On Empire of the Sun by JG Ballard

Thanks to the film adaption by Steven Spielberg and Christian Bale’s subsequent career, this novel seems to be the popular entry point for readers interested Ballard. I’ve not seen the movie, but the book’s cinematic appeal was immediately apparent when I read it a few months ago.

Based on the author’s own internment in a Japanese prison camp during WWII, it details life in Shanghai International Settlement through the eyes of Jim, an adolescent boy with dreams of becoming a pilot. When Japan declares war on Britain and the United States, he becomes separated from his parents and must fight for survival, first as a runaway on the streets of Shanghai and then as a prisoner at the Lunghua Civilian Assembly Center.

Ballard made a name for himself in 1960s and 70s for his bracingly pessimistic brand of futurism in novels such as Crash and High Rise. As well written as those books are, the depravity found in them feels at times too contrived to make for effective commentary on the human condition more generally. But the historical reality behind the events in Empire of the Sun brings themes of cruelty, exploitation, and survival into much sharper focus.

Ballard is at his most incisive when he evokes the casual violence inherent in the colonial system, both of the Western powers occupying Shanghai and of the Japanese Empire which replaced them. When, for instance, the camp guards beat a Chinese laborer to death, the indifference of the British seems both representative of larger crimes and singularly real in itself. And to Ballard’s further credit, he does not place his fictional avatar, Jim, above such brutality. Indeed, it’s Jim’s indifference, both towards his life and the lives of others, which comes in stark relief.

A dark lesson, but perhaps a necessary one if we want to understand people from less gentle ages. No one familiar with Ballard could fail to see how the author’s own wartime experiences planted the seeds for the fictional dystopias. With luck, we won’t see his actual past or his possible futures come to realization again.


Thoughts on The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

An unconventional teacher and the life-changing effect she has on her pupils—a subject weighed  over with so much sentimental baggage. Among other things, many other things, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is an attack on the myth of the saintly teacher.  The titular character is exceptional, not only in her degree influence but in the ambivalent effects her influence create. An emancipated woman, a consummate teacher who cares deeply about education, Jean Brodie lives out those ideals while simultaneously being a sexual manipulator and a political reactionary, a seducer by proxy and an unrepentant supporter of Hitler, Mussolini and Franco.

On the subject of Jean Brodie’s Fascism: a key irony in an irony laden book. One of the most striking aspects of the novel is its simple and effective evocation of historical ignorance. Jean Brodie remarks to the students that Mussolini “ has solved unemployment” and posts pictures of Blackshirts on the classroom wall—a tricky maneuver that assumes two rather difficult points: that it was possible for moral people (or moral characters, as it were) to embrace Fascism, and that the inculcation of these ideas can be source of comedy, albeit black comedy. On that count, Spark achieves a difficult victory. Brodie’s reactionary politics are explained without being affirmed.  Sympathetic biographers of Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, and Gertrude Stein should take note.

Jean Brodie is justly famous for its use of prolepsis, or use of flash-forward. Conventional narrative thrives on the tension between truth and concealment—not so here. In contemporary terms, Spark spoils the ending again and again. We know from the beginning that Miss Jean Brodie will be betrayed and who will betray her. We know who among her students will thrive and who will die tragically. Yet these devices do not slow the narrative momentum. The effect is more than anticlimactic. By making the future so plain, we experience how it is to be blind to it.

Being swept away by time: in eliciting this sensation, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie resembles another, more or less contemporaneous classic of European literature, The Leopard by Giuseppe di Lampedusa.   The characters and scenarios in both suggest a rather conventional social novel, but what we get is something more radical. The 50s and 60s were a time when modernist techniques were being pushed to their very limit. These two novels must have seemed oddly retrograde alongside Borges, Beckett, Calvino, and the OULIPO.  Yet few of these vanguardists achieved the same level of chronological sophistication. The structural innovations of Spark and Lampedusa, while being widely commented upon, are still underrated.

Links Roundup: Yannis Ritsos

Photo by wikimedia user badseed

A few weeks ago, I reviewed Twelve Poems About Cavafy, a short but wonderful collection by the Greek modernist poet Yannis Ritsos. Though he’s somewhat obscure in the English speaking world, there are a number of resources on the web for the curious reader. The Poetry Foundation has a nice biography of Ritsos with compelling details about his personal life and political struggles as well as an overview of his poetic career. The article also has a comprehensive bibliography of his original works, including those available in English translation.

For those who want to jump immediately to the work itself, HINTS: The Poetry of Yannis Ritsos is a wonderful collection of translations by Scott King. He began the project on the occasion of Ritsos’ 100th birthday in 2009.  Fitting the blog format, shorter poems predominate here. The language is direct, portraying unpretentious, even mundane subjects, but with subtle undertones of mystery and lyricism. These translations are indispensable to the beginning reader interested in Ritsos but also a testament to his eclectic output over a long and eventful career.

Review: Twelve Poems About Cavafy by Yannis Ritsos

For the past few months, I have been voraciously reading and rereading Twelve Poems About Cavafy by Yannis Ritsos. This collection, originally translated from Greek to English by Paul Merchant in 1968, has been out of print for years. It is now available again through Tavern Books, a small publisher based in Portland, Oregon, which specializes in reprints and translations of modern poetry. Each work they issue is manually printed and kept in stock in perpetuity– a brave gesture in this era of cultural pessimism.

In Twelve Poems, Ritsos pays homage to the father of modern Greek poetry, C.P. Cavafy, in a series of  short lyric poems on his life and work . These are partial in both senses of the word, both affectionate and tightly limited in their scope. But taken as a whole, this collection forms a rich and contradictory portrait of a creative spirty.

Chief among the virtues of the collection is a Whitmanesque embrace of contradiction. Genius and pretension happily coexist. Ritsos never makes any flattening distinction regarding them. Cavafy appears as a sincere charlatan, at once devoted to his art but affecting an odd, often comic public persona. “Hiding Places” describes the strange gestures (tentative yet theatrical) the poet used to impress his students:

But then, unsettled by our eyes on his back,
he turned and poked his face through the curtain
like a man wearing a long white tunic,
a little humorously, a little at odds with our times

Each poem in this collection is a gem of compound images. Ritsos maintains a sense ease and clarity despite some complex turns in syntax and frequent use of extended metaphor. The language never obscures the subject at hand.

Alongside Cavafy the clown, there is Cavafy the loner and insomniac. Not exactly a tragic figure but rather bittersweet, he maintains a connection to the world through acts of poetic imagination.  In “His Lamp at Dawn”, this commonplace item forms a metaphorical bridge through which the poet explores his native city of Alexandria.

at dawn its light pales and becomes one
with day’s flowering rose, with first clatter
of shop blinds, handcarts, fruit stands,
it becomes a visible reminder of his insomnia,
and also a glass bridge, leading from his glasses
to the lamp’s chimney, and from there to the glass
window-panes, and beyond them, on and on,
a glass bridge carrying him over the city,
through the city, his Alexandria, connecting
(since that’s his wish now) night with day.

Yannis Ritsos (1909-1990) had a long and prolific career. He was poet, translator, communist activist, and resistance fighter against the Germans during World War II. His life was marked by periods of illness and confinement by government authorities. This collection presents an altogether different side to Ritsos than what his biography would suggest. It shows a poet gifted with lyrical fluency and a knack for rich characterization, forming a picture of a remarkable mentor and artist.