Clancy Sigal Essay - Critical Essays

Sigal, Clancy

Sigal, Clancy 1926–

Sigal, an American novelist and journalist now living in England, is the author of the autobiographical novels Going Away and Weekend in Dinlock. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

As a documentary, Weekend in Dinlock is a remarkable achievement. It has an atmosphere as thick and authentic as the coal-dust in the mine. The fictional aspect—Davie's dilemma about whether to stay a collier in Dinlock or go away and be an artist in London—is sketchily drawn and less satisfying; and, of course, not everyone wants to read about lives which are dingy. (p. 45)

The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd., 1960; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), January 22, 1960.

My reservations about [Weekend in Dinlock] stem chiefly from Sigal's attitude to his task. Although he writes a half-novel, he does not escape the air of a researcher on a planned project. His inspection takes place in a slightly clinical chill; his note-taking, on-the-ball watchfulness never lets up for a second. Moreover, we know what his project is: life in Dinlock, he says at the outset, is an "atrocity." His project is not to record the whole of life in Dinlock, but the atrocious aspect of it: his objectivity has thesis-bias. As a result, we hear almost nothing of Dinlock's shopkeepers and clerks, and very little of the surface-workers. The face-workers are, as he says, at the world's end, but they are not alone there, they are not in group confinement. Their life is as bad as he describes, but it is also much better. He sees the atrocity clearly, but misses the spirit which enables these people to live much of it joyfully. Perhaps it is the communal spirit he misses, the impersonal affection of one for another, which overrides personal detestation, like the spirit that springs up among people during an air raid: among colliers it is a constant condition. The businesslike "let's have less crap" tone of the writing exaggerates this limitation on Sigal's part. Occasionally, he seems to believe these people are keeping alive under the horror of the pit only on huge shots of sentimental delusion. His descriptions often present more than his analytical comments take into account…; then his book becomes momentarily bigger than he is.

Another discomfort comes from our feeling that everyone Sigal observes is aware primarily at that moment of his observing them, this strange bird up from London, this Yank in a white duffle hunting up stuff to put in a book. The effect is to give immediacy, a naive reality, to what he sees, but also a stiltedness. No matter how he actually did make the observations, his technique of presenting them—as the impressions of a sensational visitor—gets in the way slightly.

The spirit of the Dinlocks of Yorkshire is in a sense a relic and on the point of disintegration: it is open to all the delusions of modernity, from mechanization in the pit to "telly" in the home. Though now and again, when he's drunk, Sigal gets the impression that Dinlock is indestructible, he does record a noticeable change during the mere six months between his first observations and his last. Telly takes the upper hand decisively, boys now make no secret of their trying to get out of the village, the older men are complaining that the younger are no longer so loyal to the pubs. A new sense of the open world is rapidly breaking down the colliers' devotion to their own character. Sigal has caught Dinlock at a historical moment, in a strong light. (pp. 14-15)

Ted Hughes, "England's Toughest Community," in The Nation (copyright 1960 by the Nation Associates, Inc.), July 2, 1960, pp. 14-15.

"Going Away" is a first-hand novel by a first-rate writer driven by the discovery that he is a man fully equipped to live his life, but with no place to live it. The novel is not one of those small perfected works turned out with good taste and great caution; the recklessness of the protagonist's driving is matched by the reckless honesty of Mr. Sigal's writing. And like all work that results from personal search, it is flawed. The flaw lies in the driver's depending for his own life upon that mystic "small circle of friends of grace and purpose." He is a man so involved in the company of men that, when other lives fail, his also sinks.

Yet in all times and everywhere it has been the writer's hard lot to stand against the reduction of life. Today that reduction is not simply an American phenomenon, but an international one. The race for the biggest heap of cans [at the supermarket] is as hot in England, France or Germany as it is here. And the writer is left to stand where he has always stood: cartless in the supermart. He has to contrive his own cart—and that cart, in any society, is to stand in an ironic affiliation to the establishment. Then he will surely be outvoted, but he won't be left behind. (p. 5)

Nelson Algren, "Is Really Left Behind," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1962 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), February 18, 1962, pp. 4-5.

[Many] of the best writers around are not novelists but those literary journalists who practice, as it is swankily called, reportage. (Some novelists occasionally write reportage, and with interesting results: it outclasses their fiction.) One of the most original practitioners of the form is Clancy Sigal, an American in his thirties who lives in England. Sigal has written just two books—"Weekend in Dinlock,"… and "Going Away."… The first book is genuinely brilliant, the second good. Both books, though labelled "novels" by their publishers, are a nearly unique cross between reportage and autobiographical fiction, in which the nameless narrator—in contrast to the shadowy observer-catalyst in most reportage—is shaped and changed by the distilled facts he records. "Going Away" is prefaced by the traditional novelist's disclaimer: "Except for certain well-known public figures all of the characters in this book are fictitious and any resemblance," etc. But the book is subtitled "A Report, A Memoir." And those are exactly what it is….

Despite its occasional vivid, in-the-round parts, "Going Away" has an encyclopedic, almost official-history air—the traditional first "novel," minus the spasms. The book—over five hundred pages—is too long, and Sigal's prose, which has the natural writer's easy mixture of simplicity, rhythm, colloquialism, and reluctant but precise use of metaphor, shows the strain. A book half as long might have been singular; one a third as long might have ranked with "Dinlock" (just under two hundred pages). (p. 181)

[The] book constitutes Sigal's pursuit of his all-consuming vision—the battling, fettered, democratic workingman in his pristine sweat and refinement. But the vision eludes him, and, having reached water, he must cross it. And he escapes—presumably for good—his country and his nervous breakdown. The two, he implies, are synonymous.

The whole tone of "Weekend in Dinlock" is different. The narrator is pleased, selfless, and healthy…. [His] visits to Dinlock result in a matchless portrait of the village, its inhabitants, and the mine itself. (pp. 182, 184)

"Weekend in Dinlock" is admirable technically. Sigal has a fine ear; his Yorkshire hot-potatoes drawl practically sings. His prose is finished, his characters solid, his taste and humor unfailing. Sigal—the tactful, resilient narrator—emerges as a tough, quick, ingratiating man whose psychological insights are sometimes breath-catching. He has made himself acceptable in a village where all non-residents—British or not—are regarded as foreigners. (Real foreigners are regarded as leprous.) But he has not cheapened his success by making noble savages of the Dinlockers, nor has he sociologically dismembered them. They are—we know again and again—precisely what Sigal says they are. (p. 185)

Whitney Balliett, in The New Yorker (© 1962 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), March 17, 1962.

Weekend in Dinlock has been called a novel "in which autobiographical elements bulk large," and also, by its original publisher, Houghton Mifflin, "the highest form of documentary writing." It has been compared to the work of James Agee and George Orwell. (p. 252)

Going Away is a strange amalgam of forms; not only is it a novel in the form of an autobiographical memoir but it also utilizes the properties of political reportage and the conventions of the picaresque. The novel begins with a prologue—actually the plot in outline form—that reads like Sigal's biography….

Going Away is less obviously stylized than Weekend in Dinlock. The narrator's direct participation in events gives rise to a free-flowing, colloquial prose. Sigal also abandons the schematized structure of Weekend; but his love for doubling effects persists. As the narrator travels farther east, his mind is working back into the past, back to New York and the "abortive strike of 16mm film cleaners." (p. 253)

Going Away may read like a first novel, but that is because, in relation to Sigal's elusive personal history, the events precede those of Weekend in Dinlock. Going Away explains how the nameless narrator of the first book came to be poking around those South Yorkshire coal mines. As for the novel's length, it matches the work's scope. How does an author realistically portray time passing, detail the people met and lands traveled without writing at some length?

Going Away is also one of the few novels in which politics is an active force, rather than simply the cause of symbolic destruction. The novel's political history and analysis serve as explanation, clarification and prophecy. More important, Going Away is a portrait of an honest man, wrongheaded, egotistical, brash—but tender and compassionate, "a man fully equipped to live his life, but with no place to live it," as Nelson Algren said. (pp. 253-54)

Robert Leiter, "Fleeing the Sacred Shores," in The Nation (copyright 1975 by the Nation Associates, Inc.), March 1, 1975, pp. 252-54.

Clancy Sigal's new, original, and witty novel is called "Zone of the Interior," a title that moves the traveler, and the fellow traveler, into the nightmare and yet oddly humorous landscape of schizophrenia. It completes the odyssey begun by Sigal in 1962 with "Going Away," with which the 50-year-old writer established his claim to being the 1960's cartographer of America….

["Zone of the Interior"] moves in a new direction for Sigal, using the old self-excoriating method and self-exploratory means, giving us a fiction full of new-found humor (in mental illness), compassion for sufferers, and insight into the disease, for he himself had a brief episode within it…. Clancy Sigal has "come down" precisely in the middle of his own deeply felt experience. Out of all his agony he has written a strange and wonderful and funny book…. Again and again, on almost every page, Sigal manages a masterly performance, skirting the edges of sickness, balancing on bubbles of funny detail. Like Nathanael West, in a totally different context, he is able to raise human tragedy, helplessness, and ultimately waste to the level of high comedy….

[Sigal's] way in the novel is not the usual trip, his transmutation of personal experience into thinly disguised fiction is a private method of dealing with his life and times. The result is not roman a clef fun and games. It is intensely felt and realized narrative, full of heart and talent.

Doris Grumbach, "Clancy Sigal Is on the Way Home," in The Village Voice (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice; copyright © by The Village Voice, Inc., 1976), April 26, 1976, p. 45.

Having been silent fourteen years since his panoramic Going Away, a novel dealing with America's slide to conformity in the fifties, [in Zone of the Interior] Sigal now focuses his considerable genius on the region of schizophrenia. Only his style remains familiar—a flamboyant, witty, almost plotless mixture of reportage and personal memoir, fact and imagination, consequence and comedy…. Clancy Sigal is a serious, compassionate, decent, and very funny writer, and one wishes that … the interval between his novels may get shorter. (p. 56)

Robert Maurer, in Saturday Review (copyright © 1976 by Saturday Review, Inc.; reprinted with permission), July 10, 1976.