Book of the Month
The Kindly Ones
by Jonathan Littell
With its brilliant, frightening, furious, apocalyptic vision, The Kindly Ones is a literary tour de force – winner of the Prix Goncourt and other prizes, and already an explosive bestseller across Europe, selling well over a million copies.
This Faustian story with a terrifying twist is the fictional memoir of Dr Max Aue, a former SS intelligence officer, who has reinvented himself as a family man and owner of a lace factory in post-war France. Max is an intellectual – steeped in philosophy, literature and classical music. He is also a cold-blooded assassin and the consummate bureaucrat, who speaks out now not in self-justification, but to set the record straight for himself. He looks back at his life with cool precision: from a disrupted childhood and a turning point in his student days, to his role as an observer and then a participant in Nazi atrocities on the Eastern Front – from Poland to the Caucasus; he is present at the siege of Stalingrad, at the death camps, and finally caught up in the rout of the Nazis and the nightmarish fall of Berlin. Although Max is a fictional character, his world is peopled by real historical figures such as Eichmann, Himmler, GÃ¶ring, Speer, Heydrich, HÃ¶ss and Hitler himself.
Massive in scope, cold and terrifying in its analysis of human nature, and shocking in its protagonist, Littell’s masterpiece is intense, hallucinatory, frightening and very compelling. Described by Le Figaro as “a monument of contemporary literature“, this controversial book has been compared by some to War and Peace, and with good reason in the opinion of the Book Lounge. A huge novel about the seductive enormity of evil, about the ineffable horror of war, about man’s inhumanity and the malevolence of the Furies, this is a book that every thinking person should read, and to which no one can be indifferent.
Anthony Beevor, author of Stalingrad, described it as “a great work of literary fiction, to which readers and scholars will turn for decades to come.”
Once Upon A Storytime
Journey into Space
by Toby Litt
British novelist Toby Litt has always sought to re-invent himself and his writing with each new novel. In Journey into Space he ventures into Science Fiction. Humanity has sent four vessels into outer space to colonise new planets. The reader joins a mission to Aurora, and Litt manages from the very start to capture the claustrophobia and disillusionment of the crew members trapped on this stultifying journey which will take several generations to complete. A constant yearning for earth prevails until the unthinkable happens: Earth is destroyed. The crew falls into chaos, as incest and debauchery reign. Many think that the mission is pointless and want to return to the ruin that used to be home. Others feel the journey has gained new significance, as the mission is now humanity’s only hope of a future. This is no traditional Science Fiction novel. Orwellian at times, with a hint of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, it explores the moral struggle of a group of people for whom all rules have ceased to exist. At first the crew govern themselves democratically, but gradually a king rises to power, until finally religious zeal is dominant. This book is a fascinating exploration of humanity, governance and purpose.
by Anita Brookner
Paul Sturgis is a retired bank manager who lives alone in a dark little flat. He walks alone and dines alone, seeking out and taking pleasure in small exchanges with strangers: the cheerful Australian girl who cuts his hair, the lady at the dry cleaners. His only relative, and only acquaintance, is a widowed cousin by marriage – herself a virtual stranger – to whom he pays ritualistic visits on a Sunday afternoon. Trying to make sense of his current solitary state, and fearing that his destiny may be to die among strangers, Sturgis trawls through memories of his failed relationships and finds himself longing for companionship, or at the very least a conversation.
But then a chance encounter with a stranger – a recently divorced and demanding younger woman – shakes up his routine, and when an old girlfriend appears on the scene, Sturgis is forced to make a decision about how (and with whom) he wants to spend the rest of his days…
Rhyming Life and Death
by Amos Oz
Reality and fiction blend in this ingenious, poignant novel from the celebrated author of A Tale of Love and Darkness. Witty but elegiac, playful and yet deadly serious, it centres on eight hours in the life of the unnamed Author, a man in his forties, a literary celebrity, who is in Tel Aviv on a stiflingly hot night to give a reading. Bored, he looks for distraction – and finds copy. In his head he conjures up the life stories of the people he meets, not least Ricky, an equally bored but seductive waitress. Later, even as the reading from his new book is underway, and the obligatory inane questions have come and gone (˜Why do you write?’, ˜What is it like to be famous?’, ˜Do you use a pen or a computer?’), he weaves stories around the panel and the audience.
Afterwards the Author invites the professional reader who took part for a drink before walking her home, then he wanders off into the dark. Later he returns, climbs the many flights of stairs to her flat, where she lives alone with her cat…Or does he? The reader never quite knows where reality ends and invention begins in this Author’s account of his long night.
He spends the rest of the night wandering, smoking, inventing, regretting and thinking till dawn, when he learns, by chance, of the death of a once famous poet, now barely remembered. This is a gem of a work, whose facets glitter with revealing reflections on writing, reading, middle age and the elusive chimera of literary posterity.
The Suicide Club
by Rhys Thomas
The ˜Emo’ (short for ˜emotional’ in teen-speak) generation is here, and it doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. They are all around and wallowing in their self-pity, with an overwhelming the-world-owes-me-something attitude prevails. It’s this new spin on teenage angst that British author Rhys Thomas explores in his debut novel. A hugely likeable main character in Craig Bartlett-Taylor tries to commit suicide in the back of Mrs Kenna’s classroom. Enter the enigmatic new kid at school: Freddy. Freddy saves Craig’s life, initiating – for Craig and his friend Richie – an immediate fascination with the possibilities of this new presence. They enter into a sinister suicide pact and explore dark things – opening up a world which Craig had previously only imagined. It is only when a night-time prank goes horrifically wrong that Craig starts to question the newcomer’s motives. Freddy did save his life, but could Freddy take one, too? With great wit and an unflinching eye for the muddle and drama of adolescence, The Suicide Club is a pitch-perfect portrait of teenage disaffection that sets boy against boy, imagination against reason and, ultimately, life against death.
The Winter Vault
by Anne Michaels
From the author of the Orange Prize-winning Fugitive Pieces, a new novel about memories, loss and love.
Egypt 1964 – the great temple at Abu Simbel must be rescued from the rising waters of the Aswan Dam. Block by block it is to be dismantled and resurrected sixty metres higher. This most delicate and daunting of tasks is overseen by Avery, a young engineer who at the same time is carefully and joyfully constructing a shared life with his new wife, Jean.
As the temple is taken apart and rebuilt, Avery and Jean suffer a terrible loss of their own. Their separate journeys through grief will take them from Egypt to Canada – to lands that have been flooded and reconfigured, and homes that have been lost.
Weaving historical moments with the quiet intimacy of human lives, The Winter Vault tells of the ways in which we salvage what we can from the violence of life. It tells of a husband and wife trying to find their way back to each other; of people and nations displaced and uprooted, and of the myriad means by which we all seek out a place we can call home, no matter what the cost.
by Dawn Garisch
From the writer of the beautiful Once, Two Islands comes a novel of honesty, memory and desire.
1950s Cape Town. Phyllis’s ailing mother has just passed away, leaving Phyllis without a home, and with no-one to care for. With her sister’s help she applies for a position as matron at a prestigious boarding school for boys. Surrounded by restless, reckless boys on the verge of adulthood, Phyllis is reminded of her own desires and losses. She begins to write a journal again, for the first time since she was sixteen – when, on that dreadful day, her mother discovered what shame she had brought upon her family…
A compelling and elegant exploration of longing, and of the true meaning of family.
The Truth About Love
by Josephine Hart
A young man shields his terrible wounds from his mother; a husband believes he can love his grief-stricken wife back to life; a young girl puts her own life on hold until her family can find their way back from blinding pain; a man surrenders to the helplessness of obsessive love.
Set in Ireland, this wonderful and intense story is about a family named O’Hara who choose to remain in the place of their loss, and the stranger from Germany who has run from his. It’s a book about survival and love for family and for a country.
by David Moody
Individual turns on individual, brother kills brother, neighbour murders neighbour. Humanity turns on itself in this horrific tale about the prevailing emotion of the 21st century. A dormant strand in human DNA is mysteriously activated and chaos reigns. David Moody published this book online and sold the movie rights even before it was picked up for publication. This is a page-turning horror-fest of blood and guts, and anxious characters, constantly suspicious of everyone they meet. “And I finally begin to see where this is going. At last I’m starting to understand why this whole crisis has seemed so endless and directionless from the outset. It’s us against them. There’s not going to be a tie or a ceasefire or any political negotiations to resolve this. There won’t be an end to this fighting until one side has prevailed and the enemy lies dead at their feet. It’s kill or be killed. Hate or be hated.” As this quote testifies: this is one to read with the lights on.
edited by Jeanette Winterson
Opera has always revolved around a story – some have direct inspiration, and others take a story and shift it. So why not take an opera and shift it?
Published to celebrate Glyndebourne’s 75th Birthday, this specially commissioned collection of comedies, tragedies and tales of love is by some of the very best of British writers. Kate Atkinson, Paul Bailey, Anne Enright, Sebastian Barry, Antonia Fraser, Toby Litt, Andrew Motion, Julie Myerson, Ruth Rendell, Ali Smith, Colm TÃ³ibin, Marina Warner and more take their inspiration from an opera of their choice. The result is broad in content, style and atmosphere. The characters are from all walks of life and all parts of the world – and are driven by every motivation. The stories are rich with emotion and inspirations. This is a book for all lovers of opera and fiction, and includes notes on the opera on which each story is based.
Tell Me a (Short) Story
An Elegy for Easterly
by Petina Gappah
A woman in a township in Zimbabwe is surrounded by throngs of dusty children, but longs for a baby of her own; an old man finds his job making coffins at the No Matter Funeral Parlour brings unexpected riches; a politician’s widow quietly stands by at her husband’s funeral watching his colleagues bury an empty coffin. Petina Gappah’s characters may have ordinary hopes and dreams, but they are living in a world where a loaf of bread costs half a million dollars; a country where people know exactly what will be printed in the only daily newspaper, because the news is always good.
In her debut collection, this spirited Zimbabwean author brings us the resilience and inventiveness of the people who struggle to live under Robert Mugabe’s regime. Despite their circumstances, the characters here are more than victims; they are human and flawed, with the ability to inflict pain as well as endure it. The issues they struggle with are common to humanity on the whole – promises broken, dreams unfulfilled and the dogged desire for some sort of meaning to life.
For the Melancholic at Heart
Shoot the Damn Dog
by Sally Brampton
If someone were to suggest that a depression memoir would be their recommended read for the month, you might not be utterly enticed. Sally Brampton is a journalist, and was editor of Elle UK for many years. Sally Brampton also suffers from severe depression. Reading the book is like being in group therapy, only you don’t have to say anything. She is an honest writer and takes away some of the myth and mystery surrounding this illness. The fact that there is no obvious physical attribute to the illness, does not make it any less severe than an amputated limb or a defective heart. If you know and love someone who suffers from attacks of the Black Dog, read this book, it will tell you many things that they simply do not know how to.
The Red Tree
by Shaun Tan
Goodness gracious, this book is beautiful. It is an illustrated account of having a bad day that will make you want to cry because finally someone gets your twisted heart and those dark rings under your eyes. Shaun Tan is an Australian genius who illustrates most of his own work. On the surface this might appear to be a children’s book, because the words are few and the pictures big. Not so, this work will stay with you with you like those images of 9/11, only in a good way.
Broaden the Mind
by GÃ¼nther Komnick
“This celebration of captured moments shows how all is connected; that in life, despite hardship, there are the values of dignity and respect; loyalty and hope; tradition, family, and above all love. These qualities reflect the light that always was and always will be.“
So writes award-winning photographer and graphic artist GÃ¼nther Komnick at the beginning of this extraordinary collection of photographs, taken since the 1960s across Africa and the Middle East.
The book is exquisitely produced by Komnick himself, with production of the highest quality, which does the wonderful images in this book great justice.
If you drop by the Lounge soon, do yourself a favour and spend a couple of minutes with this book – you’ll feel so much better for it…
edited by Liz McGregor and Sarah Nuttall
This is a fantastic collection of contemporary South African writing at its best. The title obviously refers to the famous South African euphemism used to name the rolling blackouts that we experienced for much of last year and it is no surprise to find a certain degree of darkness permeating much of the book. This is no moan-fest however, and the quality of the writing contained in Load Shedding makes reading it a rewarding, uplifting, and dare we say it, enlightening experience. The essays are profound and touching, grabbing the heart and engaging the brain, as some of our most talented writers reflect on where we are as a country through the most personal of lenses. Load Shedding is an important and timely contribution to the local canon, and a more than worthy companion to At Risk, the collection edited by Liz and Sarah in 2007. For all those who have enjoyed the Best American Essays and others in that excellent series that we import from the US, check out this local offering which stands up to any similar collections published anywhere else.
Why We Make Mistakes
by Joseph T Hallinan
This brilliant and thought-provoking book takes as its starting point the premise of Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers – that 10,000 hours of training in anything will lead to proficiency – but goes on to show why all and any of us can make both simple and complex mistakes, and explores the quirks of the brain that lead to this.
Hallinan puts forward a number of theories as to why we trip up so. First, we are overloaded with information and detail. Take the excess of gadgetry in the modern car – we are so busy concentrating on all the features that we end up slamming into trees, and failing to see tunnels, bridges, and often other drivers.
Second, we have become averse to reading manuals and instructions, and tend to improvise and ad lib – generally to the detriment of the task on hand. Interestingly this tendency can depend on upbringing, as boys are often given more room and support to improvise than girls.
Third, there is a tendency for most people to assume they are above average intelligence and ability – not geniuses, but just a bit cleverer than their assumed peer. How many of us don’t think that we are rather better drivers than most? Hmm? Thought so.
Of course, the drawback of this is that if we think we are so clever, we make no effort to improve – and the less you know, the less you are aware that you don’t know.
This book is an entertaining, compelling and thought-provoking look at the huge number of shortcuts that our brains take, and the risks we take in overloading them even further.
Making an Elephant: Writing from Within
by Graham Swift
As a novelist, Graham Swift delights in the possibilities of the human voice, imagining his way into the hearts ands minds of an extraordinary range of characters. In Making and Elephant, his first ever work of non-fiction, the voice is all his own. As generous in its scope as it is acute in its observations, this highly personal book is a singular and open-spirited account of a writer’s life.
This richly varied selection of essays, portraits, poetry and interviews is full of insights into his passions and motivations, and wise about the friends, family and other writers who have mattered to him over the years. Kazuo Ishiguro advises on how to choose a guitar, Salman Rushdie arrives for Christmas under guard, and Ted Hughes shares the secrets of a Devon river. There are private moments too, with long-dead writers, as well as musings on history and memory that readers of his novels will recognise and love. Charming and honest, it tells of a true engagement with words, and what it means to feel that writing and reading are an essential part of living.
The Thoughtful Dresser
by Linda Grant
For centuries an interest in clothes has been unfairly dismissed as the trivial focus of facile, empty-headed women – but this super book is takes the opposite stance, and shows us why clothes matter, because how we choose to dress ourselves is an important part of our identity.
From the dedicated fashionista to the man or woman who dresses down to precisely demonstrate their disregard of fashion, and all in between. What we choose to wear each day makes a statement of some sort.
From the immigrant arriving in a new country to the teenager who desperately needs to fit in; or the woman turning forty who must reassess her wardrobe – the truth is that how we look and what we wear tells a story, and Linda Grant’s book is a treasure trove of stories. She tells us how a woman’s hat saved her life in Nazi Germany; looks at the role of department stores in giving women a public place outside the home; celebrates the pleasure of adornment; and savours the sheer joy of finding the perfect dress.
Here is the thinking woman’s guide to our relationship with what we wear, the statement we make in our choices, and why it jolly well matters!
Comrade Moss: A political journey
by Terry Bell
Terry Bell’s new, up-to-the-minute biography of Unionist and ex-MP Moses Mayekiso is an activist’s book about an activist. Mayekiso rose from humble roots in the Transkei to be elected General Secretary of NUMSA while on trial for treason with the so-called “Alex 5″. Later he spent time in the first democratic parliament as an ANC MP. But, as Bell shows, Mayekiso has always been his own man: a socialist (and as such radically democratic) he had from the first opposed the pronounced Stalinist tendencies of the SACP. In fact the story, as Bell says, is one of a full circle “from pariah to icon and back to pariah“. Because, having recently joined COPE, Mayekiso has been officially liquidated from the history of the same NUMSA which had honoured him just days earlier. This is an extremely important story, both of a remarkable man and the Union movement with which he had become identified; it is also a disturbing history of the internal machinations, the manipulations and the all-too-frequent (and increasing) betrayals of that movement and what it has stood for (or could have stood for) by seemingly recent developments, which Bell is well-placed (with his history of labour-journalism and -chronicling) to place in historical perspective, through the retelling of this extraordinary man whose experiences were in some ways so exemplary of his times. Aluta continua!
The Best of the New (and the Old…) in History
Angels and Ages: A Short Book about Darwin, Lincoln and Modern Life
by Adam Gopnik
On 12th February 1809, two men were born an ocean apart: Charles Darwin on an English country estate, and Abraham Lincoln in a Kentucky log cabin. They never met, but their great parallel lives would transform society and mankind’s understanding of itself. In this bicentennial twin portrait, Adam Gopnik shows how Darwin and Lincoln influenced the way we think about death and time – about the very nature of existence.
Darwin’s theory of evolution opened up a dramatic new era of discovery, in which the planet’s age could be measured not in thousands, but in billions of years – definitively undermining theological notions of history.
Lincoln unleashed a great tide of blood to uphold the Union and bring about the emancipation of America’s slaves, developing a connection between freedom and sacrifice that reverberates to this day.
Angels and Ages shows how reasoned argument informed their lives and actions, leading them to use language in a way that was as revolutionary as their ideas. What drove them to defend the truth in the face of public adversary? How did their inconsolable and common grief at the loss of a young and beloved child change them?
Above all we see Darwin and Lincoln as thinkers and writers, as makers and witnesses of the great change that marks modern times: the slow emergence from a backward-looking culture of souls and morals, to a forward-looking culture of eyes and minds, from an old civilisation based on faith and fear to our modern civilisation of observation and argument, and from a belief in the judgment of divinity to a belief in the verdicts of history and time.
The Book of Historical and Curious Maps
compiled by Agile Rabbit Editions
This book is such a treasure trove. For those who are even a little cartographically minded, this is an eclectic and fascinating collection of amazing and beautifully made maps – from the archaic to the ancient, from the old to the relatively modern. Though vastly varied in style, content and accuracy, each gives us a picture of how mankind has seen his environment and his world through time – from pictographs by North American Indians to the topography of the moon; from colonial maps helpfully pointing out ˜Barbarians’ in North Africa to climatological and oceanographic maps of surface currents.
Whether your interest is scientific, artistic or historical, this is a mesmerising and beautiful book – and it even comes with a free high-resolution CD-Rom of the maps!
Scrimgeour’s Small Scribbling Diary 1914-1916: The Truly Astonishing Wartime Diaries and Letters of an Edwardian Gentleman, Naval Officer, Boy and Son
When nineteen year old Alexander Scrimgeour lost his life at the Battle of Jutland in 1916, he left a great legacy – complete diaries spanning the previous six years, chronicling first his life as the son of a wealthy stock broker, then his time as a young sea cadet and finally as a Sub-Lieutenant in His Majesty’s Navy. Like all good midshipmen were required to do, Scrimgeour took great pride in writing his journals and was careful to recount every event with marked sincerity. Appalled by some of the actions of the British Admiralty and the Germans alike, Scrimgeour risked court-martial to record some of the more notorious incidents during World War I.
His candid way of writing combined with an articulate and imaginative turn of phrase has left us with first hand evidence shedding light on some extraordinary moments of the First World War.
A great deal of attention is devoted to his personal life, including his numerous love affairs, his loving relationship with his family and his anguish at the loss of close friends killed during the war. Many first-hand accounts of the First World War emanate from the trenches, so this eloquent naval perspective adds to our depth of understanding of that time.
This collection is an anthem to the Edwardian age, to a young man’s love of friends and family, and to all those who lost their lives in the Great War.
Sweet Water and Bitter: The Ships that Stopped the Slave Trade
by SiÃ¢n Rees
This is the extraordinary story of what happened after the British abolition of the slave trade in 1807. The last legal British slave-ship left Africa that year, but other countries and illegal slavers continued to trade. When the Napoleonic Wars ended in 1815, British diplomats negotiated anti-slave-trade treaties, and a ˜Preventative Squadron’ was formed to cruise the West African coast. In six decades, this small fleet liberated 150,000 Africans, and lost 17,000 of its own men in doing so. This is the tale of their exciting and arduous campaign.
It is also a story of unforeseen consequences – what to do with the freed slaves? How to manipulate international law so that you could board the ships of other nations? How to combat the intense hostility of African leaders to abolition? In tracing these complex questions SiÃ¢n Rees shows how the campaign was linked to British imperial and commercial ambition as well as to philanthropy: the colonising of West Africa was a direct, though unintended, result.
Above all, however, this is a swashbuckling naval adventure, full of sensational first-hand accounts of life at sea, of the horrors of the ˜barracoons’ where the slaves were held, of the luxurious compounds of the slave-brokers and the lonely garrisons dotting the coast. Individual sailors speak of the boredom of patrol, of their fear of ˜detached service’ in small boats upriver, of sudden, violent battles and the horror of seeing, close to, the cruelties of slaving.
An unforgettable story.
The Artist, the Philosopher and the Warrior
by Paul Strathern
In the autumn of 1502 Leonardo da Vinci, NiccolÃ² Machiavelli and Cesare Borgia travelled together through the mountains, remote villages and hill towns of the Italian Romagna taking part in the most treacherous military campaign of the period. This is a vivid account of a period of extreme significance and considerable danger – not just for the protagonists themselves, but for the country they were helping to shape.
Borgia has become a byword for brutal and inhuman deeds, depicted as a savage whose eyes were fixed on the prize of his own kingdom, over which he would rule supreme. But he was an educated savage, and an unrivalled tactician, relying on surprise and patience.
Leonardo remains the exemplar of the Renaissance man – his paintings and drawings are among the finest in the world, while his notebooks looked far into the future. What led such a visionary to work for the monstrous Borgia? What attracted him to Machiavelli?
A witty and subversive intellectual, Machiavelli would later become infamous as the author of The Prince – the sensationally amoral political work that was the culmination of a long political career.
The legacies of these three men would help to shape the modern age. Their lives reflect the Italian Renaissance in all its beauty, complexity and brutality.
The Mellifluous Book of Hard Words
by David Bramwell
Matroclinous, Hippocrepian, Dolichocephalic, Kakemono, Plenilune, Quadrumane, Rubefaction, Idioglossia – aren’t these words that you wish you could just drop casually into conversation to impress and astound? Are you filled with a concupiscence to bloviate in a sesquipedalian manner? Well this is the book for YOU! It’s time to upgrade your vocabulary and wow everyone in your vicinity with the Mellifluous Book of Hard Words – an indispensable visual dictionary to give you the meaning and origin of a cornucopia of deliciously difficult words. Grandiloquence guaranteed!
Evil Penguins: When Cute Penguins Go Bad
by Elia Anie
Well, who knew that loveable, adorable penguins could be so downright nasty? Penguins are everywhere – on movie screens, adverts, merchandise, marching bravely across the Antarctic or sliding gaily on the ice. But it seems they have another agenda – and it isn’t pretty.
These cartoons capture the antics of those penguins who have gone over to the dark side – and Happy Feet it ain’t! Nor is it in any way tasteful – but it is very funny…
by Sasha Klotz
This slim but essential volume contains examples of Yiddish and English schmushed together, for those occasions when one language isn’t enough. Packed with lots of brand new made-up words to delight Jew and Goyim alike, plus a handy guide to creating your own Yinglish words; how to Yiddify everyday conversations; plus a pop-quiz to test your own Yideracy. What more could you ask for…?
A Fond Farewell to JG Ballard
JG Ballard, who has died aged 78, once described himself as “a man of complete and serene ordinariness” (to the disbelief of his interviewer). His novels – disquieting, visionary and often apocalyptic fables of technological and social anarchy set him at the very pinnacle of contemporary writing. The self-professed “architect of dreams, sometimes nightmares” enjoyed a cult status, and Steven Spielberg’s film of his book Empire of the Sun brought him a popular fan base, too. Fusing external landscapes of futuristic visions with the internal workings of his characters’ minds, Ballard created a series of montages in which the world was, in turns, flooded, desiccated, crystallised and concreted over. He was, some said, the seer of the post-Hiroshima age.
Born in Shanghai in 1930, the son of a British executive, James Graham Ballard lived in style in the city’s international settlement, until Japanese forces swept in during December 1941 and his life changed forever.
The three years which the family spent in a Japanese internment camp molded the youngster’s vision of the world, and influenced all of his works, where a sense of “the world turned upside down” is an all-pervading and recurrent theme. Ballard finally returned to Britain, by now “like a foreign country”, and later abandoned his medical studies at Cambridge to become a writer. He also served in the RAF, spending six months at an airforce base in Moose Jaw, Canada, where he began writing short stories.
Ballard’s first novel, The Drowned World, published in 1962, charted the psychological breakdown of a group of scientists examining a London waterlogged by the melting of the polar icecaps. He followed this impressive debut with works such as The Wind from Nowhere and The Drought, pioneering novels dealing with ecological disaster.
The death in 1964 of Ballard’s wife Helen provoked a sea-change in his work. It was an unexpected catastrophe, a bout of pneumonia leaving Ballard to raise three small children – the “miracles of life” after whom he named his 2008 memoir. His decision to stay at home with the children was unusual for the mid-1960s. Friends and family advised him to bring in help, freeing him up to write but Ballard refused. He reflected of the time that “my greatest ally was the pram in the hall“. Tied to the home, his imagination took flight in his next novel, The Crystal World, a mystical fable exploring the spiritual transformation of the world.
More controversial was Crash, written in 1973 and adapted for the big screen by director David Cronenberg in 1996. Ballard described what he called “the perverse eroticism of the car crash” and, while some critics praised its poeticism, others damned Crash as technological pornography.
Following the 1984 publication of Empire of the Sun – a surrealist fusion of autobiography and hallucinatory narrative – Ballard’s status as a best-selling author was secure. Cocaine Nights (1996), perhaps Ballard’s most accessible novel, is set in a retirement community on Spain’s Costa del Sol, where random acts of violence serve to stimulate the ageing population. Super-Cannes (2001) examined a techno-community in the South of France, where offices and homes mix in one large landscaped park. Once again, violence intervened, liberating people from their dreary and predictable lives. Ballard also s