Sunday, April 26, 2009

Ballard: another last modernist

Rhys Tranter has posted several blogs in response to the death of JG Ballard. So far I have managed to avoid comment. However, the latest links to Chris Petit's appreciation The Last Modernist and now I have something to say.

What is it with this title? In 1996, Anthony Cronin published The Last Modernist, a biography of Beckett and, three years ago, James Wood wrote an article about Henry Green entitled The last English Modernist (to which I responded at the time). We can assume it's a muted overstatement to assert the importance of a writer even when writing - certainly in these three cases - means the erasure of the author as a distinct personality. Here though, in its blithely confident use, it reveals the anxiety with which British literary culture regards modernism (the case, by the way, is lower to maintain the present tense).

In the two tributes, the word is used in its most general sense: a modernist is a writer concerned with the modern world. Ballard was certainly that. What's more, he insisted that he was "not a literary man" - that is, uninterested in writing in itself. His concern instead was for precise representation of his subject: "He transcribed the images that unspooled in his head with an intense reverence and literalness, with no hint of po-mo irony, the last modernist." Petit places the focus on Ballard observation of "a world teetering on the brink of crash and catastrophe" and the epidemic of psychosis it provokes. This is reiterated in his tribute by Martin Amis:
[Ballard] kept asking: what effect does the modern setting have on our psyches - the motion sculpture of the highways, the airport architecture, the culture of the shopping mall, pornography and technology? The answer to that question is a perversity that takes various mental forms, all of them extreme.
This is certainly the climate of modernism and it cannot be denied that, in their novels, both Ballard and Amis raise a terrible caricature that might be called modern life and might thereby be called modernistic. Yet why isn't writing also subject to modernity as much as "our psyches"? In both appreciations, the writers demonstrate their own distance from the caricature. They are able to remove themselves from modernity in order to explain why its fictional presentation is worth celebrating. What does this tell us about the reach of modernity?

Amis refers to his father's friendship with the writer "did not survive Ballard's increasing interest in experimentalism" but the only forms mentioned are the perversely mental. Perhaps it was that Ballard's novels display "very little interest in human beings in the conventional sense" and are "remorselessly visual", both necessary symptoms of modernity. I suspect these are individual features of the author's style rather than experiment, although the unrelenting boredom of The Unlimited Dream Company might be an exception. So, again, what about the distance of the author; the remove from what is taking its course in the novel? Since his death we've read how Ballard himself was a very conservative character, in contrast to his imagination. This is told with a mixture of amusement and unreflective perplexity. Yet the refusal to investigate that separation is - for me at least - what finally limits such fiction; not interesting as fiction. Ballard's is a form in which the author and his means are not subject to the threat of chaos and castastrophe, always able to maintain a knowing distance. People in novels are never writers, just as characters in soaps never watch soaps. In this way, fiction can be more easily assimilated by the culture of journalism and presented as attention to the world while remaining a comforting escape.

We might compare all this to a classic modernist work, Kafka's The Judgment. The final action - in which Georg Bendemann leaps from a bridge into a river - returns the story to its origins or, rather, its pre-origins; its non-existence. Judgment has been made on the imagination that has produced the story and thereby betrayed the lie of its efforts to enter the world; the story is condemned to a release that is also a sentence of death. It is sentence that is, for the writer and reader, both swift and endless. "Last" is thereby also a misconstrual and misrepresentation of literary modernism; hence perhaps its popular repetition.

1 comment:

  1. JG Ballard was interviewed a short while before his death by Hari Kunzru. You can read the interview at



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