Andrew Sinclair

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Sinclair, Andrew 1935–

Sinclair, an English novelist, biographer, playwright, short story writer, screenwriter, and critic, is a versatile author who has written satire, comedy, travelogues, and social-historical dramas. His works reveal a combination of contemporary American and Gothic English influences. (See also CLC, Vol. 2, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)

Lee T. Lemon

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Andrew Sinclair's Magog, sequel to Gog, might just be one of the best novels of the past few years. The earlier book was a stumbling romp through the history and mythology of the British Isles, conducted by Gog—in his contemporary incarnation an educated and wealthy but naive Englishman whose memories include those of his mythical and historical ancestors. British history, Celtic mythology, Blake's Prophetic Books, and the Anglo-Saxon and Norman invasions get jumbled together in the journey that Gog—who starts the novel as an amnesiac—makes from Northern England to London. But in Gog, Sinclair is in control of neither his materials nor his style, so what could have been a magnificently entertaining and wise fiction becomes a verbose exercise in overworked imagination.

But Magog is a different book. Magog, in this incarnation as in the myth the practical, conniving half-brother to Gog, is not hindered by his brother's ponderous memories. He is a kind of gadfly of meaningless change, moving from a relatively high government post through assorted positions of growing power and prestige. Despite the triteness of the theme, Sinclair does a fine job of showing the reader the peculiar anguish of the successful but hollow man. By the end of the novel, Magog the manipulator has learned that time brings new and shrewder manipulators, and that one does not have to manipulate for the things which give satisfaction.

Enough good things happen along the way to keep readers of quite diverse tastes turning the pages. Sinclair does a fine job of showing the intricacies of power and has a talent for the memorable turn of phrase. I'm not sure if Magog will hold up after several more readings; if it does, Sinclair has written probably the best English fiction since Durrell's Alexandria Quartet. (pp. 83-4)

Lee T. Lemon, "'Gog' and 'Magog'," in Prairie Schooner (© 1974 by University of Nebraska Press; reprinted by permission from Prairie Schooner), Vol. XLVIII, No. 1, Spring, 1974, pp. 83-4.

Donald Davie

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[In "Dylan Thomas: No Man More Magical"] Sinclair has written a much more responsible book than its format and its blurbs seem meant to suggest; and I imagine many a reader, seduced by the glossy photographs and, on the dust jacket, "the best lyric poet of his age … the greatest lyric poet of his age," will feel cheated by Sinclair's mostly sober and judicious narrative. He supplies no colorful roustabout anecdotes and delivers instead such chastening judgments as "he was a poet of the villa and the family," or, "if his role of the enfant terrible was essentially false, yet he played it to its death and his own." In fact, Sinclair is in some ways altogether too circumspect; because he sets his sights so consistently on Thomas as a private and domestic person, we are supposed to know for ourselves about Thomas's unparalleled fame—when it started, how it grew, who helped it along, who exploited it. Firmly insisting that in the end Thomas's self-destruction can be blamed on no one but Thomas himself, Sinclair rightly resists the sentimentalists who would have it that the poet was "a victim," yet he could still have named the names of those who connived at the self-destruction, accelerated it and made show biz money out of it. By not acknowledging how it was Thomas's fame that...

(This entire section contains 554 words.)

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enabled him to destroy himself, Sinclair cannot deal with what, it seems to me, is the permanent lesson of Thomas's life story—that is to say, what it can mean nowadays for a poet to be famous and popular….

If we ask what "lyric" means when Thomas is called, as he is by Sinclair, "the greatest lyric poet of his time" (in any language, apparently), the answer seems to be …: a lyric poet is one who is absolved from all civic responsibilities and all moral restraints on the strict understanding that by enacting his own self-destruction under the spotlights he shall vindicate his public in its resentful acquiescence to the restraints he is absolved from. Thomas would have followed out this logic easily enough; he was very sharp and unsparing in these matters, as we see whenever Sinclair quotes from his letters and reviews. Indeed, the horror is that Thomas almost certainly knew what was happening to him, even as he went along with it. Sinclair doesn't deny this, but he doesn't bring it out very forcibly.

Probably most people believe, as Andrew Sinclair seems to, that the squalid waste of the life is justified by the handful of poems which that life, and by implication that way of life, made possible. Reasonably enough, in what is a biography not a critical study, Sinclair takes it for granted that the artistic excellence of that handful of poems is universally admitted. It is not. Thomas's gifts were very great; but he used them to achieve effects which are, though powerful, artistically coarse. A taste for them is a taste that cannot respond to the subtleties and delicacies of the best of Thomas's forerunners and contemporaries. And there's evidence that Thomas knew that too. This much we can salute in him—he did not fool himself.

Donald Davie, "No One to Blame but Himself," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1975 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), November 9, 1975, p. 7.

Robert Forrey

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Jack [a biography of Jack London] is no dull, stuffily written biography; Sinclair combines the readability of a journalist with the erudition of an academic critic. If there is a serious fault with the book, it is that it lacks adequate focus or a consistently informing thesis. Mr. Sinclair tends to be rather eclectic in his intellectual approach—a Freudian insight or generality here, a pharmacological opinion there, a conventional literary judgment in another place…. [It] does lead—this admiration for London—to occasional weak positions, such as saying Joseph Noel's Footloose in Arcadia "is the source of nearly all of the scandal about Jack's life." This is the kind of view one might expect from a Jack London cultist but not from somebody of Mr. Sinclair's independence of mind. London himself, along with his second wife, had more than anybody been the source of much falsehood about London, as Sinclair elsewhere in the biography seems to acknowledge. In fact, on the same page as the Noel indictment, Sinclair admits, "Yet Jack had been his own mythologizer, and Charmian had aided and abetted his fond falsification of his own life." To say the least. (pp. 636-37)

Robert Forrey, "Recent Books on Modern Fiction: 'Jack'," in Modern Fiction Studies (© copyright 1978 by Purdue Research Foundation, West Lafayette, Indiana), Vol. 24, No. 4, Winter, 1978–79, pp. 636-37.

James Monaco

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[John Ford's] brash patriotism seems simplistic now—as do many of his films (still regarded by many as the height of Hollywood art). But the sentiments were deeply felt, and honest, and in the end informed by some compassionate values. Ford remains a very testy character: the sort of artist who requires an apologia pro vita sua rather than a straight biography.

Andrew Sinclair, novelist, historian and filmmaker, has provided just that in "John Ford."… The picture that emerges is problematic, as was the man, but in the end affectionate. Ford's life was writ large, and Mr. Sinclair rises to the challenge, spinning his yarn with less blarney than you might expect. (p. 20)

James Monaco, "Two Directors," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1979 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 4, 1979, pp. 20-1.∗

Blake Morrison

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[There] can hardly have been a more demonic possession than that which afflicts Ernest Albert Pons, the central figure in Andrew Sinclair's new novel [The Facts in the Case of E. A. Poe]. Pons, a publisher's reader rather than an academic, has not only devoured every word written by Edgar Allan Poe, he believes in his more extreme moments that he actually is Poe—Poe, that is, reborn in the 20th century….

Andrew Sinclair has always believed in the need to get close to his subjects or characters: when writing Gog he roughed it near Hadrian's Wall just as his protagonist had to; and in his 1977 study Jack he spoke of the 'passion' which Jack London had inspired in him. The Facts in the Case of E. A. Poe is part novel, part biography, but above all an investigation of the whole question of 'entering into' the lives of others. There are some narrative elements—Pons receiving a valentine, travelling, visiting a brother—but they are kept to a minimum. There are long passages which read simply as a life-history of Poe (even a bibliography is included). There is also a tricksy device at the end with Andrew Sinclair supplying 'editorial notes' purportedly given to him by Dupin, but in fact functioning as a kind of defence of the book's unconventional procedures. What are the differences between fiction, biography and autobiography? Where does the writer end and his subject begin? What is the relationship between the living and the dead, between present and past? These, Sinclair suggests, are the questions he had tried to set himself when starting out on his book.

An ambitious novel, then, but not one that readily endears itself. You can see how its faults follow automatically from its designs. The schizophrenic structure is inevitable given the disturbed central character, the interest in dual personalities, and the biography/fiction division. The meagre information about Pons's history and character reflects his subordination to his idol's history and character. But these allowances can't prevent it from seeming a mechanical working-out of a half-baked idea, and for anyone not fully conversant with Poe's life and work, this is a hard, unrewarding and at times painfully boring novel to have to read.

Blake Morrison, "Making Tracks," in New Statesman (© 1979 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. 98, No. 2523, July 27, 1979, p. 137.∗

Paul Ableman

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[The Facts in the Case of E. A. Poe] is a rich and fascinating hybrid work—part fiction and part biography. Its hold on the reader stems, at least in part, from its use of one of the most successful of all literary formulae: the quest….

The interplay of fact and fiction is complicated in itself but Mr Sinclair further complexifies a slight … book by making Pons a Brooklyn Jew, haunted by survivor's guilt at having escaped the holocaust in which most of his family perished. Mr Sinclair works hard to make this theme seem a natural extension of the material but the effort shows. The main strands of this book are really twisted together by intellectual force….

The bulk of the book consists of Pons's reports to [his psychoanalyst] Dupin. In these, excellent, factual biographical sketches are juxtaposed with Pons's fictitious modern adventures.

Pons strives to recreate some of the poet's key experiences, usually with dismal results….

These sections are excellent as are the 'link' passages where Pons reports back to Dupin. Sinclair skilfully catches the mocking repartee of New York analyst-patient exchanges, at least as they are usually represented in fiction. The question is: do the two parts fuse into a coherent work of literature? The answer is: not quite. Mr Sinclair cannot quite bring Pons and the modern Dupin into focus with the historical poet.

In the last resort, then, the book stands or falls as an idiosyncratic exercise in biography. Considered in this light, it has certain advantages over the productions of academics. Mr Sinclair's insights, credited to Pons, are those of a distinguished novelist. He intuitively perceives the relationship between Poe's life and work, anatomising it in witty and sometimes brilliant prose. He touches upon but fails to grapple deeply with the central and much-discussed paradox that Poe was idolized by the European symbolists, spearheaded by Baudelaire, and ignored, or downright despised, by American critics….

Ernest Pons, in his capacity as vicarious biographer, does endow the old historian of the worm with a measure of universal significance.

It is no disparagement to say that this entertaining book belongs by right on the scholar's rather than the novel-reader's shelves.

Paul Ableman, "Questing," in The Spectator (© 1979 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), Vol. 243, No. 7881, July 28, 1979, p. 26.

Hermione Lee

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'No biographer can dare to describe Poe's state of mind better than he did himself. They can only hope to discern parts of their own identity in his.' Thus speaks 'Ernest Albert Pons,' the 'author' of Andrew Sinclair's ingenious and claustrophobic hybrid, part biography, part pastiche, part psychoanalysis [The Facts in the Case of E. A. Poe].

Pons's prose is as lush and frantic as Poe's, and he borrows freely from Poe's frenzied narrators: 'True!—nervous—very, very dreadfully nervous I have been and am; but why will you say that I am mad?' The unease which that tone of voice raises in all readers of Poe (who have, as it were, to go mad for the duration of the story) is cunningly re-evoked by 'Pons's' obsession with his alter ego. The novel sustains a clever play, along the lines of 'The Tell-Tale Heart' and 'Ligeia,' with our qualms about the narrator's sanity….

Dupin's ambiguity (conscience, critic, shrink, assassin) and Pons's vacillations between clinical biographical deductions and irrational obsession are very close to Poe's methods. If, as Sinclair suggests, re-writing Poe is the only way to approach him, this is a sensitive and quite a gripping attempt to do so.

Other aspects of the book aren't as convincing. The underlying link between Poe's images of horror and the concentration camps is disquieting: the two subjects refuse to be thought about in the same breath. And there's a rather trite emphasis on America as a Waste Land. The main dissatisfaction, however, is more generally, with this sort of currently fashionable hybrid. The book falls dubiously between the facts in the imaginary case of Mr Pons, and the facts in the real case—so very much stranger than any fiction but his own—of Mr Poe.

Hermione Lee, "A Case of Possession," in The Observer (reprinted by permission of The Observer Limited), No. 9805, July 29, 1979, p. 37.


Sinclair, Andrew (Vol. 2)