Postcards from a Dying World

In 2007 I was writing an MA thesis on JG Ballard and I posted him a nerdy letter about publishing history – specifically about the original annotated edition of The Atrocity Exhibition put out by San Franciscan industrial culture publisher Re/Search. This edition added four new Atrocity pieces and a wealth of annotations that maintained the explosive mobility of the text. It’s a fine piece of work and puts the staid UK Flamingo paperback edition including the same extras to shame. I love getting it out at the British Library. It wears its heart on its sleeve.

I’d read of Ballard’s habit of spending the first hour or so of the day dealing with correspondence but I didn’t really expect anything in reply to my speculative approach. (I’d also written to Re/Search publisher V. Vale and he hadn’t responded). When I received a couple of postcards answering my questions and offering some generous well wishes I was made up. I share these scans in the spirit of literary ephemeral interest: as I say, my questions are a bit nerdy and the textual history Ballard clarifies can probably be pieced together through other sources, but the cards he uses are worth a look, even if they were just what came to hand at his desk. I imagine he had a ready supply.

The first speaks to Ballard’s pop-art fascination and roots: all the covers of Italian pulp comics surrounding the man reading the real news. The world of the imagination is leaking out into reality through this news vendor’s stall. It gestures at the pulp history of Ballard’s own sci-fi beginnings. The photographer for this was Ugo Cozzi and it was taken in Firenze in 1940. The Second World War was year old. The young Jim was in Shanghai but probably not yet interned in Lunghua, where he would be isolated from news of the rest of the world.

The second is really the one, though: Etienne-Louis Boullee’s 1784 drawing for a Cenotaphe a Newton which was not built; a spherical funerary monument dedicated to a dead physicist; a possible pre-Modernist future that looks the epitome of the high Modern. Insert your own hauntological reading here and begin to imagine the world in which Boullee’s architecture had dominated the 19th century. The geometrical style of Boullee’s architecture speaks directly to Ballard’s geometrical obsession – it really can’t be read as anything other than obsessive – that finds its purest expression in Atrocity, and about which I was writing. This one was published by a German publisher but the copyright is owned by the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris.

With the benefit of hindsight I wish I’d asked him more expansive questions. I didn’t know him so I was aware it was a bit of an intrusion, and that made me err on the side of caution. And of course I had no idea of how ill he was and probably entertained ideas of writing again. He died two years later on 19 April 2009. If you’ve not read it his autobiography is a model of concise modesty.

These cards represent something of a missed opportunity but they are in a box of things I’d save in the case of a house fire.