Books: Children of an angry God

After endless tragedy, Clive Sinclair can still blend laughter with disaster. Elena Lappin asks how
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The Independent Culture
I know I'm here to talk to Clive Sinclair about death, more death, illness and maybe sex, so I stall all these questions by concentrating on the delicious lunch he's preparing for us in his warm kitchen: spaghetti alla puttanesca, also known as "whore's sauce, from the backstreets of Naples", according to a yellowed recipe I find pinned on the wall. I can't help wondering how long it has been there, and whether it predates the recent string of tragedies in Clive's life. But I don't ask. With an almost steady hand and serious dedication, he produces a small culinary feast using anchovies, shiny black olives, capers, chocolate-coloured smoked serrano chillies he bought at the San Francisco farmers' market, and, finally, perfect English asparagus.

I'm enjoying it immensely. I'm also enjoying Clive's company. He is very relaxed, he laughs, he makes me laugh. A lot. And yet, later, when I'm at home transcribing the tape of the interview, I have to leave my desk every few minutes, just to get away from the facts of his life. Clive Sinclair has a unique gift for blending laughter with disaster.

In his new book of autobiographical essays, aptly entitled A Soap Opera from Hell: essays on the facts of life and the facts of death (Picador, pounds 6.99), the reader is given an engaging tour of a harrowing chain of events. Within 18 months, Clive Sinclair lost his mother-in-law, his mother, his wife Fran, his sister-in-law, his father.

A few weeks after the death of his wife, he was diagnosed himself with serious hereditary kidney disease, and had to undergo a kidney transplant. There are no women left in the entire Sinclair family, close and extended. Clive has a teenage son, Seth, and Clive's brother, a forensic social worker, has two small boys. Both their wives died of cancer.

It has become acceptable for writers to expose their most personal traumas to the world. John Diamond, Ruth Picardie, Linda Grant and Robert McCrum have all produced powerful writing on the subject of illness, but the genre is not restricted to this new British wave. Philip Roth has done it in his memoir Patrimony, as has Joseph Heller in No Laughing Matter and Elizabeth Wurtzel in Prozac Nation.

Clive Sinclair says he cannot speak for others, but for him, this type of writing "has been a sort of revenge on the illness, an empowerment. It's also a revenge upon the doctors, an alternative power-base. You are so dependent upon the medical profession, it's a way of not feeling helpless." But, he adds quickly, "I also think it's a way of confronting fate. Because if you knock the illness, if you laugh at it, if you actually imagine the worst thing that can happen, you somehow may avoid the evil decree, if I can quote our Scripture."

It is not, I hope, inappropriate to ask someone like Clive whether he believes in God, and I use this last statement as my cue. "I'm completely lacking any sense of religious belief, but I am superstitious. I believe that there may well be a personal God out there - not a monotheistic God - that has got it in for me. Fran did good deeds all her life. If one had any sense of a benign deity, Fran should have thrived in this world. But she didn't. She died of a horrible disease, in dreadful pain. I asked the doctor who runs the cancer ward - she is a deeply religious person - how can you believe in God? Her reply was, how can I not?

"I guess one just needs to find some sort of sense in it, and the only sense I can find is that God has got it in for me. Like one of my school teachers. I had a Latin master who, for no rational reason whatsoever - I was a very quiet kid at school - just hated me. One day he said, Sinclair, they're gonna hang you. So actually, God is like this Latin master. And in order to hide from him, I try to lead a secret life."

Not secret enough, I say, pointing out that in his fictional writing, Sinclair often creates situations which some writers might be afraid to invent for fear that they may really happen. And in some cases, they actually did. The narrator of his novel Blood Libels (published in 1985) sees himself as the victim of his organs, which plot to destroy him. "If I go," says Sinclair's hero to his organs, "I'll take you with me." "That's what you think," answer his rebellious kidneys, "ever heard of organ transplants?"

Sinclair is very much aware of the conflict between his personal need to make himself invisible to his punitive God, and his responsibility as a writer "to do the right artistic thing. Sometimes the demands of a story force things upon you that you don't necessarily like or agree with or even feel like writing, but you know you have to do it. Otherwise you are betraying the story. This is my one tiny act of desperation or courage."

He grins at his own use of the word "courage" in this context, and tries to convince me he was being ironic. But I think he meant it, and would like to know what kind of courage he is talking about. "The courage to tempt your fate," he concedes. "It's scary sometimes, putting this stuff down."

In addition to the element of revenge, is there some form of relief in writing about death and illness? "No, absolutely not. It's in no way emotionally cathartic. It's like giving your imagination an enema. I find these images in my mind and I just have to discharge them, they're so powerful. And this is in no way the result of trauma or the attempt to release the trauma. It's because I'm a writer."

Sinclair describes most of his work as "a fusion between tragedy and farce". His fiction originates from the same creative source as his non- fiction. A Soap Opera from Hell, he explains, is the companion volume to his book of stories, The Lady with the Laptop. "The only difference is that in the non-fiction I don't make things up. I just use fictional techniques to describe what happened. The only person who I think does the same thing - although I don't want to compare myself to him in any way - is Max Sebald. I wrote him a note: `Writers have their imagination and you have the world; you find what you need and then you make links in a fictional way.' That's what I've done in those essays."

Is this new book different from his previous writing? "It's not very different. My Weltanschauung has remained the same. I still see the world as a place of bitter irony and black humour, failed hopes, dashed plans. I hope to make my work sparer, to outgrow my desire to show off. The material that I'm using does not exactly want embellishing.

"The paradox is that you have to add extreme artistry to make the reader share the feeling, and so you start making artistic decisions about describing the death of your wife, the death of your mother, your own surgery. I've become more and more conscious of the need not to display your own talent or brilliance, but to share something with the reader.

"In The Turn of the Screw, Henry James describes a little boy as waking up in a nightmare and calling his mother. Why did he call the mother? Not because he wanted her to comfort him but because he wants her to share the horrible experience that he's had. In a sense, I'm that little boy, calling the reader to me." There was that little question I had about the sex in his writing. He dismisses it: "No one ever enjoys it very much... in the books I mean. But sex is a huge human motivator, and it's fun to write about."

In one of the essays in A Soap Opera from Hell, Sinclair's son Seth asks him: "Is there nothing you wouldn't write about?" "Nothing," replies the father, "except perhaps the Holocaust." I am interested: why wouldn't Sinclair write about the Holocaust?

"Auschwitz is not mine to conquer," he says. "And it's too easy; you get a spurious gravitas when you do Holocaust material, and I don't think I've earned it."

I'm almost out the door when Clive remembers that he wants to show me something in the back garden. Six very unusual, strikingly beautiful, tall crimson sunflowers are growing against his kitchen wall. "They are called evening sun sunflowers. I brought the seeds from California last summer. People told me they wouldn't survive, but look at them," he beams.

Elena Lappin's collection of short stories, `Foreign Brides', will be published next March by Picador

Clive Sinclair, a biography

Clive Sinclair was born in London in 1948 and educated at the University of East Anglia and the University of California, Santa Cruz. He is the author of four novels (Bibliosexuality, Blood Libels, Cosmetic Effects and August Rex) and three collections of short stories, including Hearts of Gold, winner of the Somerset Maugham Award in 1981, and For Good and Evil, re-published in paperback by Picador this month simultaneously with his new book of essays, A Soap Opera from Hell. He has also written The Brothers Singer, a critical biography of Isaac Bashevis and Israel Joshua Singer, and the memoir Diaspora Blues: a view of Israel. From 1983 to 1987, he was Literary Editor of the Jewish Chronicle. His most recent collection of short stories, The Lady with the Laptop, won the Macmillan Silver Pen Award for fiction and the Jewish Quarterly Prize. Clive Sinclair lives in St Albans with his son Seth.