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Miracles of Life: Shanghai to Shepperton: An Autobiography

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'Miracles of Life' opens and closes in Shanghai, the city where J.G. Ballard was born, and where he spent most of the Second World War interned with his family in a Japanese concentration camp.

278 pages, Hardcover

First published January 1, 2008

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About the author

J.G. Ballard

356 books3,449 followers
James Graham "J. G." Ballard (15 November 1930 – 19 April 2009) was an English novelist, short story writer, and essayist. Ballard came to be associated with the New Wave of science fiction early in his career with apocalyptic (or post-apocalyptic) novels such as The Drowned World (1962), The Burning World (1964), and The Crystal World (1966). In the late 1960s and early 1970s Ballard focused on an eclectic variety of short stories (or "condensed novels") such as The Atrocity Exhibition (1970), which drew closer comparison with the work of postmodernist writers such as William S. Burroughs. In 1973 the highly controversial novel Crash was published, a story about symphorophilia and car crash fetishism; the protagonist becomes sexually aroused by staging and participating in real car crashes. The story was later adapted into a film of the same name by Canadian director David Cronenberg.

While many of Ballard's stories are thematically and narratively unusual, he is perhaps best known for his relatively conventional war novel, Empire of the Sun (1984), a semi-autobiographical account of a young boy's experiences in Shanghai during the Second Sino-Japanese War as it came to be occupied by the Japanese Imperial Army. Described as "The best British novel about the Second World War" by The Guardian, the story was adapted into a 1987 film by Steven Spielberg.

The literary distinctiveness of Ballard's work has given rise to the adjective "Ballardian", defined by the Collins English Dictionary as "resembling or suggestive of the conditions described in J. G. Ballard's novels and stories, especially dystopian modernity, bleak man-made landscapes and the psychological effects of technological, social or environmental developments." The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography entry describes Ballard's work as being occupied with "eros, thanatos, mass media and emergent technologies".

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Profile Image for Cecily.
1,106 reviews3,879 followers
January 6, 2013
This is JG Ballard's autobiography, including a significant chunk that tells the true story on which "Empire of the Sun" is based.

The Chinese aspect was the main draw for me, but in fact his contact, experience and knowledge of Chinese people, food and culture was negligible. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the book and found some of his descriptions of pre-war Shanghai remarkably resonant with my experiences there in 1992 and 2008.


Ballard was born in Shanghai in 1930 and grew up in the International Settlement, i.e. amongst Europeans, albeit with Chinese staff. "My insulation from Chinese life was almost complete. I lived in Shanghai for fifteen years and never learned a word of Chinese" nor tasted any Chinese food till decades later in England. This sounds like a slight exaggeration, especially given the amount of time he spent at the Kendall-Ward's house (where the mother spoke fluent Chinese to the servants) and his own father's interest in Chinese history and culture.

Nevertheless, Ballard did cycle alone around the city alone, and his memories are vivid and reflected in his adult work, "a large part of my fiction has been an attempt to evoke it by means other than memory". Shanghai was a frantic city, lacking "everyday reality", and it and its people "live above all, on the street" so there was plenty to see. "In Shanghai the fantastic, which for most people lies inside their heads, lay all around me and I think now my main effort as a boy was to find the reality in all this make-believe." After WW2, England was "a world that was almost too real. As a writer, I've treated England as if it were a strange fiction".

Ballard was not just cut off from the Chinese; from the opening sentence, you assume a distant relationship with his mother, and their parenting was very hands off. "Children were an appendage to their parents, somewhere between the servants and an obedient Labrador, and they were never seen as a significant measure of a family's health or the centre of its life. My mother claimed not to have known of my dangerous cycle trips around Shanghai, but many of her friends recognised me and waved from their cars. Perhaps they too felt it was scarcely worth mentioning." It is no surprise that his own approach to parenting was very different.

As a writer, Ballard of course mentions aspects of his life that are reflected in his writing, but it is odd how few questions he asked his parents about them and their lives (e.g. why they went to China, and why they left for good in 1951) - even when he was writing Empire of the Sun.


As a young man, Ballard became interested in surrealism (and Freud and psychoanalysis), but his first taste was shortly before internment: "Seeing everything displaced and rearranged in haphazard ways gave me m y first taste of the surrealism of everyday life, though Shanghai was already surrealist enough."

"Linghua Camp may have been a prison of a kind, but it was a prison where I found freedom." (Amelie Nothomb's experience in a Peking diplomatic compound in the 1970s was similar: http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/...). The famous two and a half years in the internment camp were, unlike in Empire, spent with his parents, and he views that time as incredibly happy (less so for the heaving-drinking adult expats, who had to go cold turkey). For the first time in his life, he was with his parents most of the time - so different from the traditional 1950s professional families where people "hung their clothes in private wardrobes, along with their emotions, hopes and dreams". On the other hand, in some ways, his parents were now more passive in their parenting because "they had none of the usual levers to pull", they were "unable to warn, chide, praise or promise".


After such freedom, the end of the war was a shock. "Peace, I realised, was more threatening because the rules that sustained war, however evil, were suspended." Going to England to live with grandparents was "the lowest point in my life... several miles at least below the sea level of mental health", an all the more startling comment in the light of an event that occurs a few years later.

Post war England was depressing. "The English talked as if they had won the war, but acted as if they had lost it... hope itself was rationed... the indirect rationing of unavailability, and the far more dangerous rationing of any kind of belief in a better life."

Although colonial China was very hierarchical, the reality of the English class system came as a shock. "Middle class people in the late 1940s and 1950s saw the working classes as almost another species and fenced themselves off behind a complex system of social codes... Everything about English middle class life revolved around codes of behaviour that unconsciously cultivated second rateness and low expectations." But it wasn't deference that won the war.

Unsurprisingly, Ballard didn't really fit in; he was drawn to international friends, literature and films. Consequently, "I read far too much, far too early", including big names when he was still learning about life and writing. Nevertheless, he began to fit in a bit. "The camouflage always imitates the target", so he was mortified when his mother turned up at school in an American car, in the latest New York fashions.


He wanted to be a painter, but opted for medicine so he could become a psychiatrist, though he "knew that I already had my first patient - myself". Obviously, he became none of those things, and although he loved the modernity of the Cambridge labs, he hated the old-fashioned gentlemen's club atmosphere of college. "My two years of anatomy were amongst the most important of my life... because they taught me that though death was the end, the human imagination and the human spirit could triumph over our own dissolution" (and he had seen a lot of death in China). Furthermore, it may have been "an unconscious way of keeping Shanghai alive by other means".

He came to sci-fi relatively late (in his twenties), and was always more interested in a "what now?" approach than a "what if?", i.e. inner space, rather than outer space - coming back to his interest in Freud and surrealism. These interests were epitomised by his controversial book, "The Atrocity Exhibition"(http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/...), shortly after which, he did actually put on an atrocity exhibition of crashed cars (with no explanatory text). In many ways, it was a psychological experiment to see if there was a connection between crashes and sexuality, testing the ideas put forward in "The Atrocity Exhibition", which he then presented in a more conventional narrative structure in his novel, "Crash".


A pervading passion in the later sections is for his children. That means their adulthood was a mixed blessing: "Infancy and childhood seem to last for ever. Then adolescence arrives... and one is sharing the family home with likeable young adults who are more intelligent, better company and in many ways wiser than oneself."


Although Shanghai unconsciously seeped into many of his writings, it was 40 years after he left China before he deliberately wrote about it, and slightly longer before he revisited.

In 1991 he was struck by how a city built by Europeans now had no trace of Roman script, English signs or American cars, and attributed that to the facts that "the Chinese are uninterested in the past" (what about their reverence for their ancestors?) and that "there are only two words in the Chinese bible: make money".

I'm not sure I agree with him. I first visited China a year after him and even then it wasn't entirely true. When I went back in 2008, Roman script (Pinyin), signs, adverts and more are sadly ubiquitous.

Sadly, advertisers now sell un-Chineseness to eager Chinese consumers.
Profile Image for Bradley.
Author 5 books3,906 followers
April 25, 2019
This short, concise, brilliantly sharp commentary on Ballard's own life from childhood to the moments before his own death in his home is probably the most shocking and tear-jerking autobiographies I've ever read.

He doesn't embellish anything. He plainly tells us that his life as Jim in Empire of the Sun is true as far as it goes, made into a more fantastic story that is then later turned into the movie, but more than that, he briefly outlines the rest of his science-fiction career.

Not the what-if SF of his contemporaries, but the what-next.

I really appreciate the idea. I've read some of his novels and really enjoyed them. Very imaginative works. But, like the author himself, I'm surprised to have liked his closer-to-home work about his childhood in Shanghai during WWII best.

This is not to say I am going to stop here. I'm a big SF fan and I've just decided, after reading such a sharp history, that his writing should never be forgotten. I am going to read everything of his I can get my hands on.

It's important. He may be repeating the same themes in variations, but there is nothing about them that isn't NECESSARY. Rebirth, hope, dream-like calculation, intense connections between sexuality and violence, and, of course, WHAT COMES NEXT.

He was an author who should never be forgotten.
Profile Image for MJ Nicholls.
2,007 reviews4,002 followers
November 25, 2014
An amiable and moving autobio—light on insight into his enormous corpus, lyrical on his formative experiences and family. B.S. Johnson receives an unfortunate bashing: “Moving on the fringes of literary London for four decades, I have been constantly struck by how few of our literary writers are aware that their poor sales might be the result of their modest concern for their readers. B.S. Johnson, a thoroughly unpleasant figure who treated his sweet wife abominably, was forever telephoning and buttonholing me at literary parties, trying to enlist me in his campaign to persuade publishers to pay a higher royalty to their authors. At one point, when he was far gone in bitterness over his minuscule sales, he suggested we should demand a starting royalty to 50 per cent. Sadly, he was one of those writers who receive a glowing review in the Times Literary Supplement, believe every word of praise and imagine that it will ensure them a prosperous career, when in fact such a review is no more than the literary world’s equivalent of ‘Darling, you were wonderful...’” (p194)
Profile Image for Velvetink.
3,512 reviews222 followers
November 22, 2012
* added a bit more to my review;

Ballard was born the same year as my father and they couldn't be more different. My previous impressions of what Ballard was like have flown out the window with this memoir - I think I used to stick him in some kind of pop art/warhol category after reading Crash, and I couldn't have been more wrong...although on an artistic level Ballard's writing - particularly Crash and The Actrocity Exhibition go into groundbreaking realms of simulacra as Baudrillard likes to point out.

Miracles of Life was written after he was diagnosed with prostrate cancer & feels a little stiff and disjointed in places but he's forgiven that - anyone who can remember events back that long while being treated for cancer gets my vote. He reveals a whole other side..his growing up in Shanghai, the war years and interred in the Japanese camp, his university years and his later years as sole parent - very unusual in men of that generation. What I found most interesting was his attitude to the era was so unlike my parents..who could be compared to Ballard's grandparents in England with their Victorian sensibilities. In this short memoir I came to really like Ballard and it's a terrible shame that he's gone.

I forgot to mention that he talks a fair bit about where his imagery comes from and how he got the idea for Crash & many of this other short stories. He has always seen himself as a Science Fiction writer (of "Inner space") not future space which sets him leagues away from the likes of Star Trek etc. He also describes living through the 60's and while he was "there" he was more of a loner (partly due to being home with his children),- he didn't really go in for the 60's celeb hype and I admire that. Two of his most closest friends were Michael Moorcock whose books I cut my teenage teeth on, and the artist Eduardo Paolozzi who I had not heard of before and find most interesting & wish to peruse. Ballard recommends the writers Will Self, Martin Amis and Ian Sinclair as writers to watch in the future.

Sometimes you read about artists and writers you've admired for years for their works, and then something about them sets you on edge, something really rubs you the wrong way, you know you could never like them personally and the love affair is broken. Ballard however is a nice guy, the kind of guy you could go down the local pub with and have a few drinks with and chew the fat about everything and anything and still come home liking him.
Profile Image for Caroline.
498 reviews557 followers
May 20, 2015
This is the autobiography of JG Ballard – the man famous for writing the novel Empire of the Sun. For me the book split clearly into two parts, firstly his fascinating experiences in China and post war Britain, and secondly his life as an author and father in Britain in the 60s and beyond.

Unsurprisingly, he writes with genius about his childhood in Shanghai. Under his pen Shanghai in the 30s and 40s comes alive – as a vast, decadent colonial playground on the one hand, and a place of deep poverty for millions of Chinese on the other - the savage delineation between the haves and the have nots. Ballard, as the son of an English factory owner, was lucky to be one of the haves. His description of how his parents addressed their servants highlights the way the rich distanced the poor.

Life changed a bit when China was invaded by the Japanese in 1937, but this only really affected the Chinese. For the colonials it was life as usual. Then there was the beginning of the Second World War in 1939, but life still continued more or less as before. Then there was the attack on Pearl Harbour in 1941, and this time everything changed. The Japanese forces entered the International settlement in Shangai, and most of the colonial families were put into internment camps.

Ballard says that his experience of the Lunghua Camp was very different to his parents’ experience – in fact he enjoyed it. He was there between March 1943 and August 1945, between the ages of 12 and 14. What he wrote was very much at odds with my expectations, not least in that someone can experience happiness when hungry and unwell, but I think he really did get some good things out of his stay at Lunghua.

The first American air raids began in Summer 1944, and by August 1945 there was allied victory. At the end of 1945 Ballard and his mother and sister left Shanghai for England.

Ballard’s description of post-war Britain is every bit as fascinating as his earlier writing about Shanghai. I found it utterly gripping, if somewhat depressing

About half way through the book we leave Ballard’s experiences of China and Britain in the 40s and early 50s, and move on to the rest of his life, as an innovative science fiction writer and contented single father. I was far less interested in these sections, although they might well appeal to keen readers of Ballard’s books.

I would give the first half of the book 5 stars, the second a rather grudging 2. My advice? Go to your local library and order this book, then just read the first utterly fascinating half of it.

Profile Image for Steve Duffy.
Author 62 books51 followers
September 4, 2013
They say - and they may be right - that you should never meet your heroes. Be that as it may, I'm glad that my friend and I doorstepped J.G. Ballard at his Shepperton home back in the mid-1980s for an enjoyable and slightly surreal few minutes' chat. I'm even gladder that I didn't say anything too unforgivably gauche such as "Your books changed my life" (I didn't even bring any copies along for him to sign); if I managed to get across to him through my tongue-tiedness that they changed my perception of what modern fiction was about, then that was good, and true, enough.

This is a thoroughly enjoyable and illuminating account of Ballard's own remarkable life: from Shanghai to Shepperton and back by way of inner space. The author comes alive in the narrative: kindly, intelligent and likeable, possessed of a sense of humour all the more effective for being slightly unexpected. Fans will find fascinating resonances with Ballard's remarkable body of work; even non-fans ought to enjoy the clarity and candour of this compact, engagingly humane memoir.
Profile Image for Tosh.
Author 12 books610 followers
November 1, 2008
The first part of this memoir is very charming. Ballard was raised in Shanghai during the 2nd World War, and it's fascinating how he lived an extremely wealthy life among the poor Chinese. Then the Japanese invaded China - and life turned on him in a brash manner. Yet he has no regrets about his past - in fact it seems he enjoyed particular aspects of Japanese rule as a child. Ballard has the ability to see the lightness that is totally dark and back again. He carries that with him regarding his writings.

The novels are in a sense a critique of 'modern life,' but it is also a man who is not totally alarmed, but even slightly amused what's around him. His taste for old-fashioned Surrealism and the cinema had a huge affect on his art and how he sees the world.

The last part of the book is not as interesting as when he was a child in Shanghai. It was an unique playground for a child in unusual times. That unusualness is carried through out his writings. Ballard is at this time is very ill with cancer, but seems to be functioning - and overall a very happy man.
Profile Image for Robert.
816 reviews44 followers
August 5, 2019
An eminently readable autobiography from a man who's fiction can sometimes be enigmatic, sometimes deliberately intended to shock, showing numerous repeated themes and tropes. Where did those themes come from? Since the publication of Empire of the Sun it has been clear that the strongest and most overt of them relate to his childhood experiences of Shanghai during WWII. This book demonstrates that most of the others date back to the same period of his life - and most of the remainder to no later than when he left formal education behind.

Despite a frank description of the important events in his life, Ballard remains himself an enigma to me after reading this. I don't know or understand the character of the man a lot better than before I started. I usually find letters reveal character more readily than biography and it turns out this is no exception. Nevertheless, this is an interesting work for its childhood eyewitness account of 1930s Shanghai and wartime internment as well as the impressions of post-war Britain through the eyes of an ex-pat child going to the old country for the first time.
Profile Image for Kimmo Sinivuori.
92 reviews14 followers
December 30, 2015
There are three categories of autobiographies – very bad, bad and good. Very bad count for about 90 percent and the good for about 5 percent of all autobiographies. J.G. Ballard’s Miracles of Life: Shanghai to Shepperton” belongs to the latter category.

Ballard wrote this memoir on borrowed time and it was him being diagnosed with terminal cancer that prompted him to put his past on paper. This maybe well be the reason why the book is heavily concentrated on his parents and the Ballard family’s time in Shanghai before the Second World War and during internment in a Japanese PoW camp.

The tone of the book is sentimental. In an average autobiography sentimentality is usually combined with self aggrandisement and settling of scores resulting in an unbearable reading experience. This is not the case with Ballard as his memories of family, friends and colleagues is full of warmth while managing to bring out their human side warts and all.

Pre-war Shanghai comes to life in Ballard’s economic prose. The Shanghai of all day drinking, all night partying, of cholera and smallpox and of the misery of the dirt poor ordinary Chinese came to an end when the imperial Japanese began their cruel invasion and never returned until the new Millennium when Shanghai once again became the city of the hardest capitalism in the world.

The post invasion Shanghai where the good times came to a sudden end became the key factor for Ballard as a writer. ”Seeing everything displaced and rearranged in a haphazard way gave me my first taste of the surrealism of everyday life” led to Ballard’s belief that ”reality itself was a stage set that could be dismantled at any moment.”

The second third of the book is about Ballard’s return to England after the war, his formal education and the less formal education of becoming a writer. The England that Ballard enters is a depressing place where the English ”talked as if they had won the war but acted as if they had lost the war.” This heightened Ballard’s appreciation of the surreal and he was inspired by the surrealist painters. However, it was not easy to translate the visually surreal to a readable prose.

Settling in London from Cambridge, Ballard moves in the Chelsea set who ”lived in dilapidated flats but bought their clothes in Bond Street.” The defining moment for Ballard the artist was the 1956 "This Is Tomorrow" exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery which is today generally considered as the birthplace of Pop Art.

The last third of the book is dedicated to Ballard’s life as the father of three small children after the death of her beloved wife. Ballard is a loving father. How his heavy drinking was seen by his children is unfortunately something that Ballard cares not to explore. Nevertheless, it is remarkable how he raised his children as a single parent and still managed to write classics like ”The Atrocity Exhibition” or the "Crash"

In the last third we also get some nice, if a bit too light, sketches of some of his illustrious friends like Kingsley Amis of whom he is grateful to have known his kind and generous side before he became ”a professional curmudgeon” as well as Amis the son (Martin) for whom both Ballard and Amis the father had great respect for.

This would have been five star memoir if Ballard would have had strength to write more about the late sixties, seventies and the eighties and in particular about the literary/art life and his acquaintances in London. These we will have to leave to his biographer.
Profile Image for Jim Coughenour.
Author 3 books174 followers
March 6, 2013
Ballard's memoir, only recently published in the US, appeared in Britain in 2008 and (as of tonight) has 369 ratings and 44 reviews – so mine is only flotsam on the flood. Just as well. My response to this book divided in the middle. Part I is set in Shanghai and provides a stark, surrealistic account of the story behind Empire of the Sun. Its matter-of-fact air only makes it more impressive. In Part II Ballard is back in England, recounting his family life, success as a writer and critical indifference to most of what was happening around him.

Ironically, the author of the ultra-transgressive Crash and The Atrocity Exhibition turns out to be a sentimental family man. "I thought of my children then, and I still think of them, as miracles of life, and I dedicate this autobiography to them." (Compare Raymond Carver, in his essay "Fires," describing his children as "a heavy and often baleful influence.")

Admittedly, there are some wonderful scenes – the suburban "whisky & soda" dad staging a 1970 exhibition of crashed cars to test his assumption that "We were ruled by reason and self-interest, but only when it suited us to be rational... much of the time we chose to be entertained by films, novels and comic strips that deployed horrific levels of cruelty" – complete with a topless woman interviewing the gallery guests, who were indeed duly appalled. Or his description of 1960s poetry readings as "a special form of social deprivation. In some rather dingy hall a sad little cult would listen to their cut-price shaman speaking in voices, feel their emotions vaguely stirred and drift away to a darkened tube station." That one still makes me laugh.
Profile Image for S..
Author 5 books66 followers
December 28, 2012
J.G. Ballard's death autobiography makes an excellent read, illustrating a craft refined over decades of life, and perhaps arguing that Ballard was for much of his life in the wrong genre. the success of Empire of the Sun demonstrates that his two years in Japanese internment, as well as the Shanghai experience in general, was Ballard's most fruitful source of experience, and although arguments have been made that some of his prose includes, in somewhat veiled form, the idea of empires collapsing and cities falling apart, we will never know what would have happened had Ballard written of Shanghai from the start.

Miracles of Life is a solid piece of work, both on its standalone merits and how it informs Empire of the Sun, Crash, and other top New Wave science fiction. we learn the economic circumstances of the writer's life, oft missed in understanding an artist's full career progression or the story of the 'ouevre,' but here in Miracles one develops a non-fiction, non-ornamented view of the whole progress, and we gain from understanding how Shanghai and how rollin' 60s London were Ballard's great years, and where intervenining experiences play their part.

a must read for any great fan of Empire of the Sun.
Profile Image for Jeff Jackson.
Author 4 books463 followers
February 15, 2014
Worthwhile for Ballard fans who should ignore the rating. This memoir is most notable for the vivid first half which details Ballard's surreal childhood in Shanghai and his imprisonment during WWII. It differs markedly in places from "Empire of the Sun" and makes a fascinating companion narrative. The second half offers selective glimpses of the next 50 years of his life in England, including the dreary post-war years which he describes as more traumatic than his time in the Chinese prison camp. These later chapters are brisk, chatty, and often a bit vague. They feel like sketches compared to the first half. The book comes alive when Ballard describes raising his three children as a single parent in the '60s and how those were the best years of his life. Unlike many authors, he says the pram in the hallway was his greatest ally, emboldening him to write "Crash" and "The Atrocity Exhibition" - the two books he rightly deems as his finest work. He believes his fiction lost some of its intensity once his beloved kids grew up and left the house. Although the book is uneven, some things can be forgiven an autobiography written on the deathbed. What I'll remember most about "Miracles of Life" is how its pages are suffused with a rare and radiant strain of gratitude and kindness.
Profile Image for Laura.
Author 33 books340 followers
February 14, 2021
Maravilla absoluta. Must read para cualquier amante de las biografías de escritores, de la ciencia ficción, de la literatura inglesa, de la vida, en general.
Profile Image for James Murphy.
982 reviews155 followers
July 31, 2010
J. G. Ballard's story is familiar to us all, how as a boy in Shanghai before and during the war he was interned with his parents and other British and European nationals. I've always admired imagination in writing. What Ballard did with those experiences and how he represented it in Empire of the Sun, to my mind, demonstrated a high level of imagination. It, and the later novel The Kindness of Women, in which he brilliantly covers the same material in the opening 3 chapters, draw heavily on those experiences. One could say the most important writing Ballard produced were inspired by his first 15 years and his internment during the war, just as the years in Shanghai and Lunghua camp were the most important and formative of his life. He devotes 118 pages in Miracles of Life--42%--to them and frequently refers to them in the rest of the book. He could never leave Shanghai and, indeed, Miracles of Life is another retelling of those years. He admitted he found ways to keep his memories alive. If he were still alive and writing he might still be telling the story I began the book knowing the most fascinating pages would be those about Shanghai and the war. However, his perspectives on England, the effects of the war on the land and culture and on English character were just as absorbing. They were fresh views for me. Perhaps this freshness was the reason I thought his impressions of British attitude and pluck and sense of entitlement in the Orient as well as their blindered unawareness of the end of empire so brutally honest. He writes about his family in the same unsparing honesty. He alludes twice to feelings of neglect by and a distance more than physical from his parents as he grew up. He famously wrote them out of Empire of the Sun, portraying Jim, his alter ego, as being on his own in Lunghua camp. Reading this autobiography makes me think he felt they weren't there for him during the crucial milestone events of his childhood and early manhood. He relates how an interviewer once asked him directly why he left them out. He didn't answer the journalist and is slippery with the reader, too. Ballard was always an engaging writer, and there is good reading in Miracles of Life beyond Shanghai. He has interesting things to say about writing as a craft. Interestingly, he says that science fiction, in which Ballard scored his first publishing successes, was an advance on modernism. And he writes eloquently about the joys of raising his children, how happy he was at single-handed parenting after the early death of his wife. He generously gives his children credit for raising themeslves as well as him. And dedicates the book to them. He writes graciously, too, about the women in his life, those he emphasises were kind. But reading all these sunny paeans to family and friends I still sensed a shadow over Ballard the man, still felt the boy Jim was scarred by wartime Lunghua in ways he didn't write about. If a darker Ballard existed, it may be a biographer who illuminates him.
Profile Image for Cheryl.
464 reviews583 followers
October 17, 2012
This is an autobiography from one of Britain's cherished novelists. I'm probably one of few who read this before reading "Empire of the Sun" and "The Kindness of Women"--the two autobiographical novels that J.G. Ballard wrote before being diagnosed with prostate cancer and writing this autobiography.

His parents were English, but Ballard was born and raised in the international settlement of Shanghai. During the Pacific war, Ballard and his family were interned in a camp. He tells about this experience, of being separated from his father and moving to England with his mother, and of his writer days.

The book is divided into two parts: Part I details his life in Shanghai, and time spent at a camp during the war; Part II, his move to England, his marriage, family, personal tragedy, and struggles and successes as a writer.

Profile Image for Denis.
Author 1 book19 followers
October 2, 2015
A straight forward chronology of the life of an author. I found this almost like reading a Wikipedia article, yet it made me want to read much of his work. I had no idea he was the subject of "Empire of the Sun", though I knew he wrote "Crash".
Profile Image for K.D. Absolutely.
1,820 reviews
December 23, 2021
Because I loved the movie "Empire of the Sun", I liked this book too. I did not know that this book is about, for most of its part, the personal experiences of J. G. Ballard who, as a young boy, was in Shanghai with his parents during World War II. His stories while in the concentration camp was so vivid and I could recall the scenes in the movie with Jim and the British and American soldiers. Spielberg, the director of the movie, was so faithful to the book (or script based on the book) and I thought it was the right decision because the way Ballard wrote them are so interesting and alive. Having the same shown on the screen just made Ballard and Spielberg one of the unforgettable geniuses of art.

The second part, after Shanghai, is totally forgettable though. Maybe because I have not experience to relate to being in a British school. But I guess that is still relatable to British readers or students in Western schools.

Overall, this book is recommended for Empire of the Sun fans (like me).
Profile Image for Matthew Cooper.
Author 4 books4 followers
January 6, 2018
Fascinating autobiography by J.G. Ballard (author of Crash and High-Rise). From his early years in Shanghai, being interred during the war, through family life and tragedy, to his success as an author, this book is a great read from start to finish. Ballard's easy, affable manner comes through as he narrates his own story. There are some incredible events detailed here that hint towards the inspiration for his novels.
Profile Image for Babs.
93 reviews3 followers
December 30, 2021
I enjoyed reading this very much, and it provides some good insight in to the man and writer. However I've taken off one star from my rating for the occasional mini-flares of misogyny. Might feel subjective but reviews are I suppose, plus it decreased my enjoyment of reading the book, but more importantly it seems a valid criticism seeing as Ballard himself seems entirely unaware of it.
Profile Image for Miles.
255 reviews15 followers
August 29, 2013
The act of telling a story well can be at least as interesting as any well-told story. In autobiography there is the story, but there is also the performance - you can't change the facts (very much) but you do have to decide how you will perform your life for your audience. Ballard makes a good show of it.

I have never seen Empire of the Sun or Crash nor read any of J. G. Ballard's books. I had no prior interest in or awareness of his existence, outside of being aware of Empire of the Sun and assuming, inter alia, that someone must have written it. This little autobiography enjoyably recreates the world of an upper class English boy in Shanghai in the 1930s and in a Japanese war-time prison camp in the 1940s, and then his maturing into adulthood in 1940s and 1950s England. Ballard looks back on a childhood in China, long ignored, until he wrote Empire of the Sun. He recovers it affectionately yet critically. It was easy to read a few pages each night. He looks back on his many literary friends and projects. He enjoys memories of his first wife, mother of his children, who died when they were young and of a life with his second wife, their travels and a life well-lived.

The author steps lightly over what he claims was the most meaningful part of his life - the experience of being a single father in the 1960s and 1970s to his three children - because he seems to feel that there was little of unique literary value there. Happiness perhaps is never the equal of struggle in the search for literary or artistic meaning. He reports that he loved his children and their childhood and that he loves them still as he writes near the end of his life. He was dying of prostate cancer in 2007 when he wrote this book.

Maybe I'll read one of his works of fiction some day, or see the Steven Spielberg movie Empire of the Sun.

Ballard's words are lovingly fatherly, but interesting as a story of a lifelong struggle for creativity too. I found this book to be comforting.
Profile Image for Felicity Terry.
1,095 reviews19 followers
October 16, 2014
Whilst not a big fan of memoirs/autobiographies in general I did enjoy Empire Of The Sun and so had a passing interest in this author.

The child of British parents living in Shanghai, JG (James 'Jim') Ballard spent his formative years incarcerated in a Japanese prisoner of war camp which having read this obviously informed much of his 1984 novel.

Essentially chronicling his experiences between 1930 and 2007. Whilst for myself, having read Empire Of The Sun, there was very little new to learn of his war time experiences which formed the vast part of Miracles Of Life, there were several things - his friendship with authors such as Michael Moorcock and Kingsley Amis and, of more interest to me, how his experiences informed the upbringing of his daughters - to be learnt about his older self.

A modest yet somehow intense account of a life well lived and I feel the fitting memoir of a man who we learnt in the latter pages of the book had been diagnosed with a cancer that had spread to his bones.

Copyright: Tracy Terry @ Pen and Paper.
Profile Image for Kaplumbağa Felsefecisi.
441 reviews64 followers
May 22, 2016
Kitap Ballard'ın 2007 yılında yazmaya karar verdiği otobiyografisi. Biyografi okumaktansa imkanı varsa otobiyografi okumayı tercih ediyorum. Ballard' ın gerçeküstücülük ile tanışma yıllarına dek okumaktan çok keyif alamadım. Ama otomatizm ve psikanaliz etkileriyle tanıştığı yıllardan sonrasını yazmaya başladığında okumak çok keyifliydi. Eşini kaybettikten sonra iki kızıyla yaşayan Ballard, aile kavramını kafasında toplumsal tabulardan sıyrılarak oturtmuş olduğu görülüyor. Bilim kurgu yazımında geleceği ya da geçmişi değil bugünün üzerinden kurgu oluşturmak istemesinin kabul görmemesini, çarpışma romanını yazınca değil de Cronenberg tarafından filme uyarlanınca tepkiler ve engellemelerle karşılaştığını anlatıyor.
Çocukluğunu geçirdiği Shangay'daki savaş yıllarını ailesine ve kendisine bile çok fazla anlatamadığını kitabın sonlarında dile getiren Ballard, belki de ilk başladığımda benim de bir türlü dahil olamama sebebim diyebilirim.

Birçok noktada ve anlatımındaki samimiyette evet ben bu adamı bu yüzden seviyorum dedirtmiştir bana.
467 reviews23 followers
March 14, 2013
A marvelous work tracing much of Ballard's remarkable journey as a writer and a human being. Of course, the first part when he is a Japanese POW near Shanghai is the most important part of the work. He writes through a child's eyes and does it wonderfully. You feel as the child, not as someone looking down on a a child or looking back as an adult.

Equally fine is his description of post WWII England as a bleak and dreary landscape of people and ideas. I know know of no better portrait of a "defeated" people who were victorious.

His comments about his own family's failings are made sweeter by the obstacles he faced as a single parent.

Then, too he makes some astute comments about art which made my head turn around and around.
Profile Image for Charles Dee Mitchell.
853 reviews56 followers
February 23, 2010
Just as in his novels, Ballard here is brief. Writing with the knowledge that his prostate cancer is controlled but ultimately fatal, he sketches his Shanghai childhood, his (brief) university days, and most importantly his life as a single father raising three children in a London suburb. The Shanghai section is the strongest narrative, but the feeling he has for his family is deeply felt and beautifully conveyed. A major biography must be on its way, but in the meantime this is a good way to get a sense of the author's life.
Profile Image for nks.
176 reviews9 followers
January 28, 2015
This book was pretty boring. Though Ballard describes some insanely interesting parts of his life, he always seems to leave out just the bits you want to hear about. There were probably about six pages worth of interesting statements in the entire book. Perhaps mildly more interesting to his really obsessive fans, but not interesting of itself. Not his best writing. Ho hum.
Profile Image for Jim Wolff.
24 reviews1 follower
February 10, 2020
A great insight into the life and writing from one of my favourite authors.

The whole Shanghai section is a fascinating backdrop to Empire of the Sun and the following chapters make a stark contrast with what seems a relatively normal life, producing such reactionary stories.

Makes me want to read all the ones I’ve missed.
Profile Image for Pete Linfield.
45 reviews
October 22, 2021
A beautiful, poignant and sad book. One of only four books that ever made me weep. A great man and the world is a poorer place without him. Ballard was a prophet and a visionary. This is a great book.
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