Andrew Sinclair Sinclair, Andrew (Vol. 2) - Essay

Sinclair, Andrew (Vol. 2)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Sinclair, Andrew 1935–

Sinclair, a British novelist and historian, is the author of Gog and Magog. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)

[Worth] your time is Andrew Sinclair's Gog. Sinclair's material is all resolutely English—Druids, Albion, countryside, but most of his manner is all-American: big, sprawling, Henderson, V., a hero seven-feet tall washed onto the Scottish coast after V-E day, an amnesia victim…. Gog is much too long, but the end is rich and satisfying, a book the likes of which I have not seen in a long time.

Roger Sale, in Hudson Review, Winter, 1967, pp. 670-71.

Gog is written in the present tense but the atmosphere is medieval. It's a Gothic fairy tale, all angles and distortions and devils in hobnailed boots; it's a Norse mythology, full of giants with clubs and coalscuttle heads; it's Druidic, Powysian, supernatural, the history of Albion, all her sons and daughters, all the rot and rain, all the pestilence, the horror, the dread and the delight bubbling up and erupting and resurrecting itself in the here and now, bursting out of the past as Gog tramps through the living land trying to fathom who he is. The book sears and scalds, it's the vision of a cold, planetary eye, and somehow it all founders in the end, goes mad like a cancer and finally smashes in a blind fury of destruction. I'm still reeling. I think there's genius in it.

Philip Callow, in Books and Bookmen, June, 1967.

[Gog] is a picaresque tale with perhaps more satirical pretensions than the author's talent for ribald and extravagant inventiveness can finally support. The hero of the strange chronicle Mr. Sinclair has cooked up is a seven-foot giant who is washed up on the coast of Scotland at the end of the war in Europe. Naked and suffering from amnesia, the only clues to his identity are the names 'Gog' and 'Magog' tattooed on the backs of his hands….

The truth is that if the novel is not without distinction as a study of a mind hovering between sanity and madness, its satirical aims are lost in a welter of scholarly clowning, crude farce and the sort of glib cynicism that is so often mistaken for cold, hard-headed intellectualism.

Frank McGuinness, in London Magazine, June, 1967, pp. 113-15.

[Sinclair's] feeling for the land is physical, sensual; the reader can half-sense the stones, the mud, the cobwebs and nettles through his extravagant, footsore descriptions. The people he meets, though, are quite fictitious….

It is rarely certain whether Gog's adventures take place in the "real world" or inside his head—the dreams of "the lost traveller under the hill."…

The eternal champion of "the people", Gog, reaches London and finds the eternal oppressor, Magog—his elder brother, Magnus, a city gent. But when the mob tear their tyrant to pieces, Gog feels sorry for him, turns his back on the past and walks off the final page, an individualist. There is an allegory contained here. A certain kind of rebel, inspired by sentimental indignation and a love-hate for the common people, can be deflected from his reforming path by the mere thought of revolution. But it is by no means certain that this is the allegory the author intended.

"Walking Tall," in Times Literary Supplement, June 8, 1967.

Gog is what no one expects (or really wants) the English novel to be nowadays: long, passionate, cranky, unmetropolitan, omnivorous, very fruity and often properly tedious. But this awkward, messy, perverse book will probably offend most because it is impelled by an obsessive idea….

At least there is some passion behind [the] characterisation although I found the real target rather opaque. Mostly the book is a series of funny production numbers: droll, but the laughs are hollow where they need to be edgy; the wrong sort of punch. Reading it feels rather like a sombre lifetime spent waiting for the dentist.

Kenith Trodd, in New Statesman, June 9, 1967.

In the weirdest novel [Gog] since John Barth's Giles Goat-Boy, British historian and playwright Andrew Sinclair mounts a time machine and takes a wild ride through history….

It is … redeemed from boredom, if not confusion, by Sinclair's great verbal felicity. He can, in the manner of James Joyce in his celebrated parody of all English prose since the Venerable Bede, catch the tone of class and time….

Speculation suggests that in Gog and Magog he is trying to make explicit the evil and good in man, a Manichaean notion that influenced Robert Louis Stevenson in writing Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. A more subtle Jungian notion is that Gog (i.e., man) is not only himself but also the sum of the past of the whole race. The naked amnesiac on the shores of Scotland must relive the whole of history before he can find the structure of his own soul. History being what it is, this is a bleak and troubling thought.

"Pilgrim's Progress," in Time (reprinted by permission from Time, The Weekly Newsmagazine; © 1967 by Time Inc.), September 1, 1967.

Mr. Sinclair has been continuously and restlessly experimenting in fiction, while simultaneously developing his professional field of modern American history. He has abandoned, in his fiction, both the milieu and the naturalism of "Bumbo"—which, indeed, ends symbolically with the hero being tossed into the lake in St. James's Park by his brother officers. In his subsequent novels, Mr. Sinclair has sought other company and continued in other ways to express his concern about such notions as the common humanity of rich and poor….

Mr. Sinclair has too much talent to fail to make an impression. But the impression is confused by too much frenetic action, and softened by long lapses into flat, sometimes merely clever, sometimes merely banal, prose. "Gog" is a monument of myth and slapstick, violence and parody, drama-of-evil and custard-pie comedy. Like some great Gothic folly seen through the mist, it fails to communicate its meaning.

J. D. Scott, "Pilgrim's Progress," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1967 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 10, 1967.

Whatever Sinclair had in mind when he began [Gog], he seems to have lost it or exchanged it several times along the way. Having asked himself no proper questions, he comes up with no proper answers. A book with such inflated pretentions must be judged an infuriating failure—though not in the marketplace.

Jane Wilson, in Book World (© The Washington Post), September 24, 1967.

Andrew Sinclair, to judge by Gog, would sympathize with Ruskin's definition of "literature of the prison house." Echoes of Ruskin and even more of Carlyle and Morris sound through the wanderings of his everyman Gog, tramping over the familiar acres of Albion to declare war on London, the Great Wen. The human demand for freedom and the human urge for order struggling against each other throw up occasions of violence, now from one side, now from the other, which are unsparingly recorded in the dream sequences of Sinclair's novel.

Sinclair dedicates his book to Magog, symbol of power, authority, centralization, the tyranny of material success and fashion, with the brave injunction "May he rot." All the same, it looks as if Magog had a hand in writing his blurb for him….

It is by the skill with which the novelist succeeds in governing the Magog of violence and excess that most contemporary works may be roughly divided into literature and sensational ephemera. Outside a military epic like The Iliad….

Gog … [is a] most extraordinary and ambitious [work]…. A novel based on a mixture of traditional genres, the allegory, the romance, and the picaresque tale, it is at once realistic and a fantasy, didactic and mythical, precise and comprehensive. Sinclair complains that most reviewers have misunderstood it, but he can hardly be surprised; it attempts so much. The burlesque farrago form contains elements which mingle literary, political, historical ideas all of which relate to its real theme, Albion, England, the country which Gog and Magog, the two sides of man, struggle to represent and rule. It is essentially a mythological dream of the history of England, and it is hard to see how many of the most brilliant and impressive passages can make their effect without a close knowledge on the reader's part of the English countryside and English history….

The love of life and a compulsive literary energy are what make Gog so impressive a book. In an earlier period a work of this sort might well have been written in verse, and Sinclair imitates the liturgical rhythms of poetry in passages like those describing Gog's experiences in Durham cathedral or before the Five Sisters window in York Minster. Elsewhere the style is robust and rowdy, or rhetorical; at other times it is vividly precise—an instrument of remarkable range. Like The Faerie Queene, Gog has its ogres and enchantresses, its crudely horrifying and its crudely comic details, and, like that work, its subtle and moving moments. But the dynamic pattern of the novel recalls more closely a work like Thomas Carlyle's French Revolution, that dramatic image of human experience told in terms of one episode in history. Gog is more ambitious in bringing together a whole sequence of episodes and a whole context of myth and literature. Confusion and carelessness are its worst faults, but its inclusiveness is also its strength. Self-indulgent and undisciplined, it nevertheless shows a clumsy but powerful genius which can only leave one astonished, occasionally repelled, but consistently grateful for so much imaginative vigor and breadth.

Rachel Trickett, in The Yale Review (© 1968 by Yale University; reprinted by permission of the editors), Spring, 1968, pp. 439-40, 448, 450-51.

Sinclair is an immensely industrious and prolific writer; during the last ten years he has published several novels and books on American history; but one would hardly have expected the large achievement of Gog from such amiable but light-weight relics of the late fifties as The Breaking of Bumbo and My Friend Judas. One must, however, remark that Sinclair now regards all his earlier novels as no more than stylistic exercises. The name 'Gog' comes from one of the legendary giants of British mythology, and in Sinclair's novel he is personified as a huge rugged-featured man who is washed up naked and unconscious on the Scottish coast in the summer of 1945. He is revived and is assumed to be a seaman from a ship sunk in the aftermath of war. The man has lost his memory, but he knows that his name is 'Gog', and the names 'Gog' and 'Magog' are tattooed on the backs of his hands. He senses that he is in some way a representative of the British people, and he sets out to walk to London to claim their inheritance: the book follows his long walk in a loose, picaresque fashion, describing Gog's many adventures on the way, some of which are comic, others horrible, but all of which indicate Sinclair's extraordinary imaginative exuberance. Gog's journey takes him to many sacred places, such as York Minster, Glastonbury and Stonehenge, and it becomes an exploration of the multi-layered English past, almost like the excavation of an archaeological site….

What prevents Gog from being merely a pleasant fictional travelogue is the almost obsessive quality of Sinclair's concern for the English past, and his feeling for myth, which he sees as overtaking history…. Underlying Gog is an intense concern for the question of national identity…. In Gog [Sinclair] puts the Arthurian and associated material to a brilliant imaginative use, in the many passages where he sees a given landscape as a nexus of geography and myth. The only contemporary writer who has a comparable feeling for the legendary strata of the English past is David Jones, in In Parenthesis and The Anathemata, books which Sinclair had not read when he was working on Gog. Not all of Sinclair's dominating myths seem to me equally compelling; his vision of Gog as a representative of the English people against the dominant power of London—symbolised in the novel by the shadowy counter-force of 'Magog'—points to a strain of romantic populism which it is hard to justify historically, no matter how loosely one reads history.

The technique of Gog shows the kind of eclecticism that denotes a highly conscious attitude to writing, and which tends to be more characteristic of American writing than of English; Sinclair diversifies, or amplifies, his narrative with interpolated documents, and extracts from film scripts or comic strips. He has emphasised the influence of the cinema…. Sinclair has spoken of his admiration for Thomas Pynchon's V., an equally elaborate and exuberant fantasy, full of mystifications about identity, whose general influence on the concept and form of Gog is not hard to detect. Sinclair's reference to an American author as an influence is, I think, significant. Gog seems to offer a mirror-image of much American fiction. The disoriented naked hero without memory whom we encounter at the beginning is reminiscent of the central figures of many American novels. Yet the development of Sinclair's book points in the opposite direction. Whereas American literature has to deal, traditionally, with an alien and history-less landscape, where myths are created by men only in the act of subduing it, Sinclair attempts instead successive penetrations of a rich and deep past. The concern with identity in Gog is at the opposite pole to the disembodied though vividly rendered fantasies we find in Pynchon's book and in many other American novels. Yet Sinclair's acknowledgement of Pynchon's influence is one more sign of the way in which many English novels, or more accurately fictional fables, are finding an affinity with American works, an affinity which is not, I think, ultimately to be defined in purely literary terms….

Gog is radically undisciplined and very prolix over large areas, and I dislike its dwelling on violence, which may indeed be an ineradicable part of Sinclair's personal obsessions, but which does not seem altogether free from the dictates of current literary fashion. Quite clearly Gog is an intensely personal book, whose approach could not be followed by writers who do not share Sinclair's preoccupations, knowledge and temperament. It does not offer support for anyone who claims that a large-scale recourse to the mythic fable is the appropriate answer for other English novelists facing a cultural impasse.

Bernard Bergonzi, in his The Situation of the Novel (reprinted from The Situation of the Novel by Bernard Bergonzi by permission of the University of Pittsburgh Press; © 1970 by the University of Pittsburgh Press), University of Pittsburgh Press, 1970, pp. 76-9.

Gobbling great hunks of time, a vast dramatis personae; tossing off puns, inside jokes, bits of mythology; insisting that the life of a man and of an empire have much in common, the book [Magog] trivializes all it touches. There is a strange discrepancy between its apparent breadth of concern and the confinement of its self-congratulatory displays of wit, its game-playing …, its perfunctory dismissal of characters whose usefulness is past…. The very inventiveness of the plotting contributes to an effect of claustrophobic self-absorption. Things keep happening, years pass in a page or so, nothing is taken seriously, nothing matters. It's funny sometimes, sometimes even sad, but the lack of sharp authorial perspective makes it seem purposeless—comedy without focus, a private joke, finally uninteresting, instantly forgettable.

Patricia Meyer Spacks, in Hudson Review, Autumn, 1972, p. 505.