Is Narrative Always a Product of Trauma?

I was commissioned to write this piece on JG Ballard for openDemocracy: I conclude, “I am struck by how adept we writers are at developing our early traumas into accounts of how the world really is – not because we are helpless to do otherwise, but because this is often the most productive way for a writer to proceed.”

There are events in our lives we just can’t make sense of, and these are precisely the events that, as writers, we have to try and make sense from. The fall of China to the Japanese mysteriously pervades Ballard’s work — as the failure of the Prague Spring does Milan Kundera’s, or the 1973 coup d’état in Chile does Roberto Bolaño’s.

As a boy, Charles Dickens nearly fell out of the middle class into the working class — his parents ran into financial difficulties, and he had to work in a factory at the age of twelve. Victorian factories were truly horrifying places. Almost every Dickens novel has at its heart a child whose place in the class structure is uncertain — David Copperfield, Pip, Oliver Twist, Little Dorrit… Dickens’s early anxiety about his place in Victorian society was a big part of the reason he excelled at bringing that society so riotously and wonderfully to life.

Franco Moretti, in his delightful Atlas of the European Novel, 1800-1900, diagrams Jane Austen’s novels and, if I remember correctly, discovers that all her plots begin and end inland, while the central plot complication happens in a coastal town. From Claire Tomalin’s insightful biography of Jane Austen, I recall that Austen received one marriage proposal, in Portsmouth, which she initially accepted, then after thinking it through overnight, changed her mind the next morning. I propose that marriage proposals, and all the nightmarish rituals of courtship in English coastal resorts, functioned for Jane Austen the way being interned by the Japanese did for JG Ballard — as a sort of unhealable wound that could be used as a window onto reality.
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