J.G. Ballard shares with Jorge Luis Borges the distinction of having been ignored by the Nobel Prize committee. This may say more about the meaning of the Nobel Prize than about the writing of these two marvelous creators of short fiction. Ballard may be best known for some of his longer works, such as Empire of the Sun and Crash, but for me his short stories are where he was at his best. They are haunting. They are unforgettable. The visionary atmospheres that he creates stay with one seemingly forever. His short fiction is difficult to categorize. There was a time when one could have used the word “fantasy” to describe Ballard, as well as much of Borges, but I don’t want to use that word. Fantasy brings to me images of those thousands upon thousands of books, seemingly all the same, full of kings and fairies and dark woods and sorcerers and magic rings and hobbits. Books that half a century ago would have been considered children’s literature, but that now, thanks to the seemingly endless decline in the quality of education at all levels, are considered serious literature.
Ballard has been called a science-fiction writer, and that may have been the reason why he was passed-over for the Nobel Prize. But Ballard’s stories only use science-fiction themes and settings to create his distinctively dystopian cosmos, a reality that might have been but never will be. Because his worlds are often empty and abandoned by people, whereas ours is a depressingly claustrophobic world in which it is very difficult to get away from people. We live in Ballard’s Billenium. His worlds are often silent and peaceful in their own way, with glimpses of earlier traumatic events. Our world is the terrifyingly loud mayhem that is in the past of many of Ballard’s stories.
As with Borges, what really matters in much of Ballard’s work is the voyage, not so much the destination. I am lucky that I can read both authors in their mother tongues, which are also my two mother languages. It is easier to read Ballard in English than it is to read Borges in Castilian (there is no Spanish language, any more than there is a British language; there were Spanish and British empires, in which the languages of the empowered elites were the lingua franca). Borges’ writing is sometimes fiendishly complex, perhaps unnecessarily so, but then he would not be Borges if that were not the case. It is the combination of linguistic fireworks with the perpetually blurred demarcation line between the reality of the first half of the twentieth century and the reality of Borges’ mind what stays with you at the end of his stories. The power of Ballard’s voice comes from a different place. His language is simple and direct. The reality was all in Ballard’s mind. There is never any uncertainty about whether a person or a place or a time are real or not, one is never asked to believe that they are (you are never certain of this with Borges). What Ballard asks you to do is to sink in his unsettling landscapes of colorful desert sunsets, star-filled and always Moon-less night skies, and silent afternoons in abandoned towns. And of tormented humans.
There are so many memorable stories in Ballard’s corpus that I know that I will return to them over and over again. But there is one short masterpiece that, if I had to, I would choose as his greatest work. I may have read it for the first time many years ago, when I was in high school, and I have re-read it many times since then. In The Garden of Time we meet Count Axel and his loving wife. They live, alone, in an elegant villa in a deserted yet peaceful corner of some unnamed country. For all we know they are the last two people on Earth. They enjoy their books, their music, each other’s company. And the evenings in their beautiful garden. Time flowers used to grow in the garden, but they are now dying off, and with them their gentle, civilized, enlightened world. For a threatening horde of graceless and amorphous humanity is constantly approaching the villa. They are kept at a distance by the time flowers. Each time that Count Axel cuts one, the time flower shimmers briefly in his hands and then extinguishes itself. In dying, the time flower makes time go back, and the brutish mass of humanity recedes behind the hills. A long time has passed since the plants last bloomed, and the count is now cutting the very last small flowers that remain, gaining progressively shorter postponements of the inevitable. The last day, when only the last remaining flower remains to be cut, Count Axel and his wife carefully put away their books, their music, all of the treasures of a civilized life that will come to an end.
The story can be read for nothing else but the sheer pleasure of Ballard’s prose, and I am certain that that is what first drew me to it, when I was a younger and very different person. But it is clear that Ballard had much more in mind. The story is a moving metaphor for human history, for that endless cycle of creation and destruction that has been with us since we became modern humans, some 100,000 years ago. In The Garden of Time we can see the Mycenaeans burning Troy. The Barbarians sacking Rome. The Mongols overrunning much of the civilized world. The Nazis murdering millions of innocents and destroying European civilization. And we can also see some of today’s extremists killing people as a way to demand that democratic societies tolerate their intolerance, and other of today’s extremists attempting to destroy science, both groups using faith as their only justification – religious faith, those cover-words for unreason, ignorance and intellectual laziness.
But we can also see in Ballard’s threatening mass of humanity the banal popular culture of today. The mobs who clog museums and historic places with their selfie sticks, who exchange tips on any number of online sites about which remote and lonely place to ruin next with their garbage and their chatter and their pointless presence. Perhaps Ballard’s writing was his way of escaping a world overrun by humans. Photography is one way in which I try to accomplish this. Perhaps my Garden of Time exists somewhere in these images.