Clive Sinclair (1948-2018): The Forgotten Revolutionary

Clive Sinclair spent most of his life in search of his “inner cowboy”. He grew up in North London, in the 1950s as a self-styled “Hendonite”. The dullness of suburban life was relieved by classical Westerns which shaped his imagination. In the Sinclair household it was universally acknowledged that John Ford’s The Searchers (1956), starring John Wayne, was the greatest movie ever made. A visit to the Hendon Odeon to see a Hollywood Western (after donning a cowboy outfit with his younger brother Stewart) was the highlight of the week. Centre-stage in their home was a photograph of the brothers Sinclair dressed as cowboys aged 8 and 4 (the year when The Searchers first appeared). In most school photographs before the age of 11, Sinclair wore an over-large cowboy hat.

One of Sinclair’s earliest stories, “The Texas State Steak-Eating Contest” (1979), moves between New Mexico, Texas and Los Angeles. It is the first of Sinclair’s stories to include the down-at-heel Los Angeles detective Joshua Smolinsky. Smolinsky is Sinclair’s  Eastern European “disguise”- who he “might have been” if the names of his Russian and Polish paternal and maternal grandparents had not been anglicized. The East European luftmensch and the earthy, big-hatted Texan are the two poles of his imaginative world.

In 1970, when he was a postgraduate student, Sinclair drove to Mexico in his Ford Falcon from the University of Santa Cruz, California. He was an habitual traveller mainly in the United States, South America and the Middle East which, along with North London, were the locations for his novels and stories. As he stated in an early interview, he travelled widely so as to collect stories like a “big game hunter”.

His travelling adventures culminated in a 7000 mile odyssey in 2003 around the western states of America. In a car full of friends and family, he traversed thirteen States (from Kansas to New Mexico) in 20 days focusing on the iconic characters and events at the heart of America’s Wild West. The  trip included a visit to Dodge City in Kansas, Tombstone in Arizona (where he held Wyatt Earp’s gun), Billy the Kid’s jail in New Mexico, Calamity Jane’s grave in South Dakota, and a re-enactment of Custer’s Last Stand in Montana.

It was Smolinsky-like detective work that precipitated this pilgrimage. On one of his many trips to local auction-houses to obtain nineteenth-century Americana, Sinclair bought a photograph of a nude woman covered only in a thin black veil. He eventually discovered that the photograph was of Josephine Marcus, Wyatt Earp’s Jewish wife for half a century, whose family came from Prussia. His two imagined homelands (Wild West America and Jewish Europe) had collided. The mysterious photograph led to the two novellas in Meet the Wife(2002) and to his travel bool True Tales of the Wild West (2008).

I first met Clive Sinclair as a twenty-something graduate student in the early 1980s. Sinclair, then still in his early thirties, had been showered with literary prizes, and chosen as one of Granta’sBest of Young BritishNovelists along with Martin Amis, Pat Barker, Julian Barnes, and Salman Rushdie. At UEA, where he taught, he was considered to be on a par with Angela Carter, Kazuo Ishiguro and Ian McEwan and was lauded by Malcolm Bradbury and befriended by W. G. Sebald.

From the beginning I was overwhelmed by the intellectual energy, breath-taking originality and dark humour of his fiction. No one, in Britain at least, had written like this before. One of my early favourites was the story “Ashkenazia” (1982) which recalls a fictitious Yiddish-speaking country situated somewhere in central Europe:

Many of my fellow-countrymen do not believe in the existence of God. I am more modest. I do not believe in myself. What proof can I have when no one reads what I write? There you have it; my words are the limit of my world. You will therefore smile at this irony; I have been commissioned by our government to write the official English-language Guide to Ashkenazia.

This was published twenty-five years before Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union (2007) and led the way to such imaginative virtuosity. To understand the importance of Sinclair’s fiction one has to go back to this time when he was rightly thought of as instigating a “quiet but profound revolution” in British-Jewish letters. There were three main reasons for his under-stated importance. Firstly, the range of his reading which mixed Nabokov with Bashevis Singer, Philip Roth with Bram Stoker, Borges with Kafka; secondly, the extent of his traveling throughout the Americas, the Middle East and Eastern Europe all of which resulted in remarkable stories or startling “imaginary homelands”; thirdly, his sense of morality after the Holocaust (as a non-survivor) which placed self-conscious limits on his imagination and helped to define him as a Jewish writer in a “national sense” (as he put it).

Sinclair pointedly attempted to “write fiction that owed nothing to any English antecedents”. He was a master story-teller whose “smart aleck” stories were always devilishly playful with a battery of puns, puzzles and wise-cracks. His topics included hopeless masculinity, misguided revenge, or the absurd consequences of sexual jealousy. He was drawn to the gothic—vampires eating butterflies in one of his stories— as well as other “outlaw” forms such as detective fiction or the pulp fiction which inspired the classical Western. This was a unique voice that was new to both British and Jewish literature. Here are a few of his more memorable opening lines:

Call me Schlemiel. You will after you’ve read this. (“The Promised Land”)

During the night I have a vision of bedbugs in congress. (“Bedbugs”)

“If you insist upon lying to me”, says my interrogator, “perhaps you will have more respect for a rabbi.” (“Svoboda”)

I have never been on particularly good terms with my organs. What a querulous bunch they are… (“Kayn Aynhoreh”)

As well as writing smart, sassy fiction, Sinclair also had an unusual sense of post-Holocaust morality which was taken from Isaac Bashevis Singer and Yiddish literature in particular. Sinclair wrote his doctorate on the Singer family—Isaac Bashevis, Israel Joshua and their sister Esther Kreitman—which was published as The Brothers Singer (1983). It was the first book to bring to life the Singer family as a whole through the autobiographical novels of all three siblings. Sinclair only wrote books that he hoped would add to the sum of literature. Since its publication, the Singer family has become an academic industry.

In The Brothers Singer Sinclair focuses on a story by Isaac Bashevis called “The Betrayer of Israel”. This is about a writerly persona who turns a sordid story of polygamy into art. The choice is between the writer’s “talent” and his “people”. By choosing his talent the story-teller becomes a betrayer and is well-aware of the cost of betrayal after the Holocaust. As Sinclair put it in an interview:

The betrayal is that a writer has to be amoral—that is what is meant by following their imagination to its furthest extent. But the father-figure in their fiction becomes the person betrayed. He is the one who says that this betrayal has happened before and it led to the Holocaust. How are you different from the Nazis? What makes the story-teller different? Why aren’t they Nazis if their imagination throws off every Jewish convention that has been laid upon them?

This moral seriousness informs all of Sinclair’s fiction. One story speaks of a “Jewish Moral Bank” in which “all a customer has to do is prove his Jewish identity” whose members can “sit in judgement on any subject that takes one’s fancy”. Another story invents the psychosis “Rosenberg’s Revenge” (after the poet Isaac Rosenberg who died in the First World War) which allows a character to attack a German student in the name of Jewish victimhood. Sinclair constantly questions the behaviour of Jews who were not there (whose flesh was not touched by the Holocaust) and who lay claim to a spurious “moral superiority”.

In Diaspora Blues: A View of Israel (1987), Sinclair outlines his intense involvement with Israel, not least its writers, artists and film-makers, after 1967. But, in a later book— after decades of the radical right in Israel acting with impunity—he “reserved the right to use my pen in whatever way I see fit” in relation to the Jewish State. He did not “abandon” Israel but, as his novel Cosmetic Effects (1989) makes clear, he also understood deeply the plight of the Palestinians under Israeli control and of his dissident friends in Israel who could only protest.

So, if Clive Sinclair is such an important writer, why has he been largely neglected in recent years? There are a number of reasons for this neglect but first among them are the serial tragedies which he endured a decade after the height of his success. Between 1993 and 1996 Sinclair lost his parents, his beloved wife, Fran, and his sister-in-law, Susan. A recessive gene caused renal failure (which also struck his mother) and he underwent dialysis and a kidney transplant during these years. These dark times were recorded in A Soap Opera from Hell (1998) a dignified and humane collection of essays. This book was the companion to his Chekhov-inspired The Lady with the Laptop and Other Stories(1996) which was given the Jewish Quarterly/Wingate Prize among other awards.

After publishing ten books in a decade and a half he was, in recent years, much less productive. Sinclair’s priorities changed, after so much death and suffering, and he devoted a great deal of time to his son Seth as a single father, his friends, many of whom he had known since childhood, and what remained of his extended family. From 1998 the painter Haidee Becker provided much needed contentment. He travelled regularly between Los Angeles, Santa Cruz, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv visiting Seth and his wife Kate in L.A. and life-long friends elsewhere in the U. S. and Israel. The question that haunts his fiction after these tragic years is how he can write about the death of those closest to him without exploiting their memories? Can he live with the betrayal of his nearest and dearest by turning their deaths into a commodity—even in the name of art?

In many ways, Sinclair’s life and his art could not be more different. He characterised the novelist in Diaspora Blues as follows, “all writers … must invent our own homelands where we spend the best part of our days, utterly alone”. Here he is weighing the imaginative life of the writer with hisactual relationship with his wife: “Does she suspect that my real life is elsewhere, in a different country, without her?”. But he was not alone even in his imagination. In later years he was haunted by his many losses and the question of betrayal was no longer an abstract question.

That was why actual living relationships became as important to Sinclair as his writing. His deep and lasting friendships (reinforced with regular phone calls and carefully crafted correspondence) alongside his alternative homelands in California and Israel acted as a point of stability; a fixed point where he could feel at home and be at his best with his life-long companions. He still wished to “distil the essence of other places. To become temporarily at home” in his imagination. But he craved life as much as literature.

The second main reason for his neglect is that Sinclair, as he would certainly acknowledge, was primarily a short-story or novella-length writer. His first two novels, Blood Libels (1985) and Cosmetic Effects, are personal histories which have national consequences. These are novels, in other words, of the writerly ego gone berserk. But that was also the theme of many of his stories. It is not a coincidence that it was Sinclair’s collections of stories and novellas which won the major prizes, rather than the novels. Many of his favourite authors—Anton Chekhov, Grace Paley, Philip Roth, Bashevis Singer—wrote their best work in the shorter form. Being one of the most accomplished post-war British and Jewish short story writers would, in another age, have been enough for Sinclair to be lauded today.

The exception to the rule is Sinclair’s novel Augustus Rex (1992) which explores the limits of the authorial ego in relation to another great writer of short fiction, August Strindberg. In this, his best novel, Sinclair has Strindberg make a Faustian pact with Beelzebub so that he can be reborn. Strindberg’s death-defying revival becomes a source of vengeful humour. But the vengeance is well-earned in the novel as Strindberg was a notorious ego-maniac as well as a misogynist and an anti-Semite (he even wrote an essay called “Why I am an Anti-Semite”). Confusing the imagination with life is a cardinal sin in Sinclair’s universe.

That was why, in recent years, Sinclair repeatedly returned to the United States (where his son was born and now lives) in True Tales of the Wild West and his penultimate collection of stories, Death & Texas(2014). These books blur fantasy and actuality by going back to the founding myths of America. All nations are “imagined communities” and Sinclair shows in these late works that the imagination and actuality are profoundly intertwined. At last Sinclair was on terra firma and was no longer Joshua Smolinsky the luftmensch.

When I first interviewed Sinclair during the height of his fame and fortune he perched me the prima donna. He perched me at the end of his matrimonial bed, where I balanced awkwardly with my all-too-cumbersome tape recorder. In an age of self-promotion, Sinclair was not a great “advertisement for myself”. He refused to play the game and write middlebrow fiction. In an age of political correctness he would rather not write than toe the line.

A posthumous collection of stories Shylock Must Die (2018) will be published in July. These stories, among his very best, are full of ghosts and of characters haunted by past loved ones. As Sinclair wrote memorably, “I’ve nothing against ghosts personally; some of my best friends are dead”. Sinclair’s new readers will be haunted not just by an unjustly neglected author but by a revolutionary figure who helped to change British and Jewish literature for years to come.

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