Thursday, February 14, 2008

Miracles of Life

J G Ballard's memoir Miracles of Life is exemplary of what a memoir should be. It is an inspirational account of the life of one of Britain's most important writers and takes us, as the subtitile says, from Shanghai to Shepperton. Ballard was brough up in Shanghai as a child and his description of the culture and environment there are vivid to say the least. We can, I think, see the seeds of the surrealist take root in his Shanghai childhood, later to bloom in his adult life back in England. Although not strictly speaking a medical memoir, Ballard was a medical student at Cambridge for a time, a period in his life which he relays with the same vigour displayed in all his writing: from the gore of anatomy lessons (for us non-medics at least) to skeletons under the bed (literally) we again get a sense of where his literary imagination was born. It is an extremely sensitive and intelligent book and, while it reveals something more of the man behind Crash and The Atrocity Exhibition, we also get more of the man behind Empire of the Sun and The Kindness of Women. A hugely intelligent writer, Ballard tells of his experience in a WWII internment camp in Langhua, the physical and psychological effects of that internment, the sudden and premature death of his wife and his incredible life thereafter. There is a nice story of his partner Claire who, on experiencing the benefits of a particular kidney operation, writes to thank the surgeon who invented the procedure. Since the publicity surrounding the launch of the book, it is no secret that Ballard is suffering from advanced prostate cancer and he includes a touching tribute to his oncologist Professor Jonathan Waxman at Hammersmith Hospital, describing him as having "that rare ability to see the ongoing course of medical treatment from the point of view of the patient." I thoroughly commend this book.

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