Monday, March 22, 2010

Reading Group: The Kindness of Women by JG Ballard

This book is billed as the sequel to JG Ballard's 'semi-autobiographical' novel Empire of the Sun which was based on his experiences as a boy in a civilian prison camp near Shanghai in the second world war. The events of this book follow the details of its biographical note: boyhood imprisonment, return to England in 1946, two years at Cambridge reading medicine, work as a copywriter and a stint in Canada with the RAF, before employment as an assistant editor of a scientific journal and a writing career. It is also well known that the wife of the real-life Jim Ballard died young and that famously, through the sixties and seventies, he then brought up his three children alone in the suburb of Shepperton while pursuing his writing career, just as happens to the Jim of the novel. Thus this novel too is self-avowedly autobiographical, but as with all autobiographical fiction, precisely how autobiographical is unclear, and much of our discussion kept stumbling up against this issue.

The book follows Jim's struggle with the lifelong psychic damage which the war perpetrated on him as a child in Shanghai and on our collective consciousness.

Introducing the book, Trevor said that he had expected to like the book more than he discovered he did. He thought there was a lot about it to admire, but had found it rather repetitive - not just in the way that the first section covers the same ground as Empire of the Sun, but that having read several Ballard books he was now realizing that there were repetitions across the books as a whole (indeed, a later section in this novel covers the same ground as Crash, which we discussed previously). In addition, he found the prose repetitive: Ballard keeps repeating phrases throughout. He noted that narrator Jim just has to have sex in the end with every woman who comes into his life - even if for most of their relationship the fact that sex is off the agenda has been the essence of it, as with his Shangai au pair Olga and Peggy, his sister/mother substitute in the camp. While Trevor is famous in our group for liking sex in books, he said that on this occasion it made him 'squeamish' - most particularly the fact that Jim has sex with his wife's sister the moment he gets back to England after her death abroad. To his great surprise, Trevor had come away from this book feeling that Jim/JG Ballard wasn't a very pleasant person.

I laughed and said yes, it was as though all the women in the book are there on earth just to make Jim better through sex. Others laughed too, and Jo said with grim irony and some force that she found it totally ridiculous that he and his wife had sex in the moments after she had given birth - he wishes, she said: total male fantasy! It was generally agreed at this moment that the amount and tenor of the sex in the book was basically male fantasy. But then someone (it may have been me) said, Well, some men do behave like that, or did in those days, the sixties, when there was an ideology that sex was the answer to everything, and women did go along with it. It did seem conceivable to me as a pattern of behaviour at that time, whatever you may think of it, and anyway wasn't it a very autobiographical novel?

Ann then said that she had got very interested in this question of the book's autobiographical nature, and she had looked up some of the details, and found that in reality Ballard's wife died of pneumonia, and not as the result of a fall, as happens in the book - a fact which I now remembered I had previously known. Later, too, someone pointed out that the prison camp details differ between the two books: in Empire of the Sun narrator Jim is imprisoned with his parents - which seems to be the implication of the biographical note here - whereas in this book he and his parents are separated, in different camps. Also, someone said, his fellow prisoner Peggy Gardner, a key figure in the camp episode of this book, doesn't even appear in Empire of the Sun, and Ann suggested that she was possibly a fictional construct, taking the place of the parents. The conclusion, therefore, is that the book is not all that autobiographical.

Trevor, getting back to his introduction, said that he felt that this blend of autobiography and fiction was very good - one of the good things about the book - because by making the book fiction Ballard was able to include episodes which otherwise you would be likely to find unbelievable, for instance those which chime with the novel Crash, where Jim's old friend David Hunter plays erotic games of dicing with death in cars. I didn't quite understand what Trevor was saying here about the nature of autobiography and fiction and how we read them, but in any case, Jo cried: But there is so much in the book that isn't believable - that thing about the sex just after the birth, for instance! But Jenny, who had been quite quiet up to now, said that some people do do that.

Ann got back to the question of Jim's character and said that the way she had taken Jim was, above all, as damaged. Most of us agreed, and Clare, who is a counsellor, seemed most insistent on understanding rather than condemning him. I said that one thing I still found unacceptable (however understandable) about Jim, however, was the fact that he seemed completely to discount the possibility of his children's grief at the death of their mother and their own lasting damage: in his eyes these small children - the girls, at any rate - got over it very quickly, they were 'sensible' (unlike him), and, even on the journey home from the funeral, had, like all the women in his life, set about the task of looking after him and healing him in some way. Later he states that his children brought him up rather than the other way round. This, I have to say - male abdication of the adult and caring roles to women and girl children, and colonisation of the role of central player/victim - is a classic sexist position, and while I understand it in the light of the social ethos of the time, I still consider it an abdication of the responsibility of parenthood. Clare commented significantly that I clearly felt very strongly about this (which I do in principle) and I think that from this point on I was cast in the discussion as over-emotional in my response to the book (although in fact, as I kept saying, the book failed to provoke strong emotions in me) and as Jim's biggest detractor, which I think rather weakened anything else I tried to say. I mentioned the scene in which Jim, unseen by his children, comes upon them trying on their dead mother's wedding clothes which they have found secreted away, and which they then secrete away neatly again afterwards. Just as Jim concludes that a lover who nearly drowns but is saved by him does so to allow him to exorcise the fact that he couldn't save his wife, his conclusion here is that by being able to try on the wedding clothes and then put them away and out of their minds, his children have demonstrated that they have got over their grief. The possibility that their action is both a trying-out of their unacknowledged grief and a subsequent reinforcement of its repression does not occur to him. Jenny pooh-poohed this last, and concurred with Jim's interpretation. Clare said that she had read an account by one of Ballard's daughters of being brought up by him in Shepperton, and that it had been a representation of a very happy childhood, unclouded by grief.

Jenny then said that she felt quite differently about Jim/Ballard from the rest of us: she had found him a really pleasant and attractive character, and if she had known him in life she was sure she would have been attracted to him.

I said that my main thoughts about the book were the same as I'd had about Crash. I was enthralled by Ballard's themes: the idea that our reality is now filtered and displaced by film etc and confused with dream, our erotic relationship with machines and our resulting loss of affect. I felt he was onto great truths there about our contemporary world. But I wasn't convinced by the way he tackled it, ie by the writing. As in Crash, there is a lot of lush and vivid writing which I do really admire: Ballard can conjure up vivid pictures and the atmosphere of place in a way that few writers can achieve, but there is also something sadly lacking for me. I never feel that his books take me, on any emotional level, through the psychological journeys of his protagonists that will prove his ideas - and this is surely the main function of fiction. In fact, when it comes to the psychological journeys of his protagonists, Ballard tends to make the amateur writer's mistake of telling not showing - which is why I was able to be detached emotionally and consider a different interpretation of the wedding-dress scene from Jim's. Jim tells you outright, for instance, that he is erotically wedded to the bombers he flies, he constantly tells us that we are living as if on a film set - and the constant telling results in the repetitiveness Trevor noted - but we are never made to share in any deeply emotional way that feeling of erotic marriage or of displacement, and I was often left with the sense of things having been glossed over and of being cheated of the emotional substance. At this point John, Doug and Mark put in that they had found the book most unengaging, boring even, and John said that although he had read it only a few weeks ago he couldn't remember much about it, which was why he wasn't taking part in the conversation.

In other words, I said, as I found with Crash, the prose colludes with the lack of affect about which Ballard is writing and thus is in no position to anatomize it. I thought a good example was the early section where seven-year-old Jim is caught up in the first bomb released on Shanghai. The description of the aftermath - the bodies and detached limbs lying around - is so matter-of-fact and indeed perfunctory as to be almost overlooked in the reading, and I almost decided at this point not to go on reading as the book seemed so unengaging. Later of course I realized - one could hardly miss it with Jim's explicit assertions - that what was supposed to be being conveyed here was Jim's own emotional disengagement through shock, which would reverberate through the rest of his life. However, there was nothing in the writing of the scene - no image, no diction or sentence construction - that prefigured those devastating psychological reverberations, and to my mind there was chiefly a sense of the author's (continuing) lack of emotional engagement with the scene. Needless to say I was less articulate than I can be here in retrospect, and I think I failed to make people understand what I was saying. Clare and Jenny simply objected that that lack of engagement was what seven-year-old Jim would be feeling at the time, and after I tried to explain again Clare said that surely the later scene where thirteen-year-old Jim has to watch a Chinese man being murdered by Japanese soldiers without showing any emotion is full of the right sort of tension (and I agreed: it was better handled).

Someone referred to the section in which Jim attends medical school and dissects a body which happens to be that of a female doctor (the first, as he implies at the outset, of a long line of helpful women with the role of healing him) (and several of us agreed that we had found this bit vivid and fascinating). This process, he tells us, helps him to come psychologically to terms with the dead bodies he had seen in Shanghai. I said we have to take that last on trust, though: I never really understood on an emotional level how that healing happened (the woman's body may be anatomized, but this process inside Jim's head and emotions isn't). Jenny objected: but she doesn't heal him, because he goes on being damaged, and needs to run off to the RAF and yearns to be a bomber etc. I said Well, the narrator explicitly states that she does:
...the woman doctor on her glass table had identified herself with all the victims of the war in China, and with the young Chinese clerk I had seen murdered against the telegraph pole. By dissecting her, exploring her body from within, I felt that I was drawing closer to some warped truth ... it was that dead young woman doctor who had set me free.
This was precisely the problem I was trying to get at: the fact that the narrator states things but fails to demonstrate them on an emotional enough level to make us convinced (and indeed in this instance goes on to demonstrate the opposite). It's interesting to note that it's the dead woman who is made to be the active agent in parts of the piece quoted here: she did it to him, rather than he finding his own salvation through her (as indeed in the episode with the near-drowned lover) - a passivity on Jim's part which perhaps links to the lack of authority I find in the book as a whole.

I said that all of this was partly a function, too, of the autobiographical nature of the book. If it were purely fiction there would be a far greater onus on the author to convince emotionally, because we read autobiography and fiction differently. Jenny said, No you don't! Why do you? Mark said it was to do with the assumptions you bring to them. I said that the premise of autobiography is that what is being conveyed is factual truth, so there may seem less of a need to convince than in fiction. On the other hand, I went on,
with autobiography you are paradoxically free to consider taking it with a pinch of salt, simply because the issue of the factual truth of the contents has been raised. Doug said yes, when someone is writing an autobiography one usually assumes in fact that they are putting forward a manipulated image of themselves. What we were implying is that with fiction this fraught question of whether it really happened is beside the point (and one can focus on the deeper truths). Trevor clearly inferred this and was nodding vigorously, and seemed to feel that we were corroborating his earlier statement that Ballard's fictionalisation had solved the problem of believability. But the trouble with confessedly autobiographical fiction is that, since the issue of the factual nature of the contents is raised the issue of believability is not beside the point, yet because of the fiction element one is of course even less clear than in straight autobiography about how far to take any of the individual contents as facts. However, Jenny insisted that she didn't read autobiography and fiction in different ways.

I said - to Clare's surprise - that I didn't even think the prose was always good on a working sentence level. Too many paragraphs were hampered by amateurish repetitions of constructions and rhythms, as here:
Warning Henry to stay in the car, I ran into the water... Wading out, I jumped chest high..
Trevor said, well, he does that on purpose - with which I don't agree: it looks more like carelessness to me - but I said even if it is on purpose it doesn't work, it deadens the prose, and Trevor I think agreed. There is frequent amateurish (and coy) anthropomorphism as this in the same section:
The foam seethed at her feet, delighted to greet this beautiful and deranged young woman
There's a cliched and even bourgeois coyness in the depictions of Jim's social relations: Sally took to [Dick] instantly, and Dick could see that she was everything I needed. I said I had found the dialogue - especially between Jim and the women - clunky and twee, the latter stoking my sense of the book's psychological inauthenticity.

John said bluntly that the prose was just flat, and Doug agreed and said that as a result he had found the episodic nature of the book - which jumps across time - very disengaging, giving him a sense of things being glossed over and the whole being superficial.

In fact, the episodic nature of the book was one of the things I had liked about it - with its poignant sense of time passing while Jim remained damaged. Clare and I also found that we had had quite different senses of Ballard's depiction of suburban Shepperton. Clare, who had once lived there herself, felt that he had depicted it as grey and dull, just as she remembered it, whereas for me he had rendered it exotic. Someone pointed out to me that after Jim's LSD high, in which he sees the place as ultra-exotic, he sees its dull reality, and that's true, but that reality is an aberration to him, as for most of his life it is a 'paradise of the ordinary' and a place, as someone in the book says, 'where a city dreams'.

I also said that the one really moving moment for me was near the end of the book when Jim witnesses a passing stranger saving a young girl's life by giving her the kiss of life and then picks up his bag and walks on. What I found most moving was that Jim wants to call out and ask him who he his, but then realizes that, to all intents and purposes and through the man's actions, he knows who he is. Everyone agreed that this was moving (although John has since said to me that he found it significant that when all the women in the book make efforts to save Jim it's taken for granted and so isn't particularly moving, but when a man saves someone it's considered really something and is made moving!).

After all our criticisms, Mark asked: so why then is Ballard considered by many our greatest twentieth-century writer? I shrugged rhetorically, but I do think that perhaps there's a very good answer: that whatever his failings, Ballard was really onto something about the nature of our twentieth-century psyche, and, in the final analysis, the fact that his failings may be symptoms of that psyche just renders it all the more vivid.

* Edited in: I should have mentioned that when several people said they'd found the book boring, Jenny said that she had found it really engrossing: she really looked forward to picking it up again each time, which is an experience she rarely gets with books nowadays, and longs for.

Our archived discussions can be found here, and a list of all the books we have discussed here.


Elisabeth said...

Hi Elizabeth, I've come to your blog via Rachel Fenton's blog and via Jim Murdoch's wonderful review of your latest book.

I'm intrigued by your group's thoughts on the nature of autobiography.

It's late here in Australia and I don't have the energy to take it all in tonight, so I will be back to read it again.

It's wonderful to meet you here on your blog. I love the sound of your writing from Jim's review.

I've been studying the nexus between fiction and non-fiction for some time now and I appreciate that you and others here have put some thought into it.

Ballard is a good example of 'autobiographical fiction' at work. Thank you.

Elizabeth Baines said...

Good to meet you, Elisabeth, and very interesting indeed that you are working on autobiography/fiction.