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Obituary: Clive Sinclair

One of Britain’s leading post-war writers and former JC books editor

    If you can imagine a Borgesian Joseph Heller, or a Nabokovian Isaac Bashevis Singer, you have something of his tone,” wrote Malcolm Bradbury about Clive Sinclair’s first book of short stories, Hearts of Gold (1979). What Bradbury meant was that Sinclair’s writing was very Jewish but not only Jewish. His writing was clever, knowing, often very funny, and he quickly established a reputation as one of the best writers of his generation. He was awarded several prizes and in 1983 was chosen as one of Granta’s Best Young British Novelists.

    Clive John Sinclair, who has died aged 70,  was brought up in Hendon, north London with his younger brother Stewart. Many school friends became friends for life. Sinclair’s father, David, ran a furniture-making business and his mother, Betty (née Jacobovitch), was a painter. When Sinclair’s father joined the British army in 1939, he changed his name from Smolinsky to Sinclair: his son gave the name Smolinsky to a private detective who appears in several stories in Hearts of Gold and Bedbugs (1982).

    Sinclair studied English Literature at the University of East Anglia in the 1960s and after three years working as an advertising copywriter for Young & Rubicam, he became a full-time author. UEA awarded him a PhD for his account of those extraordinary Yiddish writers, Isaac Bashevis Singer and Israel Joshua Singer (published in 1983 as The Brothers Singer).

    While at UEA, Sinclair met fellow-writers including Angela Carter, Ian McEwan and Kazuo Ishiguro. He also met Fran Redhouse and they married in 1979. After a year together in Santa Cruz they moved to St. Albans with their son, Seth.

    In many ways Sinclair’s life can be divided between the Jewish world of Hendon and St. Albans and two very different, much more exotic worlds. One was the Wild West. Sinclair had a lifelong passion for Westerns and wrote a number of superb essays on classic Westerns for the TLS (gathered together in a new book, True Crit, published just before he died). There was also a more literary homeland: Jewish writers from America, Israel and Central and Eastern Europe. His favourite writers included Philip Roth, Aharon Appelfeld, Kafka and Nabokov among many others. His last piece for The Jewish Chronicle was a superb obituary of Appelfeld he wrote just a few weeks before his own death. His writing is full of knowing references and allusions, from Chekhov (he called one of his stories, The Lady with the Laptop) to the Jewish poet Isaac Rosenberg.

    The 1970s and ‘80s were an enormously productive time for Sinclair — years of promise and acclaim. In 1973 he wrote his first novel, Bibliosexuality. But he really found his literary voice with several books of short stories, starting with Hearts of Gold and Bedbugs. During these years he wrote four novels, two books of short stories and two works of non-fiction, the book on the Singers and Diaspora Blues (1987), a book of reflections on Israel. Between 1983-87 he was also literary editor of The Jewish Chronicle, helping many young critics at the outset of their careers.

    The mid-1990s were a dark time for Sinclair. In a few years he lost both parents, his sister-in-law Susan and his beloved wife Fran. Sinclair himself suffered from renal failure and had to have a kidney transplant. In 1998 he published A Soap Opera from Hell, chronicling these years. He became the most dedicated of single fathers. After his married son, Seth, moved to LA, Sinclair would call him and his wife Kate every day.

    By Sinclair’s high standards the next 20 years were less productive, just four short books of fiction, though Lady with the Laptop (1996), which won several literary prizes, and Death & Texas (2014), were among his very best works, confirming his reputation as one of the outstanding British writers of his time. A book of stories, Shylock Must Die, will be published in the summer.

    Sinclair’s writing is playful and erudite, full of clever references. The title story of his collection Death & Texas, has a mischievous debate about the links between Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds and the story of Davy Crockett. One character reflects on an awful review he once received. The reviewer says, “all the stories come with melancholia en suite.” The same is true of Sinclair. His stories are full of tragedy, divorce, illness and death, the four horsemen of Sinclair’s apocalypse. Yet thes stories are not grim, but full of humour, sex and larger-than-life characters with more than a hint of the grotesque.

    A prolific writer, Sinclair found time for many other interests. He loved watching football, films (especially his beloved westerns), was passionate about art and for some years was a member of a Hebrew Bible-reading group. Despite his lugubrious voice, he was one of the funniest of men, hugely devoted to his circle of friends. He was a second father to his nephews Thomas and James after his younger brother died in 2016 and found great happiness through his long relationship with the artist Haidee Becker and his much-loved son and daughter-in-law, Seth and Kate Sinclair. All survive him.  

    Clive Sinclair: born February 19, 1948. Died March 5, 2018

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