that they have sex, God knows where they find the energy. Ransom leaves and returns to his small shack far across the dead flat, shining white, salt flats.

Later that day we find Ransom at the top of the ruined watch-tower near his shack, watching Philip Jordan’s mysterious comings and goings among the sand dunes in the distance.

Intrigued, Ransom sets off to discover what the young man is up to. After quite a walk he comes to the little gypsy booth which has been established by Mrs Quilty with the unexpected help of Catherine Austen. They have become a voodoo double act, reading the stars, telling people’s fortunes, in return for water and fish.

Pushing on in pursuit of Jordan, Ransom is nearly hit by a rock thrown by the younger man. In a way Jordan has never forgiven him for saving him and his adopted father. They are in the middle of having a stand-off when an amazed Ransom shouts to Jordan to look out – there is a lion behind him!

There actually is a lion behind him and Jordan throws a rock at the lion which skitters away, but by now Ransom is with him, all antagonism forgotten.

Jordan now shows Ransom the cause of his mystery excursions, which turns out to be a garage part buried by dust and sand. Inside is a perfectly preserved Cadillac which Jordan has obviously been tending. Now, as if in a religious rite, he asks Ransom to start it, because it was the godlike Ransom who rounded up their little posse and led them in a sequence of cars from burning Mount Royal to the coast.

But the car won’t start. Of course not. The battery has long since gone flat and all the wiring been corroded by the salt air. Jordan has a hysterical fit, all the repressed anger of the previous ten years erupting in an orgy of destruction. Ransom exits the buried garage and waits outside on the hot sand.

But when Jordan re-emerges, they both share an understanding. The lion. For the lion to survive there must be drinkable water somewhere.

Part three

In the final part, Ransom is again on a journey. This time he and Jordan have collected Catherine, a load of dried fish and cans of distilled water, and placed old Mrs Quilter on a wooden cart, which they slowly wheel, back along the dusty dried-up river bed the hundred or so miles back north towards Mount Royal.

This gives Ballard to exercise one of his fortés, which is to give us long, detailed and highly felt descriptions of a ruined world, towns and flyovers and streets and shops and cars all half-buried in the fine dust which has drifted everywhere from the vast endless dustbowl which the continent has turned into in the absence of any water at all.

To cut a long story short, when they arrive back at the dust-covered ruins of Mount Royal, our travellers find most of the characters we met in the first part of the book are still alive! This is because the camp gay architect Lomax knew all along about secret reservoirs hidden under the city and they have lived off this water for the past ten years.

But the real point of this section is not to move the narrative forward in a realistic way, but to allow Ballard to indulge his Surrealist tastes, his penchant for the absurd, to new heights and fantasias.

The retarded psychopath Quilty is not only still alive, he has transformed himself into a weird tribal chief. He wears grotesque outfits made of dead animal skins including a head-dress made from the neck of a swan, and walks around on wooden stilts two feet high, thus giving him an enormous looming presence.

Quilty has mated with venomous Miranda Lomax, spawning three children by her who are all equally deformed and, as far as Ransom can tell, mutant – mute and silent, their shimmering eyes full of unhuman dreams.

Miranda is no longer a spoilt vamp but has become grotesquely fat, a vast whale of wobbly flesh barely contained by obscene see-through negligees. In a gruesome moment she casually attributes her corpulence to a diet of… people, last survivors in the city who they picked off and she… ate.

Quilter has a sidekick, Whitman, one of whose arms ends in a stump, face twisted by a massive scar, who is in charge of a pack of wild dogs which he uses to hunt down Jonas, the mad deluded visionary captain of a landlocked steamer which we met in part one, and who back then had led the gang of marauding fishermen, planning to go in search of the lost river.

Now mad Jonas still roams the dusty river bottom, wanders over the undulating dunes which is all that remains of the lake, until he is spotted by Whitman who unleashes his pack of dogs and goes running after him, Jonas more often than not throwing one of his fisherman’s nets into the dogs’ faces and so tangling them up in mesh while he makes his escape. This demented charade of chase and escape has been going on for years.

Lastly, there is Lomax himself, who has degenerated into a camp asexual androgyne, who is still sly and flirtatious with Ransom, but stamps his feet in annoyance at the way his water has been used by that monster Quilty and just look what he’s done to my lovely sister!!

A sequence of incidents are created so that Ballard can shake up this box of surreal mannequins and indulge to the full his taste for nihilistic surrealism – Whitman and his dogs endlessly pursuing Jonas, Lomax flouncing around in improbably theatrical suits, Miranda attempting to seduce Ransom from her divan in the desert tent Quilty has built for her at the bottom of an empty swimming pool.

When they reached the city he and Jordan and Catherine had wandered away from each other, each lost in their own private psychodramas. The reader had assumed that Catherine must have died of thirst or been killed by the shadowy strangers the dunes still seem to conceal (or are they hallucinations?) – until, that is, she reappears on the crest of a distant dune, cracking her whip and in complete control of two of the lions who have survived all this time, before inexplicably disappearing again.

At some point I realised this was a kind of theatre of the Absurd, influenced by or coming from the same place as the plays of Samuel Becket and heavily influenced by surrealism. Ballard says Ransom has hanging up in his houseboat the painting Jour de Lenteur by Yves Tanguy, and there’s some speculation that the entire novel was inspired by it.

Jour de Lenteur by Yves Tanguy (1937)

This carnival of fools and theatre of absurdity comes to an abrupt end when Lomax, unable to bear the taunting and ingratitude of Quilty and his crew any longer, deliberately breaches the walls of the swimming pool at his luxury home, which contains the last water from the last of the city’s reservoirs which they had pumped out from the city years earlier.

Quilter, Ransom and Whitman are alerted by the water running round their feet and run up to Lomax’s pool, but too late, only in time to see the last rivulets of precious clean water disappearing into the surrounding sand.

With no ado whatsoever, one-armed scarred Whitman chases camp Lomax around the deserted pool, catches up and stabs him in the side with his big army bayonet and throws Lomax’s body into a nearby shallow mineshaft, where the gay man’s twitching body throws up small clouds of fine dust for a while. Grim.

Now Ransom’s alienation, his mental detachment, his identity collapse and his psychosis are complete.

Unaffected by the catastrophic loss of the last drinking water, he falls under the spell of the monstrous Quilty, a tribal god, a minatory figure from another age. Old Mrs Quilter dies and Ransom helps them bury her, according to Quilter’s surreal practice, by excavating the sand and dust down to a buried car, wrenching open the door and placing her corpse reverently on the back seat. According to Miranda, each of the buried cars for miles around has its own corpse carefully embalmed inside. See what I mean by surreal?

On the last page Ransom says his goodbyes to Quilter and Miranda, to their weird children and heads off to discover his fate. Looking across the dried-out lake he sees Captain Jonas at the helm of the abandoned, half-buried, old river steamer and by his side his long lost son, Philip Jordan.

Then he sets off across the lake itself, riven by dust dunes which undulate in slowly increasing waves until they tower 20 feet over his head. His dissociation from the world is so complete that he doesn’t notice the sky darkening, filling with black stormclouds. Clouds?

To his surprise he noticed that he no longer cast any shadow on the sand, as if he had at last completed his journey across the margins of the inner landscape he had carried in his mind for so many years. (p.188)

And thus it is that he doesn’t even notice when, some time later, it starts to rain.

Ballardland

Quite clearly the dystopian disasters, although vividly imagined and given a plausible scientific explanation, are really only pretexts for the place Ballard wants to be, a terminal beach where half a dozen or so disparate characters retreat into their own psychic collapse, retreating to their private zones, projecting their own psychodramas and fantasies onto the collapsing world.

Sometimes this feels clunky and obvious. The thread about Catherine, her zoo, and her final emergence as a fetishistic lady of the lions, cracking her BDSM whip, doesn’t really work, feels too forced.

On the other hand the mad figure of Quilty feels all-too real and plausible. If civilisation collapses, it is psychopaths like him who will hold the whip hand and impregnate harems of complaisant daughters.

But in this novel, the picture of all mankind forced down to the world’s beaches, and scrabbling each day at high tide to scrape just enough water into its collapsing runnels to sweep back towards its barely functioning stills where it can be distilled into just enough drinking water to keep a precarious and malnourished grasp on existence – this long and deeply imagined passage gave me nightmares.


Related links

Reviews of other Ballard books

Novels

Short story collections

Other science fiction reviews

Late Victorian
1888 Looking Backward 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy – Julian West wakes up in the year 2000 to discover a peaceful revolution has ushered in a society of state planning, equality and contentment
1890 News from Nowhere by William Morris – waking from a long sleep, William Guest is shown round a London transformed into villages of contented craftsmen

1895 The Time Machine by H.G. Wells – the unnamed inventor and time traveller tells his dinner party guests the story of his adventure among the Eloi and the Morlocks in the year 802,701
1896 The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells – Edward Prendick is stranded on a remote island where he discovers the ‘owner’, Dr Gustave Moreau, is experimentally creating human-animal hybrids
1897 The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells – an embittered young scientist, Griffin, makes himself invisible, starting with comic capers in a Sussex village, and ending with demented murders
1899 When The Sleeper Wakes/The Sleeper Wakes by H.G. Wells – Graham awakes in the year 2100 to find himself at the centre of a revolution to overthrow the repressive society of the future
1899 A Story of the Days To Come by H.G. Wells – set in the same future London as The Sleeper Wakes, Denton and Elizabeth defy her wealthy family in order to marry, fall into poverty, and experience life as serfs in the Underground city run by the sinister Labour Corps

1900s
1901 The First Men in the Moon by H.G. Wells – Mr Bedford and Mr Cavor use the invention of ‘Cavorite’ to fly to the moon and discover the underground civilisation of the Selenites
1904 The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth by H.G. Wells – scientists invent a compound which makes plants, animals and humans grow to giant size, prompting giant humans to rebel against the ‘little people’
1905 With the Night Mail by Rudyard Kipling – it is 2000 and the narrator accompanies a GPO airship across the Atlantic
1906 In the Days of the Comet by H.G. Wells – a comet passes through earth’s atmosphere and brings about ‘the Great Change’, inaugurating an era of wisdom and fairness, as told by narrator Willie Leadford
1908 The War in the Air by H.G. Wells – Bert Smallways, a bicycle-repairman from Kent, gets caught up in the outbreak of the war in the air which brings Western civilisation to an end
1909 The Machine Stops by E.M. Foster – people of the future live in underground cells regulated by ‘the Machine’ until one of them rebels

1910s
1912 The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – Professor Challenger leads an expedition to a plateau in the Amazon rainforest where prehistoric animals still exist
1912 As Easy as ABC by Rudyard Kipling – set in 2065 in a world characterised by isolation and privacy, forces from the ABC are sent to suppress an outbreak of ‘crowdism’
1913 The Horror of the Heights by Arthur Conan Doyle – airman Captain Joyce-Armstrong flies higher than anyone before him and discovers the upper atmosphere is inhabited by vast jellyfish-like monsters
1914 The World Set Free by H.G. Wells – A history of the future in which the devastation of an atomic war leads to the creation of a World Government, told via a number of characters who are central to the change
1918 The Land That Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs – a trilogy of pulp novellas in which all-American heroes battle ape-men and dinosaurs on a lost island in the Antarctic

1920s
1921 We by Evgeny Zamyatin – like everyone else in the dystopian future of OneState, D-503 lives life according to the Table of Hours, until I-330 wakens him to the truth
1925 Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov – a Moscow scientist transplants the testicles and pituitary gland of a dead tramp into the body of a stray dog, with disastrous consequences
1927 The Maracot Deep by Arthur Conan Doyle – a scientist, engineer and a hero are trying out a new bathysphere when the wire snaps and they hurtle to the bottom of the sea, where they discover…

1930s
1930 Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon – mind-boggling ‘history’ of the future of mankind over the next two billion years – surely the most sweeping vista of any science fiction book
1938 Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis – baddies Devine and Weston kidnap Oxford academic Ransom and take him in their spherical spaceship to Malacandra, as the natives call the planet Mars

1940s
1943 Perelandra (Voyage to Venus) by C.S. Lewis – Ransom is sent to Perelandra aka Venus, to prevent a second temptation by the Devil and the fall of the planet’s new young inhabitants
1945 That Hideous Strength: A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-ups by C.S. Lewis– Ransom assembles a motley crew to combat the rise of an evil corporation which is seeking to overthrow mankind
1949 Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell – after a nuclear war, inhabitants of ruined London are divided into the sheep-like ‘proles’ and members of the Party who are kept under unremitting surveillance

1950s
1950 I, Robot by Isaac Asimov – nine short stories about ‘positronic’ robots, which chart their rise from dumb playmates to controllers of humanity’s destiny
1950 The Martian Chronicles – 13 short stories with 13 linking passages loosely describing mankind’s colonisation of Mars, featuring strange, dreamlike encounters with Martians
1951 Foundation by Isaac Asimov – the first five stories telling the rise of the Foundation created by psychohistorian Hari Seldon to preserve civilisation during the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1951 The Illustrated Man – eighteen short stories which use the future, Mars and Venus as settings for what are essentially earth-bound tales of fantasy and horror
1952 Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov – two long stories which continue the future history of the Foundation set up by psychohistorian Hari Seldon as it faces attack by an Imperial general, and then the menace of the mysterious mutant known only as ‘the Mule’
1953 Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov – concluding part of the  Foundation Trilogy, which describes the attempt to preserve civilisation after the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1953 Earthman, Come Home by James Blish – the adventures of New York City, a self-contained space city which wanders the galaxy 2,000 years hence, powered by ‘spindizzy’ technology
1953 Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury – a masterpiece, a terrifying anticipation of a future when books are banned and professional firemen are paid to track down stashes of forbidden books and burn them until one fireman, Guy Montag, rebels
1953 The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester – a breathless novel set in a 24th century New York populated by telepaths and describing the mental collapse of corporate mogul Ben Reich who starts by murdering his rival Craye D’Courtney and becomes progressively more psychotic as he is pursued by telepathic detective, Lincoln Powell
1953 Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke a thrilling narrative involving the ‘Overlords’ who arrive from space to supervise mankind’s transition to the next stage in its evolution
1954 The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov – set 3,000 years in the future when humans have separated into ‘Spacers’ who have colonised 50 other planets, and the overpopulated earth whose inhabitants live in enclosed cities or ‘caves of steel’, and introducing detective Elijah Baley to solve a murder mystery
1956 The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov – 3,000 years in the future detective Elijah Baley returns, with his robot sidekick, R. Daneel Olivaw, to solve a murder mystery on the remote planet of Solaria
Some problems with Isaac Asimov’s science fiction
1956 They Shall Have Stars by James Blish – explains the invention, in the near future, of i) the anti-death drugs and ii) the spindizzy technology which allow the human race to colonise the galaxy
1956 The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester – a fast-paced phantasmagoria set in the 25th century where humans can teleport, a terrifying new weapon has been invented, and tattooed hard-man, Gulliver Foyle, is looking for revenge
1959 The Triumph of Time by James Blish – concluding novel of Blish’s ‘Okie’ tetralogy in which mayor of New York John Amalfi and his friends are present at the end of the universe
1959 The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut – Winston Niles Rumfoord builds a space ship to explore the solar system where encounters a chrono-synclastic infundibula, and this is just the start of a bizarre meandering fantasy which includes the Army of Mars attacking earth and the adventures of Boaz and Unk in the caverns of Mercury

1960s
1961 A Fall of Moondust by Arthur C. Clarke a pleasure tourbus on the moon is sucked down into a sink of moondust, sparking a race against time to rescue the trapped crew and passengers
1962 The Drowned World by J.G. Ballard – Dr Kerans is part of a UN mission to map the lost cities of Europe which have been inundated after solar flares melted the worlds ice caps and glaciers, but finds himself and his colleagues’ minds slowly infiltrated by prehistoric memories of the last time the world was like this, complete with tropical forest and giant lizards, and slowly losing their grasp on reality.
1962 The Voices of Time and Other Stories – Eight of Ballard’s most exquisite stories including the title tale about humanity slowly falling asleep even as they discover how to listen to the voices of time radiating from the mountains and distant stars, or The Cage of Sand where a handful of outcasts hide out in the vast dunes of Martian sand brought to earth as ballast which turned out to contain fatal viruses. Really weird and visionary.
1962 A Life For The Stars by James Blish – third in the Okie series about cities which can fly through space, focusing on the coming of age of kidnapped earther, young Crispin DeFord, aboard space-travelling New York
1962 The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick In an alternative future America lost the Second World War and has been partitioned between Japan and Nazi Germany. The narrative follows a motley crew of characters including a dealer in antique Americana, a German spy who warns a Japanese official about a looming surprise German attack, and a woman determined to track down the reclusive author of a hit book which describes an alternative future in which America won the Second World War
1962 Mother Night by Kurt Vonnegut – the memoirs of American Howard W. Campbell Jr. who was raised in Germany and has adventures with Nazis and spies
1963 Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut – what starts out as an amiable picaresque as the narrator, John, tracks down the so-called ‘father of the atom bomb’, Felix Hoenniker for an interview turns into a really bleak, haunting nightmare where an alternative form of water, ice-nine, freezes all water in the world, including the water inside people, killing almost everyone and freezing all water forever
1964 The Drought by J.G. Ballard – It stops raining. Everywhere. Fresh water runs out. Society breaks down and people move en masse to the seaside, where fighting breaks out to get near the water and set up stills. In part two, ten years later, the last remnants of humanity scrape a living on the vast salt flats which rim the continents, until the male protagonist decides to venture back inland to see if any life survives
1964 The Terminal Beach by J.G. Ballard – Ballard’s breakthrough collection of 12 short stories which, among more traditional fare, includes mind-blowing descriptions of obsession, hallucination and mental decay set in the present day but exploring what he famously defined as ‘inner space’
1964 Dr. Strangelove, or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb by Peter George – a novelisation of the famous Kubrick film, notable for the prologue written as if by aliens who arrive in the distant future to find an earth utterly destroyed by the events described in the main narrative
1966 Rocannon’s World by Ursula Le Guin – Le Guin’s first novel, a ‘planetary romance’ or ‘science fantasy’ set on Fomalhaut II where ethnographer and ‘starlord’ Gaverel Rocannon rides winged tigers and meets all manner of bizarre foes in his quest to track down the aliens who destroyed his spaceship and killed his colleagues, aided by sword-wielding Lord Mogien and a telepathic Fian
1966 Planet of Exile by Ursula Le Guin – both the ‘farborn’ colonists of planet Werel, and the surrounding tribespeople, the Tevarans, must unite to fight off the marauding Gaal who are migrating south as the planet enters its deep long winter – not a good moment for the farborn leader, Jakob Agat Alterra, to fall in love with Rolery, the beautiful, golden-eyed daughter of the Tevaran chief
1966 – The Crystal World by J.G. Ballard – Dr Sanders journeys up an African river to discover that the jungle is slowly turning into crystals, as does anyone who loiters too long, and becomes enmeshed in the personal psychodramas of a cast of lunatics and obsessives
1967 The Disaster Area by J.G. Ballard – Nine short stories including memorable ones about giant birds, an the man who sees the prehistoric ocean washing over his quite suburb.
1967 City of Illusions by Ursula Le Guin – an unnamed humanoid with yellow cat’s eyes stumbles out of the great Eastern Forest which covers America thousands of years in the future when the human race has been reduced to a pitiful handful of suspicious rednecks or savages living in remote settlements. He is discovered and nursed back to health by a relatively benign commune but then decides he must make his way West in an epic trek across the continent to the fabled city of Es Toch where he will discover his true identity and mankind’s true history
1966 The Anti-Death League by Kingsley Amis
1968 2001: A Space Odyssey a panoramic narrative which starts with aliens stimulating evolution among the first ape-men and ends with a spaceman being transformed into a galactic consciousness
1968 Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick In 1992 androids are almost indistinguishable from humans except by trained bounty hunters like Rick Deckard who is paid to track down and ‘retire’ escaped ‘andys’ – earning enough to buy mechanical animals, since all real animals died long ago
1969 Ubik by Philip K. Dick In 1992 the world is threatened by mutants with psionic powers who are combated by ‘inertials’. The novel focuses on the weird alternative world experienced by a group of inertials after they are involved in an explosion on the moon
1969 The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin – an envoy from the Ekumen or federation of advanced planets – Genly Ai – is sent to the planet Gethen to persuade its inhabitants to join the federation, but the focus of the book is a mind-expanding exploration of the hermaphroditism of Gethen’s inhabitants, as Genly is forced to undertake a gruelling trek across the planet’s frozen north with the disgraced native lord, Estraven, during which they develop a cross-species respect and, eventually, a kind of love
1969 Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut – Vonnegut’s breakthrough novel in which he manages to combine his personal memories of being an American POW of the Germans and witnessing the bombing of Dresden in the character of Billy Pilgrim, with a science fiction farrago about Tralfamadorians who kidnap Billy and transport him through time and space – and introduces the catchphrase ‘so it goes’

1970s
1970 Tau Zero by Poul Anderson – spaceship Leonora Christine leaves earth with a crew of fifty to discover if humans can colonise any of the planets orbiting the star Beta Virginis, but when its deceleration engines are damaged, the crew realise they need to exit the galaxy altogether in order to find space with low enough radiation to fix the engines – and then a series of unfortunate events mean they find themselves forced to accelerate faster and faster, effectively travelling forwards through time as well as space until they witness the end of the entire universe – one of the most thrilling sci-fi books I’ve ever read
1970 The Atrocity Exhibition by J.G. Ballard – Ballard’s best book, a collection of fifteen short experimental texts in stripped-down prose bringing together key obsessions like car crashes, mental breakdown, World War III, media images of atrocities and clinical sex
1971 Vermilion Sands by J.G. Ballard – nine short stories including Ballard’s first, from 1956, most of which follow the same shape, describing the arrival of a mysterious, beguiling woman in the fictional desert resort of Vermilion Sands, the setting for extravagantly surreal tales of the glossy, lurid and bizarre
1971 The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula Le Guin – thirty years in the future (in 2002) America is an overpopulated environmental catastrophe zone where meek and unassuming George Orr discovers that is dreams can alter reality, changing history at will. He comes under the control of visionary neuro-scientist, Dr Haber, who sets about using George’s powers to alter the world for the better with unanticipated and disastrous consequences
1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic, leading to harum scarum escapades in disaster-stricken London
1972 The Word for World Is Forest by Ursula Le Guin – novella set on the planet Athshe describing its brutal colonisation by exploitative Terrans (who call it ‘New Tahiti’) and the resistance of the metre-tall, furry, native population of Athsheans, with their culture of dreamtime and singing
1972 The Fifth Head of Cerberus by Gene Wolfe – a mind-boggling trio of novellas set on a pair of planets 20 light years away, the stories revolve around the puzzle of whether the supposedly human colonists are, in fact, the descendants of the planets’ shape-shifting aboriginal inhabitants who murdered the first earth colonists and took their places so effectively that they have forgotten the fact and think themselves genuinely human
1973 Crash by J.G. Ballard – Ballard’s most ‘controversial’ novel, a searingly intense description of its characters’ obsession with the sexuality of car crashes, wounds and disfigurement
1973 Rendezvous With Rama by Arthur C. Clarke – in 2031 a 50-kilometre-long object of alien origin enters the solar system, so the crew of the spaceship Endeavour are sent to explore it in one of the most haunting and evocative novels of this type ever written
1973 Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut – Vonnegut’s longest and most experimental novel with the barest of plots and characters allowing him to sound off about sex, race, America, environmentalism, with the appearance of his alter ego Kilgore Trout and even Vonnegut himself as a character, all enlivened by Vonnegut’s own naive illustrations and the throwaway catchphrase ‘And so on…’
1974 Concrete Island by J.G. Ballard – the short and powerful novella in which an advertising executive crashes his car onto a stretch of wasteland in the juncture of three motorways, finds he can’t get off it, and slowly adapts to life alongside its current, psychologically damaged inhabitants
1974 Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said by Philip K. Dick – America after the Second World War is a police state but the story is about popular TV host Jason Taverner who is plunged into an alternative version of this world where he is no longer a rich entertainer but down on the streets among the ‘ordinaries’ and on the run from the police. Why? And how can he get back to his storyline?
1974 The Dispossessed by Ursula Le Guin – in the future and 11 light years from earth, the physicist Shevek travels from the barren, communal, anarchist world of Anarres to its consumer capitalist cousin, Urras, with a message of brotherhood and a revolutionary new discovery which will change everything
1974 Inverted World by Christopher Priest – vivid description of a city on a distant planet which must move forwards on railway tracks constructed by the secretive ‘guilds’ in order not to fall behind the mysterious ‘optimum’ and avoid the fate of being obliterated by the planet’s bizarre lateral distorting, a vivid and disturbing narrative right up until the shock revelation of the last few pages
1975 High Rise by J.G. Ballard – an astonishingly intense and brutal vision of how the middle-class occupants of London’s newest and largest luxury, high-rise development spiral down from petty tiffs and jealousies into increasing alcohol-fuelled mayhem, disintegrating into full-blown civil war before regressing to starvation and cannibalism
1976 Slapstick by Kurt Vonnegut – a madly disorientating story about twin freaks, a future dystopia, shrinking Chinese and communication with the afterlife
1979 The Unlimited Dream Company by J.G. Ballard – a strange combination of banality and visionary weirdness as an unhinged young man crashes his stolen plane in suburban Shepperton, and starts performing magical acts like converting the inhabitants into birds, conjuring up exotic foliage, convinced his is on a mission to liberate them
1979 Jailbird by Kurt Vonnegut – the satirical story of Walter F. Starbuck and the RAMJAC Corps run by Mary Kathleen O’Looney, a baglady from Grand Central Station, among other satirical notions including the new that Kilgore Trout, a character who recurs in most of his novels, is one of the pseudonyms of a fellow prison at the gaol where Starbuck serves a two year sentence, one Dr Robert Fender

1980s
1980 Russian Hide and Seek by Kingsley Amis – set in an England of 2035 after a) the oil has run out and b) a left-wing government left NATO and England was promptly invaded by the Russians – ‘the Pacification’, who have settled down to become a ruling class and treat the native English like 19th century serfs
1980 The Venus Hunters by J.G. Ballard – seven very early and often quite cheesy sci-fi short stories, along with a visionary satire on Vietnam (1969), and then two mature stories from the 1970s which show Ballard’s approach sliding into mannerism
1981 The Golden Age of Science Fiction edited by Kingsley Amis – 17 classic sci-fi stories from what Amis considers the ‘Golden Era’ of the genre, basically the 1950s
1981 Hello America by J.G. Ballard – a hundred years from now an environmental catastrophe has turned America into a vast, arid desert, except for west of the Rockies which has become a rainforest of Amazonian opulence, and it is here that a ragtag band of explorers from old Europe discover a psychopath has crowned himself President Manson, has revived an old nuclear power station in order to light up Las Vegas, and plays roulette in Caesar’s Palace to decide which American city to nuke next
1981 The Affirmation by Christopher Priest – an extraordinarily vivid description of a schizophrenic young man living in London who, to protect against the trauma of his actual life (father died, made redundant, girlfriend committed suicide) invents a fantasy world, the Dream Archipelago, and how it takes over his ‘real’ life
1982 Myths of the Near Future by J.G. Ballard – ten short stories showing Ballard’s range of subject matter from Second World War China to the rusting gantries of Cape Kennedy
1982 2010: Odyssey Two by Arthur C. Clarke – Heywood Floyd joins a Russian spaceship on a two-year journey to Jupiter to a) reclaim the abandoned Discovery and b) investigate the monolith on Japetus
1984 Neuromancer by William Gibson – Gibson’s stunning debut novel which establishes the ‘Sprawl’ universe, in which burnt-out cyberspace cowboy, Case, is lured by ex-hooker Molly into a mission led by ex-army colonel Armitage to penetrate the secretive corporation, Tessier-Ashpool, at the bidding of the vast and powerful artificial intelligence, Wintermute
1986 Burning Chrome by William Gibson – ten short stories, three or four set in Gibson’s ‘Sprawl’ universe, the others ranging across sci-fi possibilities, from a kind of horror story to one about a failing Russian space station
1986 Count Zero by William Gibson – second in the ‘Sprawl trilogy’
1987 2061: Odyssey Three by Arthur C. Clarke – Spaceship Galaxy is hijacked and forced to land on Europa, moon of the former Jupiter, in a ‘thriller’ notable for Clarke’s descriptions of the bizarre landscapes of Halley’s Comet and Europa
1988 Mona Lisa Overdrive by William Gibson – third of Gibson’s ‘Sprawl’ trilogy in which street-kid Mona is sold by her pimp to crooks who give her plastic surgery to make her look like global simstim star Angie Marshall, who they plan to kidnap but is herself on a quest to find her missing boyfriend, Bobby Newmark, one-time Count Zero; while the daughter of a Japanese gangster who’s sent her to London for safekeeping is abducted by Molly Millions, a lead character in Neuromancer

1990s
1990 The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling – in an alternative version of history, Charles Babbage’s early computer, instead of being left as a paper theory, was actually built, drastically changing British society, so that by 1855 it is led by a party of industrialists and scientists who use databases and secret police to keep the population suppressedlice to keep the population suppressed

Albert Oehlen @ the Serpentine Gallery

Albert Oehlen

Albert Oehlen (b. 1954) is a German painter based in Switzerland. He has been a key figure in contemporary art since the 1980s.

“By bringing together abstract, figurative, collaged and computer-generated elements on the canvas, he continues to explore an inventive diversity of artistic approaches. Through Expressionist brushwork, Surrealist gestures and deliberate amateurism, Oehlen engages with the history of painting, pushing the components of colour, gesture, motion and time to new extremes.”

John Graham

The absolutely vital piece of information you need to know in order to understand this FREE exhibition of Oehlen’s work at the Serpentine Gallery is that ALL the pieces reference a much older painting by American artist John Graham, titled Tramonto Spaventoso (‘Terrifying Sunset’) (1940-49).

Tramonto Spaventoso by John Graham (1940 – 49)

Graham is a fascinating figure, having been born Ivan Gratianovitch Dombrowsky in Kiev, fighting in Russian cavalry during the Great War, fleeing the Bolshevik revolution to Warsaw and then emigrating to America, where he took a new name, found a job and developed an experimental interest in art, trying out various forms of modernism and abstraction, and serving as a mentor to the young Abstract Expressionists, such as Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, and Arshile Gorky.

As you can see from Tramonto Spaventoso there was also a lot of Surrealism mixed up in his style, along with a refusal of being afraid to look amateurish and cack-handed. The terrifying sunset consists of a roughly drawn portrait of a man with eyeglasses and caricature moustache, the picture behind him divided into four quadrants showing (from top left) four golden circles which might be suns but also have lions’ faces drawn in them; two black classical pillars between which you can see a ploughed field leading off to the horizon and a sky with clouds; a mermaid with a curlicue tail whose breasts appear to be spurting milk at the central figure, and with blood pouring from a wound in her side; and at the bottom left another yellow lion face, this one with three legs appearing around its mane.

The John Graham remix

Oehlen has taken this obscure work by a now-largely-forgotten artist and subjected it to a whole series of remixes, mash-ups and distortions. He’s been doing this for at least ten years and this exhibition brings together about twenty of the results, small, medium-sized, large, and absolutely enormous in scale.

Sohn von Hundescheisse by Albert Oehlen (1999) Private Collection, Photo: Archive Galerie Max Hetzler, Berlin | Paris © Albert Oehlen

So in each of the twenty or so mashups you are looking for those elements: face in the middle with a huge moustache; suns with faces; columns in the upper-right corner, with a series of lines going to the horizon, a mermaid at bottom right.

These figures or symbols are submitted to all kinds of distortions of shape and colour and position. The pain is applied in violent haphazard way, using extremely bright and vibrant colours with no regard for creating a consistent palette or tone (in real life the pink line along the top of this one looks almost fluorescent).

Oehlen’s aim is obviously to reference and recreate the original in the most random, attacked and disrespectful way possible, chucking out all guidelines of taste and decorum to see what happens. This makes it difficult to like. My initial reaction was visceral repulsion and anthropological amusement at what, nowadays, in the 2010s, comprises successful contemporary art.

However, once you have grasped that every single one of the works is referencing the Graham painting, it introduces a childish Where’s Wally aspect to trying to identify in each work the deeply buried mermaid and moustaches etc. And this activity ends up drawing you into his visual world, wild and deliberately scrappy, garish and amateurish though it is.

Vorfahrt für immer by Alber Oehlen (1998) Private Collection. Photo by the author

The Mark Rothko chapel

This is most obvious in the big central room of the Serpentine Gallery which has a circular cupola to let light in. Here Oehlen has created a new work especially for the Serpentine, a site-specific work which takes the remix approach to the Graham original to new heights and absurdities.

Installation view of Albert Oehlen at Serpentine Galleries © 2019 Photo: readsreads.info

This space is now the location of two overlapping re-interpretations of other artists’ work, because the layout, the size and hang of these enormous Oehlen works is deliberately based on the layout and hang of the paintings which American Abstract Expressionist Mark Rothko made for what became known as ‘the Rothko Chapel’ in Houston, Texas.

The Rothko Chapel, Texas

But whereas Rothko’s paintings are carefully composed and co-ordinated to create a shimmering meditative effect, and promote a spirit of serious meditation, Oehlen’s works rip up any idea of respect and decorum, consisting of wild hand-drawn cartoons, massive sketches, garish washes and caricature figures and faces.

It’s almost as if he’s doing everything he can think of to undermine the idea of ‘art’ as a serious activity worthy of respect. He has apparently given interviews throughout his career discussing the influence on him of Surrealism, but I think you have to go a step further back to DADA, with men on stage shouting nonsense poetry through megaphones while someone attacks a piano with a hammer to find artistic cognates of Oehlen’s works.

Installation view of Albert Oehlen at the Serpentine Gallery. Photo by the author

This resolutely iconoclastic approach explains a lot about what you’re actually seeing, but there’s a bit more going on as well. It was an excellent Serpentine visitor assistant who explained the importance of the John Graham original to me. But he then went on to explain other things Oehlen has done with these huge works.

  1. Charcoal is usually used by artists to do sketches and drawings. But some of these works are done in charcoal on canvas primed and painted white i.e. given the status of paintings. (See image on the left, above)
  2. By contrast, watercolour is usually employed in lightly figurative work to create delicate washes and effects, but here Oehlen uses it (or a very watery acrylic) to create huge and very rough lines or areas of pure colour (see image above, right)
  3. In other, smaller works you can also see that Oehlen has got a spraycan and simply sprayed reasonably crafted works with spatters of cheap, dayglo, spraycan colours, such as ginger.

Above and beyond these technical mashups, there are also two obvious visual references. One is to the notorious moustaches of Salvador Dalí, exaggerated into schoolboy cartoons (see above).

The other is the references to Pablo Picasso’s Guernica, which features heavily in the current Dora Maar exhibition at Tate Modern. Here’s Guernica: look at the heads at the far left and far right. In both instances the head is depicted side-on, face-up, at an unrealistic angle from the ‘neck’ supporting it.

Guernica by Pablo Picasso

Compare and contrast with this, one of the enormous panels in the Oehlen show. Clearly he is channeling the Guernica neck and head (along with the Dalí moustaches and the Graham composition).

Installation view of Albert Oehlen at the Serpentine Gallery. Photo by the author

Conclusion

So, it is good to be informed: having been told that the Graham painting underpins everything in this exhibition is crucial to understanding the show.

Knowing that the Graham painting itself showed heavy Surrealist influences, feeds through into feeling the Surrealist undertones of the Oehlen works, and you can have a laugh at the Dali moustaches, you can congratulate yourself at spotting the Picasso reference.

Knowing that the big central room is a parody or pastiche or riff on the Rothko Chapel also helps to explain its layout and the sheer scale of the paintings Oehlen has filled it with.

And I did like some of the images he’s come up with – like the one I opened this review with, whose sheer bloody-minded, cack-handed, over-coloured exuberance achieves a kind of Gestalt, a totality of awfulness which is sort of impressive.

But no, at the end of the day, despite all the extenuating circumstances, and the intellectual interest of all this background information, no, I found them horrible.


Related links

Reviews of other exhibitions at the Serpentine

Dora Maar @ Tate Modern

This is the most comprehensive retrospective of photographer and painter Dora Maar ever held.

Dora Maar photographed by Man Ray (1936)

Brief synopsis

  • Maar was a successful fashion and commercial photographer in the early 1930s
  • a social documentary photographer in the mid-1930s, as well as being a left-wing political activist, signing manifestos, going on marches
  • she developed into a dazzling surrealist photographer in the mid to late-1930s
  • Maar was introduced to Picasso in 1935 and was his mistress for nine years, documenting the creation of his 1937 masterpiece Guernica, providing the model for thirty or so many paintings and many drawings on the theme of the Weeping woman, and under his encouragement taking up painting again
  • 1944 saw the break-up with Picasso, and the start of years struggling with depression – she never returned to photography
  • 1940s to her death in 1997: experiments with a range of painting styles from her home in rural France

Dora Maar

Born in 1907, Maar was encouraged and supported by her father to study art, but became more attracted to photography. Living in Paris, by the late 1920s she had become proficient at photography and made contacts in the Paris artworld, She studied at the École des Beaux-Arts and the Académie Julian, and frequented André Lhote’s workshop where she met Henri Cartier-Bresson. She became friends with the surrealist Jacqueline Lamba, who went on to meet the godfather of the surrealist movement, André Breton.

At the beginning of 1930, she set up a photography studio on rue Campagne-Première (14th arrondissement of Paris) with Pierre Kéfer, photographer and decorator. Though many prints during their collaboration were signed ‘Kéfer–Dora Maar’, Maar was usually the sole author. When their partnership ended around 1935, Maar established her own studio in central Paris and took independent commissions.

Through the early 1930s she undertook a wide range of commercial photography for advertisements and fashion magazines, travel books and some erotic magazines. All the photos from this period are crisp and clean and attractive, several shots of men and women in sporty poses reminding me of glamour photos from 1930s Hollywood of the likes of Gary Cooper or Jean Harlow.

Model in Swimsuit (1936) by Dora Maar. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2019

The exhibition has nine rooms and the room of fashion photos and nudes is arguably the most enjoyable, for their variety and their tremendous evocation of 1930s glamour, Paris-style.

But what’s also interesting is you can see the logic of a sort of progression from fashion photos, sports photos, through tasteful nudes, and then increasingly experimental commercial photos, promoting shampoo etc, and then, suddenly…

Surrealism

A severed hand holding a bottle. A fashionably dressed woman in a long backless dress with… a star for a head… Suddenly Maar is a surrealist!

A very successful surrealist. She was one of only a handful of photographers to be included in the big surrealist exhibitions of the 1930s (in Tenerife, Paris, London, New York, Japan and Amsterdam), her work appearing alongside that of Man Ray (for me, maybe the greatest photographer) and Hans Bellmer (very disturbing chopped-up mannequins).

Interestingly, the early surrealists couldn’t quite see how photography fit into their idea of foregrounding the imagination and above all, the unconscious mind, because photography was associated, up till then, with documentary recording of portrait, landscapes or cityscapes. It took the development of photomontage – the cutting and pasting of several photographic images over or on each other – which persuaded the surrealists that photography could, indeed, be a hugely powerful disruptor of ‘bourgeois reality’.

Room five shows photos by her, alongside photos of the leading lights of the surrealist movement, friends ad fellow activists, male and female, including: Man Ray, Ren Crevell, Paul Eluard, Leonor Fini, Christian Berard, Lise Deharme – she was right in there, in the thick of the movement and the contemporary arts scene, and alongside photos of her famous friends, the exhibition displays catalogues and invitations to the surrealist exhibitions where her work was shown.

Anyway, the main thrust of the surrealist room is to showcase a range of experiments with surrealist photography, from fairly basic ideas of cutting and pasting one image onto another photo, to more interestingly experimental.

Several tropes recur:

  1. Cut out a naked woman and stick it on almost any other image and it looks surreal/silly. Eyes.
  2. Cut out eyes and put them anywhere, or create a flock of eyes with wings, or eyes on a beach with legs like crabs.
  3. Shop-window mannequins. Stick them in any window and take a photograph and – hey presto! – poundshop surrealism

But a handful of the images are world class, as good as anything any of the men ever dreamed up.

Untitled (Hand-Shell) (1934) by Dora Maar Photo © Centre Pompidou, MNAM-CCI, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / image Centre Pompidou, MNAM-CCI © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2019

Far more troubling was a set she made where she took the curved vaulted ceiling of a church somewhere, turned it upside down and then superimposed figures on it, on one version a street boy bending his body unnaturally backwards is a genuinely disturbing image (see end of this review).

My point being that a lot of her surreal photographs are relatively smooth and acceptable (like the shell-hand above) – extensions of her fashion shot style. But just a few of them are genuinely chilling and disturbing…

Social documentary

Another big room (room 3) is filled with Maar’s social documentary photographs from the 1930s. She took bleak, honest photographs of the terrible poverty to be found in ‘La Zone’ – a sprawling shanty town on the outskirts of Paris that was home to around 40,000 poverty-stricken Parisians and immigrants.

In 1933 she travelled to the Catalonia and took photos of street people in Barcelona.

Surprisingly, there’s an extended set of photos she took of street people in London, including pearly kings, blind musicians, and all manner of beggars, from the smartly dressed to the really worn-down and impoverished.

And there is a whole room devoted simply to every day scenes, the oddity or strikingness of sudden moments in the city, the kind of moments which the surrealists’ godfather, André Breton, tried and – in my opinion – miserably failed to capture in his self-important and banal ‘masterpiece’, Nadja, which photography, as a medium, is much better equipped to capture than prose.

Girl Blocking the Doorway by Dora Maar (1934)

To be honest, a lot of these are not classics, nothing like the images of the Depression being create by Dorothea Lange at the same time in America, and not as brilliantly composed and framed as the social documentary photos of Edith Tudor-Hart, both of whom have had exhibitions devoted to them recently.

The first five rooms, then, have shown us an extensive selection of photos across a number of genres – commercial, fashion, erotic, nudes, social realism and art-surrealism – that really make the case for Maar being a very significant figure from the time, and a handful of really outstanding surrealist images she created.

Then it all goes pear-shaped.

Picasso

In 1935 she asked a mutual friend to introduce her to Picasso, who fascinated her and, she became his mistress. Unfortunately he already had one mistress, Marie-Thérèse Walter, mother of his daughter Maya. Between 1936 and 1938 they spent summers at Mougins in the South of France, with a group of other artists that included Paul and Nusch Eluard, Man Ray, Roland Penrose, Lee Miller and Eileen Agar, and their relationship lasted until 1946.

I suppose the curators couldn’t avoid this big chunk of her life, but it has a very negative effect. The two rooms which deal with it unavoidably bring out that Picasso was a genius, and seemed to indicate (the narrative was a little unclear) that she more or less abandoned photography.

As to his genius, one entire room is devoted to the masterpiece Guernica, for the slender reason that Maar took a series of seven photos showing the progress of its creation during May and June 1937. Her photos are projected onto the wall and are nearly as bit as the original. This ought to have been fascinating, but wasn’t. They show us that Picasso’s initial pencil composition changed as he painted but beyond that…

Installation view of Dora Maar at Tate Modern showing the projection of Maar’s photos of the progress of Guenrica

The displays also tell us more than once that Maar was the model for the image of the Weeping Woman, an image which is included in Guernica and which he made about thirty versions of. This story is undermined a bit when we read Maar denying it, and claiming all these weeping women were nothing to do with her, but Picasso’s own invention.

‘You need to know that I never really modelled for Picasso. He never painted me “from nature”. One or two drawings, maybe, that’s all, although he did hundreds of portraits of me.’

The exhibition includes one of the Weeping Women (the one, in fact, owned by Tate) and this has a deleterious effect on the rest of the show because it is so brilliant.

Weeping Woman (1937) by Pablo Picasso. Tate

The exhibition includes an experimental series of portraits they made together, combining experimental photographic and printmaking techniques, and one big figurative painting she did during this time. But it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the relationship was a catastrophe for her.

In the late 1930s she was a photographer at the top of her game, firing on all cylinders, experimenting and developing. Then it all grinds to a halt. She helps Picasso with his work, she gets fed up with being excluded from his circle.

Why did she do it?

After Picasso

Picasso bought Maar a house in Ménerbes, Vaucluse, where she retired and lived alone. She turned to the Catholic religion, met the painter Nicolas de Staël (who lived in the same village), and turned to abstract painting.

The final two rooms give us a cross-selection of her paintings. These come in a bewildering variety of styles.

In the 1940s, hugely under the influence of Picasso she made still life oil paintings, which were well received when she exhibited them in a joint exhibition at the Galerie Jeanne Bucher, alongside those of Georgian artist Vera Pagava.

Still Life by Dora Maar (1941)

She painted semi-abstract landscapes of the countryside around her house in the Vaucluse, some of which are very pleasant. La Grande Range was included in Maar’s last exhibition, held in the Leicester Galleries, London, in 1958 and the curators quote the Times’s art critic, John Russell, praising their sensitivity and feel for large, open rather lonely places.

La Grand Range (1958) by Dora Maar

Another wall shows experiments with very small oil abstract paintings . The fourth wall displays a series of larger abstracts, often with black lines drawn over turquoise colour washes. I liked these more than the rather washed-out landscapes.

Untitled abstracts from the 1970s

And the final room shows her experiments with taking photographs without a camera, camera-less photographs or photograms. A photogram is made by placing an object on photo-sensitive paper and exposing it to light. Where the light strikes the paper, it darkens, where the paper is covered by the object it remains lighter. Maar experimented with household objects with differing degrees of transparency to control the amount of light let through to the paper.

Installation view of Maar’s late photograms

Paintings of the landscapes around her house in Ménerbes,[23] showed locations dominated by wind and clouds, strongly revealing the struggle of an artist with the ghosts of her past.[24]

Conclusion

Well, if the exhibition’s purpose was to pull Maar out from Picasso’s shadow and rehabilitate her as a photographer and artist in her own right, then it certainly succeeds.

However, the effort to rehabilitate her as an artist and painter is, I think, a failure, especially after the curators dazzled us with the Picasso room: nothing from the 40 or so years of painting in the second half of her life comes anywhere near matching the genius and intensity of the Master. Some of it’s attractive, some of it is competent enough cubist still lifes, or a certain type of washed out 1970s abstraction, but…

No, it’s back to the multitude of photos which fill the first five rooms that the visitor has to go to catch the range and inventiveness and technical competence and restless inquiring mind which made Maar such a presence in the world of photography in the 1930s, and which is surely her lasting legacy.

A handful of the images are quite stunning (this is not a subjective view, as the same three or four images – the shell-hand, the face with a spiderweb projected on it, the woman in evening dress with a star for a head – appear on all the posters, on the front of the catalogue, as postcards and associated merch in the Tate shop).

And many of the social documentary photos are good, if lacking the bite of Edith Tudor-Hart.

But scattered in among these 60 or so images are a handful which, as I mentioned above, I thought penetrated to a deeper level, were neither ‘acceptable’ images of poverty or slickly-made surrealism – but took us somewhere quite different, deeper and more disturbing.

Though not reproduced on book covers or postcards or posters or mugs or fridge magnets or tote bags or t-shirts, I thought this small handful of genuinely creepy images captured something genuinely profound and chilling, something which gestures towards real greatness.

The Pretender by Dora Maar (1935) Photograph © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2019


Related links

Surrealism reviews

Reviews of other Tate exhibitions

The Book of Laughter and Forgetting by Milan Kundera (1978)

We are all prisoners of a rigid conception of what is important and what is not. We anxiously follow what we suppose to be important, while what we suppose to be unimportant wages guerrilla warfare behind our backs, transforming the world without our knowledge and eventually mounting a surprise attack on us.
(The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, page 197)

The Book of Laughter and Forgetting is divided into seven parts, each of which is a self-contained story although, as the recurring titles suggest, with recurring themes:

Part One – Lost Letters
Part Two – Mother
Part Three – The Angels
Part Four – Lost Letters
Part Five – Litost
Part Six – The Angels
Part Seven – The Border

Short sections

And each story is itself broken up into numerous, very short, numbered sections, often as short as a page long. For example, the first story, Love Letters, is 22 pages long and is divided into 19 sections.

The reading experience is dominated by this fragmentation of the narrative into short sections. Kundera uses the ‘short section technique’ for a number of purposes.

One is to continually change perspective on events, shedding ironic light on his characters’ mixed motives and misunderstandings. The most obvious way is to describe a piece of dialogue or event, and then devote separate sections to the speakers’ often wildly differing interpretations of what they just said or meant.

It also allows him to switch from close-up description of actions carried out by the protagonists, to higher-level reflections, about human nature, the character of irony or comedy, generalisations about men women and love, or about fate and destiny – and especially about Czech history, and of course, focusing on the most traumatic event of his lifetime, the communist coup of 1948 and its consequences.

The ‘short section technique’ allows Kundera to set off a train of events and then to step right outside them and present them from the perspectives of the different characters, revealing – more often than not – that they completely misinterpret each other’s motives. This has been the bedrock of his authorial approach since his first novel, The Joke – the basic premise that people really, really don’t understand each other, and that pretty much all our intentions and aims and plans turn out to be wildly miscalculated, and consistently backfire.

I read all Kundera’s books back in the 1980s when he first became very fashionable, and I had remembered Laughter and Forgetting for being lighter and funnier than its predecessors – but this, I think, was a misleading memory. Although the text is much more broken up and ‘bitty’, more interrupted by digressions and ideas – the actual content is just as grim as its predecessors. The opening story, in particular, leaves a sour taste in the mouth.

1. Lost Letters

It is 1971 and Mirek is a dissident who played a prominent role in the 1968 Prague Spring, then, after the Russian tanks and half a million Warsaw Pact soldiers invaded Czechoslovakia, was thrown out of his job and became an unperson. Since then he’s religiously kept all his diaries and journals and the records of meetings of him and dissident friends, despite them all advising him to burn or destroy them. But:

It is 1971, and Mirek says that the struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting. (p.3)

When we read that grand opening sentence back in the early 1980s (the book was published in English in 1980) we all thought it said something profound and beautiful about human nature and politics and society, and the need to resist the ever-growing forces of oblivion (as well as being a good example of Kundera’s straight-out, intellectual, almost academic style. No long paragraphs setting the scene or describing dawn over Prague or an unmarked car drawing up outside a house, none of the normal conventions of fiction. Instead Kundera goes directly to the beliefs and ideas of his main characters.) Anyway, rereading the story today, I realise this simple interpretation doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.

The main event in the story is Mirek driving out to the village to meet up with an old flame of his, his first love in fact, Zdena. Why? Because she has a big cache of all the letters he wrote to her and he wants to secure, protect and guard his archive. Also, there is a deeper psychological reason. He wanted:

to find the secret of his youth, his beginnings, his point of departure. (p.18)

The body of the short story concerns Mirek’s thoughts and reflections about Zdena, for example the fact that, back when they were going out, she was plain and ugly, his friends, and even she herself, were surprised that he was going out with her. Nobody knew that he was timid and shy and a virgin.

As he drives, Mirek realises that his car is being followed, by a car driven by a couple of security goons who make no attempt to hide. When Mirek stops at a friend’s mechanic shop to get the car tuned up, the goons stop too, and watch him, with a smirk.

So that when he finally arrives at Zdena’s house, and is reluctantly invited in, and makes his pitch to ask for his letters back, and she surprises him by saying a categorical NO… Mirek is convinced it’s because she is in league with the security men, and is keeping the letters to hand them over to the authorities, preparatory to his arrest and trial etc. She always was a communist die-hard, a party fanatic, even when they were going out together, as he now remembers bitterly.

But the narrator has told us otherwise. He has explained that Zdena was not a party fanatic but simply clove to the party after Mirek dumped her. After he dumped her, she needed to have something she could trust and base her life on, and this became an absolute faith in the Party. It was Mirek who made her what she is.

And, we learn, she is not at all in league with the security men, who she doesn’t even know about. She is simply scared – scared witless, scared of how it’s all got too big and scary, how they’re arresting people, how he might be bringing trouble into her life. She is simply too paralysed by fear to hand the letters over.

Demoralised, Mirek gets back into his car, the security men get back into theirs, and they tail him back to Prague, despite a small interlude when he throws them off in a village and sits parked by the railway station, dazed, pondering his past and future.

The narrator now picks up the theme about memory and forgetting which was announced at the beginning, reflecting that Mirek’s true motive in seeking the letters wasn’t because he never loved Zdena, or regretted loving Zdena. It’s because he loved Zdena so much and is now embarrassed about being associated with such a plain, if not ugly woman, that he wants to erase her from his past. Which leads us up to the author’s message, a characteristically jaundiced view:

By erasing her from his mind [by finally repossessing the letters] he erased his love for her… Mirek is as much a rewriter of history as the Communist Party, all political parties, all nations, all men. People are always shouting that they want a better future. It’s not true. The future is an apathetic void of no interest to anyone. the past is full of life, eager to irritate us, provoke and insult us, tempt us to destroy or repaint it. The only reason people want to be masters of the future is to change the past. They are fighting for access to the laboratories where photographs are retouched and biographies and histories rewritten. (p.22, italics added)

So 1. that grand opening statement turns out to be a lie. Mirek is lying to himself. His grand claim to want to preserve the past from forgetting is completely contradicted by this analysis of his motives. According to his creator, Mirek is every bit as mendacious and controlling as his enemy, the Communist Party.

And 2. when Mirek arrives home he discovers the police are already there, have ransacked his apartment, and read through all the diaries and journals in which he recorded meetings with other dissidents, their criticism of the Party, their analysis of its tyranny after the crushing of the Prague Spring. In other words, they have seized all the documents in which he foolishly implicated and betrayed his closest friends. The last sentences of the ‘story’ are bleak and unforgiving.

After a year of investigatory custody he was put on trial. Mirek was sentenced to six years, his son to two years, and ten or so of their friends to terms of one to six years. (p. 24)

So let us return to that ringing opening line – ‘the struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting’: it now appears to be contradicted in at least two ways.

  1. Although it’s Mirek’s own line, we have seen that, when push comes to shove, he doesn’t believe it; his quest to reclaim Zdena’s letters is, according to his creator, a quest to erase and rewrite the past as completely as the Communists want to.
  2. Worse, it turns out to be a ludicrously selfish and self-serving position and one which ended up condemning his best friends – and his own son – to years and years in prison.

Could it be that the opposite is true? That maybe the past ought to be forgotten? Certainly I think so. I completely disagree with the old cliché “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” It’s the other way round. Those who obsessively remember the past, are doomed to walk within the confines and categories it imposes on us. In Northern Ireland throughout my life and in Yugoslavia during the 1990s, there were groups of people who clung on to the past, cherished and nurtured their grievances, thirsted for revenge, determined to re-enact the past (the freedom struggle of the Irish people, the freedom struggle of the Serbian people) but this time to win. it seemed back then that it is precisely those who remember the past, who are doomed to repeat it.

Maybe the content of the story proves the complete opposite of that ringing opening declaration.

2. Mother

Marketa and Karel are married. At first they lived with his parents, but Marketa and his mother had daily run-ins, which became so intense that they eventually moved to the other end of the country to be as far as possible away. Then Karel’s father died and Mother was left alone, and Marketa, as she got older, softened. It is Easter and Marketa invites Mother to come and stay for a week, Saturday to Saturday, because they’ve something planned for Sunday.

This is an orgy, well a ménage à trois. Marketa knows Karel has a high sex drive. Early on in their marriage it became clear that he would be the unfaithful one and Marketa would suffer, although she would enjoy the perks of an unassailable moral superiority.

Then one day, in a sauna at a spa (the Czechs and their spas!), Eva walks in, naked, beautiful and confident, and starts chatting to Marketa. Soon they are good friends and it makes Marketa feel in control when she introduces Eva to Karel and they become lovers.

The irony is, we learn a few pages later, that Eva and Karel had been lovers for years before this. Their first meeting and love-making is very erotically described. It had been Eva who suggested that she approach Marketa. And so the three of them have settled into having periodic three-way sex. Sunday evening has been set aside for one such session.

But Mother mischievously declares she will only leave on Monday and both Karel and Marketa fail to argue her out of her decision.

On the fateful Sunday evening, the girls have slipped off to the bedroom to change into their sexy outfits (a negligee so short it reveals her pubes, for Eva, a pearl necklace and garter belt for Marketa) and are about to return to the living room, where they’ve been chatting and drinking for Karel, for the erotic entertainment to begin… when Mother comes in!

Now, the saving grace is that Mother has gotten pretty short-sighted and so doesn’t even realise the girls are wearing next to nothing (Marketa scampers out to throw on a raincoat). In fact Karel maliciously welcomes her untimely visit because he’d been getting irritated with the girls. And the story is unusually sympathetic to Mother – unusual in the sense that almost all Kundera’s narratives focus on horny men. She has stumbled back into the living room because she is troubled by the memory of reciting a poem which she had described earlier, over dinner, to Marketa and Karel. She had told them it was a poem about the Austro-Hungarian Empire which she recited at the end of the war. But Karel points out that she left school well before then. Alone in her bedroom, it dawns on her that he is right, and that it was a Christmas poem, not a patriotic one, and that she had recited it years earlier. And now she blunders back into the living room – just as the orgy is about to begin – to set them all right. And, in this odd, ludicrous setup, proceeds to recite the poem again, reviving the distant memory of her girlhood.

And then she goes one further by pointing out that Eva reminds her of Nora, a friend of hers when she was a young woman. And all of a sudden Karel has a flashback, remembers being four years old, in some spa town, and being left in a room, and a little while later the tall, statuesque naked body of Nora entered the room and took a nightgown off a hook. The memory of being four, of being small, and looking up at this huge naked Amazon, has stayed with him ever since.

Having said her piece and fussed around a bit more, Mother goes quietly back to her room. Immediately, Karel arranges Eva as he remembers Nora standing in that distant boyhood memory, and kneels down so that she is towering over him. Fired with lust, Karel proceeds to make love to both women furiously.

But, as with all Kundera, there are other perspectives. While he is tupping them, Marketa is miles away, trying to reduce Karel’s fornicating body to a headless machine. And afterwards, as the girls are lying on the couch, Eva quietly invites Marketa to come away with her and have a threesome with her husband. And Marketa quietly accepts.

Karel may be lost in his childhood reveries, but this doesn’t stop the other characters – his wife and mistress – carrying on living their own lives, pursuing their own goals and agendas.

3. The Angels

The angels are those who believe the world is full of order and rationality. They are humourless imposers of order and pattern and meaning. They are terrifying because they want to abolish all the muddy, confused, speckled, mongrel mixedness of the actual world and real people. Kundera identifies them with the Communist Party, Soviet tyranny, feminists, modern literature teachers, and with hypocrites like the French surrealist poet Paul Éluard, who wrote inspirational poems about Freedom while at the same time supporting the Czech regime which sent poets to their deaths.

To begin this assault Kundera creates a pair of earnest and utterly humourless American feminist literature students who don’t understand that a play by Ionesco is meant to be absurd and funny. And when they do grasp this basic fact, he satirises the funny little choked breathy noise they make. He is referring to their laughter.

The students have a narrow, dogmatic literature teacher, Miss Raphael, who is lonely. She is looking for a circle of like-minded believers to dance with. She has tried the Communist Party, the Trotsykists, the anti-abortionists, the pro-abortionists (this pairing is included to show that she has absolutely no moral underpinnings or beliefs, but is just looking for a gang she can join).

Then Kundera describes the way the idealistic young people, students and writers and artists, danced in the street after the communists came to power in Czechoslovakia in 1948, danced and laughed, even as innocent politicians and poets and artists were being executed in prisons just a few miles away.

Thus they danced in circles, the high-minded angels, laughing their laughter of joy because the world is so ordered and rational and just. And – in a touch of magical realism – their dancing bodies slowly lifted off the ground till they were dancing in the air.

Similarly, when the two humourless feminist students give their humourless interpretation of Ionesco to their class, their humourless teachers joins hands with them and they, too, rise up into the sky.

But not everyone can join a circle. Circles, in fact, can’t be broken. Unlike ranks. Anyone can slip into the ranks of an army, they are designed to allow any number of new members to fit right in. But getting into a circle is hard, if not impossible, without momentarily breaking it. Circles are exclusive.

Kundera very forcefully emphasises how he doesn’t belong to the flying circles of dancing angels, sublimely convinced of their own rectitude. He was once a Communist, he once danced in those circles, but he was unwise and tactless and expelled from the party, and forbidden to work. He was kicked out of the circle and he has been falling ever since (for nearly 30 years, by the time this book was published) falling falling falling like a meteorite broken loose from a planet (p.66).

Then he gives us an extended example of how his misplaced humour prevented him from ever dancing with the angels.

Forbidden to write for any official outlet, friends got Kundera a job writing an astrology column in a popular magazine for young socialists. It was harmless work, and not particularly well paid. But after a few years, the intelligent young woman editor – known only as R. – who had given him the job was called in for questioning by the security police. Does she realise she is ridiculing socialist youth? Does she realise she is mocking the people? Does she realise she has been associating with notorious enemy of the people Kundera?

She is promptly sacked from her job and when she turns to others in the media, they all cold shoulder her as well. Her career is through. Her life is over. She meets Kundera in a borrowed apartment and she is so terrified by what is happening to her, that she has to keep going to the toilet, her bowels are that upset.

And as he listens to her repeated flushing of the toilet, Kundera realises he has become a curse to those he knows and loves. He really cannot go on living in his homeland, bringing bad luck down on everyone he knows. He will have to go into exile. He will have to carry on falling, falling, falling away from the circles of the angels, the laughing angels, laughing because they know the Truth about a world which is orderly and rational and for the best, rejoicing in how:

rationally organised, well conceived, beautiful, good and sensible everything on earth was. (p.62)

4. Lost Letters

The title makes you think it might return to the character Mirek, who we met in the first story. Not at all.

It concerns Tamina. She is a Czech exile, working in a café in an unnamed Western town. She and her husband fled Czechoslovakia illegally, pretending to go on holiday. Thus she never brought all her belongings. Her husband got ill once they were abroad, sickened and died. Hollow and sad, she works at the café, listening to every customer who wants to bend her ear.

One day one of the customers, a tiresome wannabe writer named Bibi, mentions that she and her husband are thinking of going on holiday to Prague. Suddenly Tamina wakes from her sleep. Back in Prague, in a drawer in a desk in her mother’s flat, is a bundle of all the diaries she kept during her eleven-year marriage to her husband.

Suddenly Tamina is fired up and wants them back. She has been living like a ghost. The prospect of repossessing them promises to fill in her life, colour it in, give it detail and background and depth. The rest of the story details her struggles, first of all to get her mother-in-law to unlock the desk and get out the notebooks (every phone call to Prague costs her an arm and a leg), then to persuade her father to take it from the provincial town where they live to Prague where he can hand it over to Bibi.

Just about everything which could go wrong does go wrong, but the ‘story’ is really a peg for Kundera to hang miscellaneous thoughts on. One of these is an extended disquisition about graphomania, namely that back at the beginning writing promoted mutual understanding. But in our current state of graphomania, the opposite is true:

everyone surrounds himself with his own writings as with a wall of mirrors cutting off all voices from without. (p.92)

and again, a bit later:

The proliferation of mass graphomania among politicians, cab drivers, women on the delivery table, mistresses, murderers, criminals, prostitutes, police chiefs, doctors and patients proves to me that every individual without exception bears a potential writer within himself and that all mankind has every right to rush out and into the streets with a cry of ‘We are all writers!’

And then:

Once the writer in every individual comes to life (and that time is not far off), we are in for an age of universal deafness and misunderstanding. (p.106)

This was written over forty years ago. How prophetic of the age of Facebook and twitter.

Another theme of the story is how fatuously stupid Westerners are. Several scenes and characters exist solely to satirise the West.

For example, Bibi dreams of being a writer but comes over as a narcissistic fool. They do contrive a meeting with a real published author, Banaka, who comes over as a pompous bore. One day he turns up in her café drunk and on the verge of tears because he was the victim of a poor review in a newspaper. Pathetic.

In another scene, a professor of philosophy holds forth about the nature of the novel. On a separate occasion, Tamina is with Bibi, her husband and a Japanese woman, watching TV on which two authors get irate. One of them is insisting that the fact that he spent his entire childhood in the village of Rourou is important, very important, vitally important if you are to understand his work. A new character, Joujou, tells everyone in the room, straight-faced and humourlessly, that she rarely used to have orgasms, but now she has them regularly. Bored, Bibi remarks offhand that what they really need round here is a revolution to shake things up.

Since all Kundera’s work up to this point describes what a revolution really looks like in practice i.e. the repression, the arrests, the executions, and the systematic humiliation of the entire population, it is difficult to think of anything she could say which would be a more damning indictment of her empty-headed idiocy.

After struggling to get through to her bloody family in Czechoslovakia, Tamina finally gets through to her brother and persuades him to travel to the provincial town and gather her diaries and notebooks from her mother-in-law. He reports that he’s done so, but found the drawer unlocked and the notebooks ransacked. Her mother-in-law has been through them, maybe read everything. Suddenly they don’t feel so precious…

Bibi abruptly announces she is not now going to Prague so Tamina shifts her attentions to Hugo, a young man with bad breath who regularly visits the café and is in love with her. Torpidly, she lets herself be taken out for a date, then back to his place, and stripped naked and penetrated, all without any excitement or interest, solely because Hugo says he will go to Prague and get her things. But he is irritated at her complete passivity. In subsequent meetings she just sits there dumbly while he craps on about his big plans to write a book, yes a book! a book all about power and politics. And then he tells her he has published an article about the Prague Spring which means he will not be allowed to travel to Czechoslovakia. He is sure she understands, he had to, he owed it to the world to share his article.

And suddenly she is so revolted by him, and the memory of him penetrating her, that she runs into the toilets and copiously strenuously throws up. And her vomiting seems, to this reader, to also be a reaction to the self-deception, narcissism and superficiality of the spoilt West.

There was only one thing she wanted, to preserve the memory of her husband and their time together untainted. And just about everyone she knows has conspired to foil that endeavour and desecrate his memory.

She went on serving coffee and never made another call to Czechoslovakia. (p.115)

What this story has in common with the first Lost Letters is how bleak it is.

Part Five – Litost

Kristyna is in her thirties. She lives in a small town with her husband, a butcher, and their little boy. She is having an affair with a mechanic who she allows to penetrate her in the locked security of the garage tyre bay. Then she meets the student, home from university for the vacation, and is seduced by his ways with big words and poetic quotations. He is desperate to make love but she wants him to remain on the level of poetry and ideas. Saying yes would drag him (and her) down into the world of the mechanic. So she meets with him in out-of-the-way places and lets him kiss and touch her but always refuses to go all the way. Finally the holidays end and they make a last-minute pact: she will come up to Prague and stay the night in his accommodation. They both know what this means.

Litost is a Czech word which combines grief, sympathy, remorse and an indefinable longing (p.121). It is ‘a state of torment caused by a sudden insight into one’s own miserable self’ (p.122). Kundera gives us some stories from the student’s past to flesh it out.

The night Kristyna is coming to stay, the student’s professor, who Kundera wittily names Voltaire, tells him the greatest poet in the land is having a get-together that night and he’s invited. The student is thrown into a quandary: sex or literature? He is young. He chooses sex.

When Kristyna arrives in Prague she is horrified at the seedy little restaurant he’s arranged to meet her in, the kind of place the butcher takes her to. It’s dirty and full of drunks and they give her a table by the toilets. By the time the student arrives, she’s ready to give him a piece of her mind. But he also is chagrined: she is wearing the most embarrassingly provincial clothes imaginable, including heavy strings of pearls and black pumps.

He tries to mollify her and they go out into the streets. She had dreamed of nightclubs and theatres and glamour – but he is only a poor student, after all. He takes her to his garret; it is small and shabby. Suddenly he has a brainwave. He tells her about the evening of poets, and says he’ll go (he can’t take her, it’s men only) but he’ll take a book and get it autographed by the greatest poet.

She willingly agrees, chooses a book off the poet’s shelf and settles down while he hurries off.

Kundera, with the airy candour which has become second nature, tells us that he’s writing all this in 1977. He eventually couldn’t put up with life in communist Czechoslovakia and drove west, as far west as he could till he stopped in the Breton town of Rennes. Now he is setting this passage fifteen years earlier, in the happier days of 1962. He paints a charming eccentric portrait of an evening’s drinking and squabbling among a variety of poets he humorously names after famous poets in the Western tradition, namely Goethe, Verlaine, Petrarch, Yesenin, Lermontov, and the cynic and anti-poet Boccaccio.

This extended depiction of a bunch of boisterous drunken poets is mildly entertaining but I was struck by the echoes of his novel, Life is Elsewhere, about a lyric poet, in which we met Lermontov quite a few times. And by the way Lermontov, in this book, dismisses all the rest of the poets as ‘Mama’s boys’ (p.141) – exactly the accusation Kundera threw at lyric poets as a class in the earlier novel.

Eventually the party breaks up and all the poets group together to help carry Goethe downstairs because he is very old and can’t walk without crutches. Then Lermontov gets in the taxi and volunteers to take him home and handle Mrs Goethe, who is a dragon and always cross when her husband stays out late.

The student walks with Petrarch who tells him lots of things about love, for example love and laughter are opposites. Then rushes back to his garret where Kristyna is awaiting him. He presents her with the book of poetry which he got Goethe to sign and indeed write a long personal message for her, and she is genuinely thrilled. He tears off his clothes and jumps into bed with her and she kisses him back but then, when he tries to part her thighs, refuses. And refuses and refuses and refuses. All night long, For hours. He is fired up and hard as rock. But she still wants to preserve the student on a different plane from the rest of her life. (Also, the delivery of her son was so difficult the doctors told her she must never again get pregnant or it would endanger her life.)

Eventually the student rolls off her body and onto his back and, for some obscure reason, Kristyna reaches out and grasps his rigid member, but doesn’t move it or do anything to relieve the pressure. Just holds it. Like a mother, like a sister, passionlessly.

Litost!

Part Six – The Angels

This begins as a literary-political essay about Prague which Kundera calls a city of forgetting. In the works of Kafka, Prague is a city which has forgotten its own identity, full of unnamed streets and houses, and even the characters have forgotten their own names – Josef K. of The Trial declines to become just K. in The Castle.

Kundera then moves on to discuss T.G. Masaryk, seventh president of Czechoslovakia, who was installed by the Russians in the aftermath of the crushing of the Prague Spring, and who is known as ‘the president of forgetting’ (p.158). Among other things he sacked some 150 Czech historians, as part of a repressive policy of obliterating the past and writing a new official version.

Tamina reappears, she of Part Four. She is sad because she has forgotten so many details about her husband, not least after making love to the despicable, smelly Hugo. Her plight reminds Kundera of his father, whose dementia meant he slowly lost the power of speech until finally all he could say was one phrase: ‘That’s strange!’

Kundera’s father was a musicologist and had been working on a study of Beethoven’s variations. With the airy confidence with which he slips so much factual content into all his books, Kundera proceeds to stop the narrative while he writes a page or two about the profundity of the variation form, ‘the form of maximum concentration.’ Indeed:

This entire book is a novel in the form of variations. The individual parts follow each other like individual stretches of a journey toward a theme, a thought, a single situation, a sense of which fades into the distance. (p.165)

And the figure of Tamina is at its heart, the faithful lover who struggles to remember her beloved.

The rest of the story is odd, and reminds us that, although we remember the sex, and the politics and the philosophy, dreams and fantasy are also a recurring theme in Kundera’s work.

A nice-looking man named Raphael comes into the café, knows Tamina’s name, and asks her to leave with him. They go outside and get into his sports car, and drive off, drive into the country, the green landscape turning sandy, then ochre. It reminds Tamina of the landscape her husband was forced to work in, when he was kicked out of white collar jobs and ended up working a digger on building sites.

He parks by a river and points down towards where a boy is holding the painter of a boat. As in a dream she gets into the boat and he starts to row, but she takes over, rows and rows, they arrive at a strange strand, are greeted by children, she disembarks and is shown the way to a dormitory where she’ll be sleeping, the children tell her that only children live on the island (she walks along the shore and ends up back where she started), and are divided into ‘squirrels’ and ‘tigers’, they are fascinated by her mature breasts and black pubic hair, and she finds herself at night being touched and stroked so she achieves a strange kind of climax, until one day one little urchin twists her nipple hard and she throws them all off, she tries to join in their games, like hopscotch, but gets things wrong, they chase her, catch her in badminton nets, a little like other outsiders in science fiction scenarios, finally she runs down to the seashore and swims, while they yell at her from the shore, she’s a strong swimmer and swims all night imagining she must reach the other side, but when dawn breaks she realises she’s only a few hundred yards from the island and is overcome with fatigue.

Some of the children come out in the rowing boat to watch her curiously, they make no offer to help her, and watch, while she goes under, once, twice, and then drowns.

Part Seven – The Border

This appears to be a whole-hearted satire of life in the West. Jan is from the East and observes the people round him like a zoologist. Jeanne likes to sit cross legged like the Buddha while she traces the outline of the coffee table before her, drawing attention to herself and her asinine comments. Jan drops in on the Clevis family. They are card-carrying liberal progressives, who subscribe to all the best liberal opinions and when he drops in they’ve just finished watching a TV programme on which representatives of all the schools of thought debated one of the big issues of the day, which is whether women should go topless. Jan listens to their fourteen-year-old daughter shout that she’s not going to be anybody’s Sex Object, while her mother cheers her on. The narrator reflects that millions of women across the west have burned their bra and now go about their days work wobbling as Nature intended.

They remind me of the right-on, vegetarian, socialist feminist family, the Webers, in the Posy Simmonds cartoon strip. And any number of other right-on families who were mocked and satirised in the 1970s.

The Clevises point out that poor Jeanne has gone through tragic times because her son ran away for a few days. Jan reflects on what the term tragic means in his country and how trivial it is in this country.

Jan is seeing a girl from a sports rental company. She is an orgasm fanatic. She is determined to have as many as possible, and gives him a running commentary when they’re making love, telling him just what to do when, and where to put his hands and whether to speed up or slow down. She’s like the cox of a rowing eight.

There’s a lot more discussion of sex. Jan speculates there are three kinds of erotic history: all the women you’ve had; all the women you could have had but let slip; and then all the women you could never have had. He is alarmed that more and more women seem to be slipping into this category. Is it because they have ‘begun to organise and reform their perennial fate?’ (I take it he’s referring to feminism).

There’s a passage about the male gaze (presumably Kundera was introduced to all these ideas, along with humourless feminist students, only once he’d arrived in France, in 1975), which he takes for granted as already being a well-known concept. This was forty years ago. Less well known, he asserts, is the fact that the object can look back. The object can cease to be an object, open its eyes, and unsettle and unnerve the gazer, and his protagonist goes on to discuss about various examples of women who bite back, with his girlfriend Edwige, the feminist.

For example, their friend Barbara is known for giving orgies (who are these people? how did he get to know so many women obsessed with sex? how come I never met or heard of anyone like this when I was a young man?) One day she invites their friend Ervin who arrived to find two pretty women and Barbara. Barbara got out an egg timer then the three women stripped naked. Then she told Ervin to strip naked which he quickly did. Then she set the egg timer and said he had precisely one minute to get a hard on or they’d throw him out. And all three women stared at his crotch laughing. Then they threw him out.

Then Jan and Edwige discuss rape. Jan sees rape as integral to eroticism, whereas castration is its negation. Edwige says if rape is integral to eroticism, then we need to develop a new form of eroticism. He defends women who say the word ‘no’ when they don’t mean it. She gets angry and says ‘no means no’. He trots through a repertoire of sexual scenes – the woman acting coy, having to be brought round, concealing her charms, the man having to talk her round, persuade her to reveal herself, and so on. He calls them time-honoured images. She says they certainly are time-honoured – and idiotic! Time to change them all!

And so it goes on, the never-ending ping-ping game between men and women.

Meanwhile, the notion of the border is applied to several situations. A friend is dying of cancer. Jan reflects how very close death is all the time to each of us. The border is an inch away. Ten years ago he used to be visited by a woman for sex. They both stood and stripped in the same hurried way each time. One time she caught his eye and smiled a sad sympathetic smile. Jan was inches away from bursting out laughing, which would have ended their sexual affair. The ‘border’ was there filling the room. But he stifled his laughter, stayed this side of the border. Another time he chatted up a young woman on a train but it just wouldn’t click, despite taking her to the dining car, then out into the corridor and lifting her head into the light as he had done a thousand times before. There was a border of seduction, but he just couldn’t cross it.

There’s also a border when it comes to repetition. Every time something is repeated it loses part of its vital force. Every action therefore has a border, this side of which it retains meaning, that side of which it has become meaningless automatism.

Similarly, many of Jan’s fellow exiles initially felt great attachment to their old country and fiercely vowed to fight for its freedom. But that passion faded, and now many are scared to admit they have passed beyond a psychological border where they realise there is no cause and no fight. And no purpose.

Their friend Passer dies of cancer. At his funeral the hat is blown off the head of Papa Clevis and in successive gusts blown to the feet of the solemn funeral orator. Everyone strains to contain their laughter. Then it blows into the grave itself. When the orator bends to throw the first earth into the grave he is stunned. The watchers strain every sinew not to burst out laughing.

Jan attends one of Barbara’s legendary orgies and is appalled to discover what a bully she is, pushing and arranging and goading and forcing everyone to have a good time. Jan buddies up with a bald man who quips ‘Major Barbara’ and comments that she’s like a coach training her team for the Olympics. Barbara spots them chatting and separates them, taking the bald guy off to a corner where she starts masturbating him, while Jan finds himself being handled by the clumsy provincial stripper who had started proceedings. He finds himself looking over at the bald man, and coming up with more jokes and references and ludicrous metaphors, and suddenly both he and baldie burst out laughing. Barbara is furious. She expels Jan from the party.

Sex is a serious business. It cannot stand being mocked. Now, as Jan moves into his forties (Kundera was nearly 50 when this book was published) he finds himself more and more aware of all these borders: death just inches away; absurdity underlying all our behaviour; sex just a facial flicker away from guffaws.

In the last sequence in the book, just before he goes abroad for good (to America, I think), Jan takes his feminist girlfriend to an island which is a nudist colony. In their rented cottage they strip off, then walk down to the beach to join grandparents, parents, teenagers and toddlers, all stark naked.

Here his misunderstandings with Edwige – and the entire novel’s theme of misunderstandings – reaches a kind of climax. She is obsessed with ‘the Western Judaeo-Christian’ tradition of shame of the body. But Jan is thinking about something quite different. More and more he has been dreaming of a state of bodily arousal which is pleasure but innocent of climax; a pre-sexual state, which he associates with the Greek myth of Daphnis and Chloe.

They sit on the beach in the sun, watching all the naked people around them, and Jan murmurs ‘Daphnis’. Edwige hears this and pounces on it, convinced he shares her feelings about a feminist escape from the Judeao-Christian sexist tradition. He nods agreement although he is sick to death of her trite, stupid obvious ideas, the way she feeds everything into the same half dozen, half-baked ‘issues’. Instead he is consumed with a sense of the sheer absurdity of human existence, and this conviction – so similar to the recurring obsession of his author and creation – is cemented in the vivid image which ends the book.

A group of Edwige’s nudist friends has just come up and been introduced to Jan, and Edwige has mentioned Jan’s throwaway idea that they should name the anonymous little island Daphne.

Everyone was delighted with the idea, and a man with extraordinary paunch began developing the idea that Western civilisation was on its way out and we should soon be freed once and for all from the bonds of Judeo-Christian thought – statements Jan had heard ten, twenty, thirty, a hundred, five hundred, a thousand times before – and for the time being those few feet of beach felt like a university auditorium. On and on the man talked. The others listened with interest, their naked genitals staring dully, sadly, listlessly at the yellow sand. (p.228)


Thoughts

Are these stories continually interrupted by multiple digressions into interesting topics? Or essays on interesting topics into which ‘characters’ and their slender narratives are occasionally inserted?

Of the five books by Milan Kundera which I’ve read so far, this one has by far the most ‘interruptions’ and digressions; it feels the most finely balanced between narrative and editorial, between story and lecture.

For example, the story titled Litost, with its rhetorical questions and technical explanations (of foreign words and their etymologies) keeps reverting to the nature of an academic essay, a quality demonstrated by one of the last sections which is titled Further Notes for a Theory of Litost. 

Or take the section about the two types of laughing, the demonic which celebrates chaos, and the angelic which celebrates order, which underpins the sections about Angels i.e. that their laughter is repressive.

Or Kundera’s touching memoir of his senile father, and the way he (Kundera) came to understand his father’s scholarly fascination with the variation form.

In fact Part Six has an extended passage remembering much more about his father the musicologist: how he explained to the young Milan the structure and purpose of the key system, before Kundera himself goes on to give his account of the collapse of that system, as overthrown by Schoenberg, the reluctant revolutionary, who ushered in the twelve-tone system, which was to dominate international classical music after the Second World War.

There’s a lot lot more topics like this: on the nature of absurdity and human intention; on the nature of love; on the nature of political and cultural forgetting.

A cultural conservative?

Although he is a striking radical in the technique he brings to the novel, in chopping it up into these bite-sized sections, and inserting all kinds of authorial asides, and with the brisk no-nonsense way he gets straight to the gist of a character’s thoughts… in other ways, when you look at what his discussion values, Kundera can come over as a surprisingly cultural conservative.

In this book he thinks ‘beauty’ is a thing of the past which has been buried under a deluge of pop music and public announcements. He thinks Schoenberg murdered music and, as with the three-hundred page diatribe against lyric poetry which is his second novel, Life Is Elsewhere, he did it with the best of intentions. His innovation represented the death of classical music, but he made it with excitement and daring, and his post-war devotees were zealots and extremists of the kind Kundera deplores.

Bleakly, he says that everyone who spouts the big word Progress, imagines it means progress towards a bright new future. They don’t realise that what they are moving towards is death (p.179).

He hates pop music. There are a couple of pages comparing the Czech pop singer Karel Gott with the president of forgetting, T.G. Masaryk, in the sense that both want to bury the past. Pop music is ‘music without memory’, music deprived of the legacy of Bach to Beethoven, music reduced to the stumps of its basic elements, mindlessly repeated over a nightmareishly amplified totalitarian beat.

Towards the end of the book he rubbishes the entire notion of ‘progress’.

Jan had never shared Passer’s enthusiasm for observing how things change, though he did appreciate his desire for change, considering it the oldest desire in man, mankind’s most conservative conservatism. (p.215)

Pessimistic stuff, isn’t it?

Lost in the West

In this the book represents Kundera’s uneasy transition to the ‘free’ society of the West. In a sense, it was easy to write in the East because art, poetry and literature were taken seriously, especially by the regime, which paid artists and writers the great tribute of locking them up and, in the Soviet Union, of murdering them.

In the communist East there was not only a shortage of food and consumer goods (cars, fridges), which meant you made do with a much more threadbare lifestyle – but a shortage of types of lifestyle. At its simplest, you were either for the regime or against it, and everyone trod a very careful path so as not to put a foot wrong and be dragged off to prison.

This was Kundera’s first book published since he defected to the West (in 1975) and although his technical achievement (the chopping up of narratives into micro-sections and their interleaving with meditations on all kinds of subjects) has reached giddy heights, it seems to me that he is struggling with the sheer profusion of narratives available in the West.

Put simply, there’s so much crap. Radios are on everywhere blaring out idiot pop music, muzak in lifts and supermarkets, so much cheap food the inhabitants make themselves sick and fat, shiny adverts bombard you from radio, TV, cinema and huge hoardings.

And people fuss and fret about such trivia – epitomised by the monstrous superficiality of the would-be novelist Bibi in Part Two, or the ludicrous self-centred ‘tragedy’ of Jeanne in Part Seven, or the stupid television debates about whether women should or should not go bare breasted on beaches. Is this it? Is this what thousands of years of human civilisation dwindle down to? An endless froth of trivia?

Maybe this is what he means when he says that the entire book is about Tamina, protagonist of the fourth and sixth stories, which is at first a puzzling statement, since a number of the other characters (Mirek and Karel spring to mind) are well defined and memorable. But:

It is a novel about Tamina, and whenever Tamina is absent, it is a novel for Tamina. She is its main character and main audience, and all the other stories are variations on her story and come together in her life as in a mirror. (p.165)

And who is Tamina? She is an exile in the West. She loves her country and feels she left her soul there. But all her attempts to reclaim it are foiled. She is appalled by the superficiality (Bibi) and selfishness (Hugo) and pretentiousness (the writers bickering on TV) of ‘cultural’ life in the West. And what happens to her in the end? She drowns.


Related links

Milan Kundera’s books

1967 The Joke
1969 Life Is Elsewhere
1969 Laughable Loves (short stories)

1972 The Farewell Party
1978 The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

1984 The Unbearable Lightness of Being
1986 The Art of the Novel (essays)

1990 Immortality
1995 Slowness
1998 Identity

2000 Ignorance
2014 The Festival of Insignificance

Life Is Elsewhere by Milan Kundera (1969)

And all the secrets we discovered were
Extraordinary and false
(from August for the people by W.H. Auden)

Kundera’s second novel, Life is Elsewhere, is – at least to begin with – a bit of a disappointment after the pyrotechnics of his first, The Joke. The former book was packed with sophisticated ironic effects by virtue of being told by half a dozen narrators who all had different perspectives on the central event. If nothing else, this made for a dynamic reading experience, as the reader was often ahead of various characters in understanding what was going on, or was enabled to assemble the ‘meanings’ of various events from multiple points of view – the cumulative effect being to produce a narrative not only of events, but of what those events ‘meant’, how the meaning of the events was continually changing and, by implication, a sustained meditation on the meaning of ‘meaning’.

Life is Elsewhere is much more traditional and boring in this respect, being told by one, omniscient narrator who has a rather smothering claustrophobic presence. And the story itself takes the time-honoured shape of the Bildungsroman, a straightforward, linear description of the ‘psychological and moral growth’ of a central character.

So there’s only one central character. And we are told his story in chronological order.

The character in question is a fictional poet, who Kundera names Jaromil. We are told how his parents met and married, how he was conceived, and his precocious way with words when still a toddler. This is all set in the early 1930s, not very distant from Kundera’s own birth year of 1929. Jaromil is the apple of his mother’s eye. She makes posters of his childish sayings and hangs them on the wall of the room he is given when still a boy. And he himself shows a precocious ability at drawing although, for some reason, he gives all his human figures dogs heads – a childish eccentricity.

Then, suddenly, it is 1938 and France and Britain hand over the Sudetenland to Germany without a fight. A year later German troops are in Prague, and then the Nazis start rounding up students, communists, socialists and shipping them off to concentration camps. We are told about the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, the Nazi Stellvertretender Reichsprotektor of Bohemia and Moravia, in June 1942 and the ferocious reprisals the Nazis carried out.

But Jaromil and his Mother are too young to be caught up in all this and go to a spa, where they meet an artist who gives a professional opinion on the young boy’s youthful drawings.

The novel is 300 pages long and feels long. But what struck me is its fairy tale quality, the feel of a fable. In the real world, work and the hassles of parenthood fill up time with a never-ending sequence of harassing demands. Whereas a fiction like this is able to alight on certain key moments – the moment of Jaromil’s conception, the moment his mother begged his father to inseminate her once again so she could have a baby girl, but the father withdrew and curtly announced he wanted no more children.

These are talismanic moments, selected like the ones in a fairy tale because they are key to the overall fable, while all else is rejected.

We selected this episode out of dozens in order to show that the pinnacle of happiness Jaromil had experienced up to this point in his life was having a girl’s head on his shoulder. (p.110)

It comes as no surprise, when Jaromil and Maman arrive at the spa that they find it in a beautiful rural setting, so much so that it appears to young Jaromil to be ‘a fairy-tale world’ (p.29), in fact, once I’d noticed it, I realised that a succession of milieu through which Jaromil moves are described as magical or fairy tale.

  • Through the magic of poetry (which is the magic of inexperience)… (p.111)
  • A poem is a magical land where rivers change their course. (p.194)
  • ‘The magical thing about it is, ‘continued Jaromil… (p.196)
  • Tears signified to him a magic elixir… (p.257)
  • Through the magic of poetry all things become the truth… (p.271)
  • It seemed to him that the magic moment was returning, the magic evening when he had sat in her room and they had had eyes only for each other… (p.293)

His nursery. His infant school playground. The spa. The artist’s studio. All these settings are just so, just exactly the ones required to tell a story like this, of the psychological and spiritual evolution of a sensitive soul. Moments are selected like jewels, spangling against the grey cloth of the everyday, and presented for the reader’s delectation, along with authorial commentary.

Maman ends up having an affair with the artist – that’s to say he successfully seduces her, and then submits her to an interesting, amusing and erotic series of transformations. He doesn’t just paint or draw her, he paints on her, stripping her and decorating her body with modernist lines, and then taking photographs of her. Then making passionate love to her. Pages are taken up with Maman’s bewildered reflections on these events.

Meanwhile, Jaromil hits an early puberty and begins to fantasise about the body of the family’s maid, Magda. There is an extended, mildly comical account of one night at home, when his parents have gone out, and he knows Magda is taking her evening bath, and Kundera describes the more and more contorted pretexts Jaromil tries to contrive to enable him to walk breezily into the bathroom, see the maid’s naked body, and walk out again. But he fails to carry them through. He is too shy.

Xavier

Part two of the book, commencing on page 65, is titled Xavier and is deeply confusing. A young man bursts through a woman’s window and reassures her that he means no harm, but at that moment her husband lumbers upstairs towards the bedroom, so the young man hides under the bed, the big husband carries the woman to the bed, the young man sneezes, the big husband hears and goes to the wardrobe to see if a man is hiding there, the young man bursts out from under the bed and pushes the husband into the wardrobe and locks it, and grabs the young woman and takes her on an adventure, he wakes up in another room and…

And so, slowly and confusedly, we realise the entire section is made up of the never-ending adventure of this character, Xavier, who goes from one half-fulfilled dream to another, repeating the same general contours of adventure and excitement and rescuing young damsels against an ever-changing backdrop.

It’s only well after the section has concluded, back in a section about Jaromil, that we discover the by-now teenage poet invented a character named Xavier and wrote down his poetic adventures. So what we have just read is a version of Jaromil’s journal. OK. It was bewildering and left-field when it first appeared…

Other lyric poets

When we return to Jaromil’s story it is to discover that his father is arrested and executed by the Nazis just before the end of the war. But the real innovation in this section, something which dogs the rest of the story is the appearance alongside Jaromil, of a shopping list of the greatest lyric poets from the entire European tradition.

The narrator makes explicit comparisons between Jaromil’s background, upbringing, family situation, early life experiences and shows how closely they mirror those of the great lyric poets such as the Czechs Frantisak Halas and Jiri Wolker, the Germans Rilke and Hölderlin, the Russians Esenin, Mayakovsky, Blok and Pushkin, the Englishman Shelley, the Frenchmen Baudelaire and de Nerval, but most of all  the French boy wonder poet, Rimbaud, and the short and easily offended Russian poet, Lermontov.

(It is Rimbaud who gives the book its title, a quote from one of the prose poems he wrote in a storm of creativity when he was just 17: La vrai vie est absente – the real life or just ‘real life’ is absent. I wonder why Kundera shortened this to ‘life’ is absent.)

These other lyric poets start out as comparators for Jaromil, but quite soon they start to take over the text. I mean that, after many sections describing this or that about Jaromil, a new section will set off describing ‘him’ and you have to have your wits about you to realise it’s now describing an event in the life of Rimbaud or Lermontov. More and more their names are scattered across the text as Kundera uses the events in  Jaromil’s fictional life to bring out the resemblances between the lyric poets – Baudelaire, aged 40 and still scared of his mother, de Nerval mesmerised by the mother who died when he was a boy, and so on…

Jaromil, we come to realise, is not-that-subtly being presented as a type, as a category of European thought. The Lyric Poet. And the essence of the Lyric Poet (in Kundera’s view) is that he is an immature mummy’s boy.

  • The lyric poet spends a lifetime searching for signs of manhood in his face. (p.97)
  • Tenderness is the fear of maturity. (p.112)

Jaromil wants to be a man, a real man. He wants to possess a woman, many women. He wants to write great poetry, he wants to be accepted by the other poets.

In the last third of the book Jaromil is a young man and is introduced to writers and poets through the artist, the one he had the lucky meeting with at the spa when he was a boy, the one he went to for art lessons, the one who seduced, stripped, painted and photographed his mother (in what are, arguably, the book’s most memorable scenes).

The poets meet upstairs in a pub, argue and get drunk a lot. The format of their arguments is uncannily like the format of the rhetorical questions the narrator asks all through the text: is Surrealism a revolutionary movement? Can poetry help build the new socialist society? And so on.

On the periphery of the poets he meets a sweet and soulful young woman. But she is as innocent and virginal as Jaromil and many pages are spent describing their painful and embarrassing fumbles. These are counterpointed with his now-adult encounters with the artist, and his bohemian coterie, who Jaromil shocks with the vehemence of his revolutionary nihilism, and with the arguments of the established, published poets, who grumble on during the era of the 1948 Communist coup and beyond, endlessly nagging at what kind of poetry is revolutionary, whether it’s kitsch rhymes for the masses, or the hyper-modern Russian avant-garde style poetry which rejects all the old bourgeois forms.


Kundera the narrator

A highly intrusive narrator

Kundera’s narrator doesn’t just intrude a bit on the story: he selects, presents and displays events for our delectation. He whips the text up out of nothing. He is an impresario of the text.

The most obvious symptom of this is his use of rhetorical questions to set up each new section or scene, a tactic which is present from the very first sentence of the book.

Exactly when and where was the poet conceived? (First sentence, page one)

and litters the text thereafter:

  • And what about her son’s soul?
  • But why did Jaromil continue to be an only child? (p.24)
  • And how did Jaromil fare with his unique inner world? (p.33)
  • Was she thus telling him the real truth at last? (p.54)
  • For Jaromil it [the concept of death] was infinitely far away; it was abstract; it was not reality, but a dream. What was he seeking in that dream? (p.104)
  • What was the source of her sorrows? Who knows… (p.143)
  • If Jaromil had become a zealous functionary, whose work affected the fate of adults, can we still maintain that he was on the run? (p.163)

All these rhetorical questions are a bit reminiscent of a certain type of academic presentation, of a lecture, reminding us that Kundera was indeed a professor of literature for many years (1952-75). They cut to the chase. They eliminate the need for hundreds of sentences setting up a location and a time of day, and a place wherein a great spiritual turning point is going to happen. No, Kundera can simply ask, ‘And how did Jaromil fare with his unique inner world?’ and then get on with answering his own question.

Not having to paint in any kind of background or set any scenes liberates Kundera to get right to the psychological point he wants to make about his characters. It makes the text very cost-effective.

The royal ‘we’

Related to this is the way Kundera he freely uses the royal ‘we’, the authorial ‘we’, to establish his own narratorial omniscience, and to forge a knowing acquaintance with the reader, the ‘we’ coercing us to acknowledge shared assumptions and experiences. The rhetorical questions are often answered by the authorial ‘we’. Why was Jaromil unpopular at school?

  • We are almost embarrassed to say: it was not wealth, it was mother love (p.20)
  • We don’t know why she laughed. [the young woman Jaromil was feebly trying to make love to] (p.133)
  • If we were to ask Jaromil how old the two characters were [in a long poem he’s just written] he’d stammer in embarrassment… (p.138)

And

  • Other [pictures] of certain scenes which we had better pass over. (p.36)
  • We don’t wish to imply that Jaromil was not interested in bodily beauty. (p.110)

Which is related to the use of the phrase ‘let us’, in the sense of ‘let us explore this moment  / word / event a little further’, which also brings out a strong scholarly, academic tone of the narrator.

  • He was one of the elect. Let us examine this word a little closer. (p.99)
  • Ah, let us mercifully skip over some fifteen or twenty minutes of Jaromil’s torment. [he is trying to undress a young woman who is refusing to help] (p.132)
  • Let’s keep Jaromil’s picture before us a while longer. (p.219)
  • Let us also recall the historical context… (p.230)
  • Let us leave our novel for a little while, let us carry our observatory to the end of Jaromil’s life… (p.271)

This ‘we’ is not embarrassed about picking up the narrative, fiddling with it, and plonking it back down right where he wants it.

  • At the end of the last section we left Jaromil in the redhead’s bed. (p.186)
  • Do you hear the distant sound of Death, impatiently stamping its feet? Let it wait, we are still here in the flat, in another novel, in another story… (p.286)

Analysis and italics

Kundera is the kind of author – or thinker about his stories and characters – who is continually analysing their every thought and gesture and turn of mind and habits. One tell-tale sign of this is his use of italics. He is keen not just to explain what they’re thinking or doing, but to delve ever deeper, to really dig down into their psychological sub-strata. In doing so he is keen to clarify the ideas and motivations of the characters he has invented and displayed for our entertainment. And to do this he often finds himself writing like an expository writer, rather like the new theory French writers of the 1960s, who felt compelled to show where they’d revealed a new depth of analysis, by writing it in italics.


The plot part two – History intrudes

I enjoyed the second half of the book more because it moves away from the cloyingly claustrophobic relationship between mother and son which dominates the first half, and focuses increasingly on politics and the tragic political, social and personal consequences of the Communist takeover of power.

Kundera has by now established that all the great mummy’s boy lyric poets were enraptured by the idea of Death and ran off to be soldiers with no idea of the reality – from Shelley travelling to Dublin with pockets stuffed with incendiary pamphlets designed to spark an insurrection (p.175), to Lermontov, a sickly misfit who insisted on joining the Russian army and died in a pointless duel, from Rimbaud who fantasised about manning the barricades during the Paris Commune of 1870 (but was too young) and who instead terminated his precocious poetic career by going off to become a gun-runner in Africa, to Byron who fantasised about joining the great Pan-Hellenic Fight For Freedom, but ended up dying of a mosquito bite in Missolonghi. They were sickly and died pathetically young, like John Keats coughing his lungs up in Rome.

All mother’s boys, all struggling to escape the apron strings, and above all, to prove themselves real men. Kundera throws in withering comparisons with the students of his day – 1948 in Prague – and at the time he was writing the novel – 1968 in Paris – who wrote lyrical slogans all over the walls, calling for a new world, revolution and overthrow.

Slowly we realise what form this wish – the primal wish of the lyric poet to hurl himself into a Cause, to run towards battle and engage with the real world and wrestle with death and stop being a mummy’s boy and become a Real Man – will take for Jaromil.

In the context of the Communist takeover of power in Czechoslovakia, it means he wilfully becomes hard-hearted, he joins the young zealots, he publicly derides the art and poetry of his mentor, the old artist. He derides his own earlier poetry. He quotes the Soviet poet Mayakvsky, who said he stamped on the throat of his own, earlier, bourgeois poetry. Jaromil writes Stalinist poems for workers.

And now Kundera skillfully uses the interplay he’s created between his fictional poet and the real-life poets and the events of 20 years later – 1968 – to begin to scathingly criticise the unthinking, stone-faced, hard-hearted zealotry of the young. For:

Revolutions are lyrical and in need of lyricism. (p.193)

Counter-intuitively, and to the reader’s great surprise, it turns out that the entire book is going to be a condemnation of lyric poetry and of the role it plays in revolutions; is devoted to showing the linkage between the immature absolutism at the heart of revolutions and of youthful lyricism. The way both are totalising, both want to overthrow the complex messy real world, and create a new one of compulsory beauty and harmony and order.

Kundera dissects the psychology behind the lyric impulse: Unable to confront the complexity of adult life, the lyric poets create an alternative world, beautiful and perfect and utterly unreal.

This is the basic situation of immaturity. The lyrical approach is one way of dealing with this situation: the person banished from the safe enclosure of childhood longs to go out into the world, but because he is afraid of it he constructs an artificial, substitute world of verse… He becomes the centre of a small universe in which nothing is alien, in which he feels as much at home as an infant inside its mother… (p.219)

The rousing slogans Jaromil finds himself called upon to create for revolutionary youths marching in the streets of Prague in 1948, are identical to the ones the zealous French students of 1968 will paint all over the walls of the Sorbonne (p.172) calling for the complete overthrow of the existing order and the installation of something which is only a dream and a fantasy, slogans like:

  • Beneath the pavement, the beach!
  • Be realistic – demand the impossible!

In everything I’ve read about the Paris évènements (simply the French word for ‘events’) of 1968, in every documentary, every film, and every art exhibition I’ve seen which references them — the presenters, producers and curators are one hundred per cent behind the students and nostalgic that they themselves weren’t there during this heady lyrical revolutionary time!

It is a bracing surprise and antidote to come across a noted and world famous liberal’ author – who is wholeheartedly against the students and their high-minded slogans, and has gone to such trouble to create such an extended and scathing indictment of the youthful, revolutionary, lyric impulse as an entity.

In amidst the confusion of the 1948 coup and its aftermath, Jaromil has dumped the frigid girlfriend, but then wasted a huge amount of time fixating on a pretty blonde shop assistant from a department store. He tails her everywhere like a useless puppy, and, back in his bedroom, masturbates continually as he imagines finally losing his virginity to her. One evening he is waiting at the department store when her not-so-pretty red-headed friend exits and, before he can bolt, she walks right up to him. She claims to know that he has a crush on her. She’s noticed him looking at her in the shop. She’s noticed him hanging round the shop every evening. On one notable occasion Jaromil had followed the blonde home to her apartment and hung around in the street hoping to catch a glimpse of her – only to see the red-head at the window. And she saw him!

Of course she has utterly misinterpreted the situation when she thinks Jaromil carries a torch for her, but Jaromil is too terrified to put her right.

They walk and before he knows it are kissing, she invites him up to her place and he is about to go through the usual existential agonies when she simply puts her hands between his legs and touches his penis. Which is rock hard. The rest follows like clockwork. Afterwards, as they lie in bed, she asks how many women he’s had and our lyric poet smirks and remains mysteriously silent. The reader laughs because we know the answer is ‘None’ and that he has just lost his virginity.

But, as is always the way with Kundera characters, with Kundera men, as soon as Jaromil has acquired a basic fluency at sex (and above all mastered the technique of undressing a woman, something which has caused him agonies of embarrassment throughout his adolescence) he becomes dissatisfied with the redhead. She natters on all the time. Especially about her family.

The janitor’s son

At school Jaromil had been picked on as a weakling and had formed only one friendship, with the janitor’s son. Now, years later, the janitor has risen to become a senior policeman. He makes a friendly call on Jaromil’s mum, leaves an invitation. So Jaromil goes round to the big building of National Security, signs in his name, and is met by the janitor’s son. (I don’t think we ever learn his name. He is always referred to simply as the janitor’s son, presumably to keep ever-present in our minds the way he, too, is taking revenge for having been an outsider and bullied at school.)

They settle into his office and the man swanks about his heavy responsibilities and the challenge the police face in these difficult times, rounding up enemies of the revolution.

Kundera emphasises that Jaromil, living in a lifelong bubble of mummy’s love, is blissfully unaware that tens of thousands of his fellow Czechs have been arrested, many of them tortured, some of them executed, all on trumped-up charges. All Jaromil sees is the janitor’s son’s manliness. He is a real man. He has manly responsibilities. He has a gun strapped to his belt. This is the real life Jaromil’s been seeking all his years. The Real Life that Shelley and Rimbaud and Lermontov were ever-seeking. A life of Action and Responsibility.

And thrown into the mix, is the long long long, very long list of humiliations public and private which Jaromil has lived through and the book has described, from being bullied at school, to not knowing how to take a girl’s bra off, from being ridiculed in assemblies of mature poets and authors, to being mocked by editors and publishers for being one more among thousands of aspiring poets, and – in a tragi-comic scene towards the end of the novel – being forced to turn down the offer of sleeping with a beautiful woman film-maker because he is crushingly conscious that he is wearing the big grey flannel pants which his mother still lays out for him every morning, as if he were still a schoolboy!

The zealot, Kundera suggests, is overflowing with a thirst for revenge. But not the wide-minded, imaginative revenge which helps to usher in a New World. Just revenge. Just punishment. Just the ability to threaten, intimidate, bully, arrest and, if necessary, torture all those who mocked and persecuted him when he was a boy.

The revolution hands over the running of society to small-minded bullies.

The betrayal

Jaromil is invited to an evening of poetry at a police academy in the countryside arranged by his friend the janitor’s son. Improbably, he is a fan of Jaromil’s Stalinist poetry. A dozen poets attend and Jaromil finds himself drawn into the intense question and answer session which follows the recitals. At the front of the audience is a stunningly gorgeous woman who keeps looking at him. The last stretch of the novel is characterised by Jaromil’s hapless attempts to sleep with her. On the occasion referred to above she invites him up to her apartment but at the last minute he is embarrassed at the thought of his big grey pants. Then he is invited to take part in a film, where he is taken to some country location and asked to recite his poems amid bucolic scenery. But Jaromil is so terrified of her and of the whole situation that he forgets the words to his own poems and, while the whole crew mocks him, is eventually ordered just to stand dumbly opening and closing his mouth while the director assures him they’ll dub the poems on later. Humiliation.

It is in this mood of maximum frustration and humiliation that the tragedy occurs. The redhead is late for their next meeting and Jaromil flies into a fury. She at first says she had to stay late to comfort a colleague who’s having trouble in love. Jaromil is even more angry that some shopgirl comes before his feelings, so the redhead quickly retraces her steps and says she is in fact late because she was saying a final goodbye to her brother (the one she once shared a room with, to Jaromil’s intense immature jealousy, and who she’s always wittering about).

Now she tells him that her brother is planning to flee the country illegally the next day. This triggers a tremendous argument in which Jaromil says how can she be such a traitor – she should have told him the truth straightaway – she doesn’t really love him if she’s prepared to lie to him. He reduces the woman to tears, which (obnoxiously) he finds magical and soothing.

By this stage, I think we are safe in concluding that Jaromil is a thorough-going sneak and bastard.

Next day he dresses smartly and goes to see his friend the janitor’s son at the building of National Security, looking across the table at him ‘as one tough-minded adult faces another; equal to equal; man to man.’ And he calmly betrays his girlfriend and her brother to the security police. The janitor’s son calls in other officials. They take down the girlfriend and her brother’s names and details. Jaromil feels like he is in the real world now, this is Real Life. Jaromil leaves the building feeling Big and Full of Destiny.

He goes home and tries to write a poem but then gets restless and takes a tram to the redhead’s apartment and is surprised to see two men waiting outside it. He hides. When she turns up around 6pm, from work, the two men approach her, they talk for a moment, then they take her to a waiting car and drive off. He goes home troubled. Next morning he goes to see the janitor’s son who thanks him profusely for his prompt and patriotic action, and sends him off with a pat on the back. For the last few pages of this section Kundera shows us the inner workings as the despicable Jaromil decides that the sacrifice of one skinny freckled red-haired girl is well worth it in order to create a better future, a perfect future, in which politics and love will be identical and everyone will do the right thing.

The red-headed girl

The penultimate section up sticks and shifts perspective to years later, telling what happened next.

The redheaded girl was locked up in prison for three years. In this short epilogue, upon release from prison she goes to the train station to take a train to her home town but then hesitates… and decides instead to go to the apartment of… her older lover. He is forty. They met when she was seventeen, erotically talented and eager to please an older man. Not only herself, but she organised some straight and some lesbian orgies for his pleasure. Then she met and fell in love with a young poet, obviously Jaromil, though he goes unnamed.

The older man was happy; he didn’t want any of his mistresses becoming too dependent on him. He guided her through their courtship, gave her advice, and kept the poems Jaromil wrote her, though he despised them.

Then one evening she came to tell him she was leaving him, that she really loved the young poet and was going to dedicate her life to his. She was late leaving and late arriving for her date with the poet. He was cross. She made up an excuse about a colleague at work and when that didn’t wash, invented a story about her older brother preparing to flee the country. She had no inkling that the poet would report her and her brother to the police, or that she’d be arrested, or sentenced to prison.

Now the older man tells her that the poet died soon afterwards. He just got ill and died, nothing dramatic or lyrical. His mother moved away. Nobody remembers him anymore.

The redhead turns away: even her plans to cold shoulder and ignore the poet have come to nothing. It was all a meaningless nightmare. For nothing.

And suddenly the older man realises why she hesitated at the train station about whether to go straight home, and then… and decided to come and see him first. Her brother, totally innocent, was also arrested. She thinks he is still in prison somewhere. So that when she finally faces her family, how will they believe that it was not her who betrayed him and destroyed their family, but some unknown young man who isn’t even alive any more?

Overcome with pity, the man stretches out her hand to touch her cheek… and she bursts into tears.

For me, these last fifteen or so pages were better than all the rest of the novel put together. Jaromil is a vile creature and creates a slow-building sense of contempt and anger. And somehow, intertwined with this, is all the tricksiness of Kundera’s narratorial devices and conceits, the transposition of eras and the merging of Jaromil’s story with episodes from all the other lyric poets of the European tradition. Very clever.

Whereas this short section feels like a straightforward account of a terrible event. Most of Kundera’s stories are cerebral, detached, witty and paradoxical. They prompt admiration. But this tragic epilogue, like the coalmining scenes in The Joke, convey you to a genuine time and place in history where life was terrible, and so have real emotional depth.

The final end

In the short final passage we learn how Jaromil died. He was not yet 20. He is invited to a party at the film director’s. It is full of literati and artists. One of them, a big bluff fellow, confronts Jaromil and asks him if he knows what’s happened to the old artist, the one we saw spot Jaromil’s talent at the spa and then paint his mother? He was declared a a bourgeois enemy of the people, deprived of his studio and paints, and forced to work on a building site. Unlike Jaromil, who has become a Stalinist lickspittle. Jaromil takes a feeble mummy’s boy swipe at the big man, who grabs his arm, turns him round, picks him up by the collar and seat of his pants, and throws him out into the freezing cold (it is a Christmas party).

Absolutely humiliated, and without his coat or jacket, Jaromil can’t leave and travel across town, but he is too frightened to go back into the party, not for hours, not until the last guest has left. By that stage he is shivering uncontrollably. He tiptoes in, collects his jacket and coat and staggers home where he takes to his bed, hallucinates a bit, looked after and tended, as always, by his loyal dutiful Maman. And dies.

Concluding thought

What actually remains of that distant time? Today, people regard those days as an era of political trials, persecutions, forbidden books, and legalised murder. But we who remember must bear witness: it was not only an epoch of terror, but also an epoch of lyricism, ruled hand in hand by the hangman and the poet. (p.270)

This is a complicated thesis, and the book presents a complex case: it seems to be arguing that youth, and the vigour and idealism of youth, and its partner – wonderful, boundless, inspiring passionate lyrical poetry – are all intimately tied in with the crushing annihilating force of the police state which is always unleashed by revolutions: in France, in Russia, in Iran, in the Arab Springs – the intoxicating, life-affirming springtime of peoples is always followed by mass imprisonment and the zealous repression of anything and anyone who doesn’t conform to the revolutionaries’ impossibly other-worldly and lyrical ideas.

Thus this long densely argued book conveys a bleak lesson, but one which Kundera himself lived through, so his testimony carries weight.

Enough weight to overthrow the prejudices and conventions most of us have accepted most of our lives, that lyric poetry is inspiring and uplifting?

Maybe not to overthrow it… but certainly to trouble it.


Related links

Milan Kundera’s books

1967 The Joke
1969 Life Is Elsewhere
1969 Laughable Loves (short stories)

1972 The Farewell Party
1978 The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

1984 The Unbearable Lightness of Being
1986 The Art of the Novel (essays)

1990 Immortality
1995 Slowness
1998 Identity

2000 Ignorance
2014 The Festival of Insignificance

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