Writers at the Movies Extra: ‘The Café Lumière at the Hotel Scribe’ by Clive Sinclair

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Place de la Concorde, Paris. Photo CC Roger @ Flickr.

[While we’re on the subject of Writers at the Movies, the theme of our new special issue, here’s a bonus internet exclusive to Contrappasso from Clive Sinclair, one of the issue’s contributors (see Custer of the West). It’s a brief reminiscence of Paris and a place central to the earliest days of cinema.]

CAFÉ LUMIÈRE AT THE HOTEL SCRIBE by CLIVE SINCLAIR

I first experienced Paris in 1963, when I was fifteen, and more plain gauche than Rive Gauche. But I was crazy about Toulouse-Lautrec. So my parents booked a tour to the Moulin Rouge. What they didn’t know was that the tour also included three strip clubs: the Gay Zodiac, La Boule Blanche, and Le Caveau des Oubliettes. In the first a woman undressed behind a back-lit blind, revealing nothing but her silhouette, until she stepped out from behind it stark naked; in the second women disrobed while the band played ‘Blues in the Night’; the third I mention only because of its name. Proust represented one sort of Parisian, but Paris is also a city dedicated to forgetting, to hanging the self on a hat-stand, be it in a nightclub, or that other caveau des oubliettes, the cinema. It so happens that the hotel in which we stayed, the Scribe, was where the whole business began, where the Lumière Brothers first demonstrated their new machine, the Cinematograph, on December 28, 1895. Back in 1963 the Scribe still handed out those oval labels for steamer trunks, and its fin-de-siècle corridors had about them an air of intrigue, even espionage; today the atmosphere is more spa than spy. And its Salon Indien, the room chosen by the brothers to premiere La Sortie de l’Usine Lumière à Lyon, is now a café named in their honour. The room’s former bombast has been lightened by the ace interior designer, Jacques Grange, and a glass roof. A handsome double portrait of the café’s honourees hangs above a sleek mantlepiece, but it has to compete for attention – at least in the après-midi – with pâtisserie displayed like crown jewels. Beneath a glass bell are brioches and madeleines, and in a glazed cabinet are pink and red mousses, and golden tartlets. Then there is the chocolate. The ganache comes like some sort of sacrament: dark chocolate, warm and molten, fills one-third of a glass; frothy milk sits in a silver jug; and pastries invite dipping and consumption. Popcorn will never do after tea at the Café Lumière. [see The Hotel Scribe, Paris]

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

CLIVE SINCLAIR began his career as a writer in 1973. In 1983 he was one of the original Twenty Best of Young British Novelists. So far he has produced fourteen books, which have earned him the Somerset Maugham Award, the PEN Silver Pen for Fiction, and the Jewish Quarterly Award. His latest book of stories, Death & Texas, was published in 2014. He lives in London, with the painter Haidee Becker. His son, a film-maker, lives in Los Angeles. Matthew Asprey Gear’s interview with Clive Sinclair appeared in print in issue 2 of Contrappasso and is online at the Los Angeles Review of Books.

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Writers at the Movies: ‘Custer of the West’ by Clive Sinclair

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CUSTER OF THE WEST
by CLIVE SINCLAIR
(Originally for the Custer Association of Great Britain, 2012)

REVIEWING Custer of the West upon its release in 1968, Showguide (a precursor of Time Out) informed its readers that: “The script of the film— based on several years of research—has been splendidly written by Bernard Gordon and Julian Halevy, who delved into a private library of more than a thousand books, folios and letters to find their facts.”

The review is quoted in Bernard Gordon’s memoir—Hollywood Exile: or How I Learned to Love the Blacklist—which admits a less scholarly genesis. Walking along Madrid’s “main drag” with Philip Yordan—boss of the European script factory in which he toiled—Gordon was informed that his next task would be to write a motion picture about George Armstrong Custer. The news was not well received.

“Custer?” said Gordon. “My God. All I know about him is that he was an Indian killer, and the Indians finally killed him at Little Big Horn!” Yordan shrugged, and Gordon continued: “Who in this day and age would want to make a film hero out of someone who did his best to butcher Indians?” “I don’t give a damn about Custer or the Indians,” said Yordan. All he was interested in was the fact that he had been paid to produce a film about Custer.

Gordon died in 2007, but his writing partner Julian Zimet (who—also being blacklisted—used the pseudonym Halevy), lives on in Rome, in an apartment he shares with his wife Anna Maria (Primo Levi’s sister). At 93 some of his senses are failing, but not his memory. And his tongue could still run a marathon. Nor has it lost its sting. “The first thing you should know,” he said, “is that Gene Autry was a prick. A prick and a shit both.”

Raised on the east coast, Zimet had ventured to Hollywood early, and then, by dint of perseverance and native talent had risen from script reader to script writer. Among his early sales was Sierra Sue, a vehicle for Gene Autry. Not only did he write it, he also found himself advising the director how best to shoot it, at least until its star noted his presence. “I don’t want any Jew spies on my set,” said Autry.

On the other hand the government thought him patriotic enough to be drafted (though prompted by Joseph McCarthy the powers-that-be eventually came to share Autry’s opinion). When the witchfinders decided to dignify prejudice with judicial authority, Zimet elected to quit America: he had no intention of naming names, as other quasi or real communists had done, but he had no wish for martyrdom either. First he went to Mexico, then Italy.

It was from Rome—many years later—that he travelled to Madrid to work with his old comrade, Bernard Gordon, on the Custer project. By 1966, the year in question, Vietnam was beginning to dominate the political agenda. One major side-effect was that it overturned the authorized version of America’s past, in particular the conquest and colonisation of the West. The few Westerns that went into production were made with reversed polarities; the Indians were now freedom fighters—the Viet Cong in warpaint—and the US Cavalry the militant arm of colonial oppression.

It was these changing times that prompted Gordon to say to Yordan: “Fine. Let’s do a film about Custer, a really modern film that tells the truth about him and the whole American policy at the time.” Policy which—it went without saying—found its modern equivalent in Vietnam. But Yordan had no interest in contemporary relevance: “It’s people like you with your antihero ideas who are ruining Hollywood! We’ll just figure a way to turn Custer into a hero!”

Even so, the finished movie is far from innocent. Robert Shaw was cast as Custer, and Mary Ure—his wife—as Libbie. According to Zimet, the actor was even more determined than the script writers to view Custer through modern eyes. “The original brief was to turn out a typical Western sainted hero martyr script, which Gordon and I duly delivered,” he told me. “But Robert Shaw figured he would make it over to suit himself. Which he did. He turned Custer into a sadist of Shakespearean depth.”

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Gordon, in his memoir, implies that he retained some of his original scepticism, and gives the leading man only a secondary role in shaping Custer’s character: “Production stumbled along on Custer as Julian and I tried to give the Indians a fair shake. Robert Shaw was helpful. A bright man and a fine writer, he approved of our point of view of that the Indians were victims right to the end. He even wrote one speech for Custer… that made this point sharply.”

Either way, Shaw had no time for either Gordon or Zimet. According to the latter, he regarded the pair as “American philistines,” to be treated with contempt. As far as Shaw was concerned movie-making Hollywood-style was little better than a criminal enterprise. This disdain was extended to the director hired by Yordan. As a matter of fact both scriptwriters were also unimpressed by the appointment of Robert Siodmak, a former Hollywood insider, now involuntarily retired, and so eager to work that he would (in Zimet’s words) “have agreed to direct the telephone book.” “Why are you hiring Siodmak?” he protested to the producer. “Why do you want a broken down, dying man, when you could have a splendid new director such as Lindsay Anderson?” “You jerk,” said Yordan, “Siodmak is a name I can take to the bank.”

In Hollywood Exile, Gordon elucidates this terse response: “We need a star or we have no deal,” said Yordan. “We have no script to show to a star, so what do I do? I go to Robert Shaw and ask him to do the picture. He wants to be helpful. But without a script, how can he agree? I tell him I’ll get him an experienced director. How do I get a respectable director to take the job? I still have no script. I find out Siodmak is hungry. He has an impressive track record, but he’s out of work in Switzerland. The phone isn’t ringing. He’s dying to do another picture and pick up another fee. So I get Siodmak and I’ve got Shaw—and I get the four million bucks to make a picture.”

Similar considerations lay behind the casting of Sgt Mulligan, a character who appears out of nowhere, has a couple of big scenes (in the second of which he pleads with Custer for his life, forfeit on account of desertion), and then vanishes as if he had never been. Mulligan owed his brief existence—was enlisted—because Yordan felt it necessary to attract another star name, to put on the marquee and in advertising. Enter Robert Ryan, who took the money, said the lines crafted for him by Zimet, and ran.

“Shaw took care of the battle scenes himself,” recalls Zimet. “Siodmak preferred directing ballroom scenes, which he had done so often in his long career they required no invention. What he didn’t anticipate, as he choreographed fifty couples, was that the actor—whose intervention was designed to give coherence to the scene—would go crazy, punch him in the chops, and walk off the set. I was already working on another project, but Yordan insisted that I write some lines for a minor actor, which would account for the miscreant’s absence. This would allow the ballroom scene to continue, save having to locate the crazy or drunk actor, and save having to reshoot. While Siodmak kept the dancers in motion, I rehearsed the new actor in his role, and tailors stitched together a bespoke uniform. Within minutes he burst upon the scene, apologised on behalf of the government minister for his absence—due to a crisis in Washington—and announced an impending honour for Custer. It was a weak solution, but it saved a lot of money. That’s show business for you.”

In short, the producer, having cooked up a deal to sell a Custer movie (with profits assured in advance), had no real interest in whether the end product was any good, let alone historically accurate.

When John Ford made My Darling Clementine he boasted that his friendship with Wyatt Earp guaranteed authenticity, then went on to set the film in the wrong year, and kill off both Doc Holliday and Ike Clanton before their time. No such claims were ever made for Custer of the West—pace Showguide—so scholarly analysis would be as useful as using a tomahawk to scalp Yul Brunner.

Even so there is one howler that cannot pass unremarked. The movie contains no reference to either Sitting Bull or Crazy Horse, and the entire Lakota nation is only mentioned en passant. Instead the uneducated viewer is led to believe that Custer’s nemesis was Chief Dull Knife (who, in reality, thought it more politic to sit out the conflict), and his primary antagonists the Cheyenne. At one point Custer confronts Dull Knife with the following piece of realpolitik: “I’ll make it very simple for you. The fact that we seem to be pushing you clear off the earth is not my responsibility. The problem is precisely the same as when you Cheyenne decided to take another tribe’s hunting ground. You didn’t ask them about their rights. You didn’t care if they had been there a thousand years. You just had more men and more horses. You destroyed them in battle. You took what you wanted, and right or wrong, for better or worse, that is the way things seem to get done. That’s history. I’m talking about history. You are a militarily defeated people. You are paying the price for being backward. And whatever my personal feelings, and I don’t say I have, there’s nothing I can do to change all this. Do you understand?” In fact, of course, it was the Cheyenne who were driven from their ancestral lands—including the Black Hills—by the Lakota.

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If the movie has no place in the lecture hall, how well does it fare in the movie theatre? Like the 7th Cavalry it stands or falls on the performance of its star. At least Robert Shaw’s hair is the right colour. And he looks sufficiently like the ‘boy general’ who sat for Matthew Brady that the portrait hanging on the wall of his quarters does not appear out of place. Moreover the sadistic impulses that Shaw sought to emphasise are only apparent in a few scenes, all of them early; for example, he orders his new command to run in circles until—one by one—the men drop. But as Shaw’s performance progresses sadism becomes less and less Custer’s defining characteristic; he becomes more complex, and his impersonator more beguiled, as though a dybbuk—the General’s—had taken up residence within.

This internal conflict becomes manifest in his behaviour: natural justice, personal liberty, and romanticism versus manifest destiny, military discipline, and patriotism. It is best expressed during a scene in which a representative of the military-industrial complex demonstrates the efficacy of a new weapon: a gatling gun mounted upon an armoured railway carriage. Custer—a chivalrous man—recoils in horror: “War isn’t just killing, you know. It’s a contest. It’s a man against a man.” Later he has the following exchange with Libbie: “If this is the future, I don’t want any part of it!” “Where does that leave you?” “With the Indians!”

In which case the final battle represents the psychological struggle made flesh and blood, as the irreconcilable positions take up arms against each other. The movie began with a montage of Civil War charges, and it ends with a civil war made personal. This dualism finds further expression in the contrasting characters of Custer’s two fellow officers; Benteen and Reno. Jeffrey Hunter plays Benteen as a “bleeding heart” liberal, forever expressing the other side’s point of view, whereas Reno is presented as a gung-ho racist.

The pivotal moment—when Custer is most himself—occurs when he is summoned to Washington to appear before a congressional committee. Obviously the scene could not be shot in situ, and budgetary constraints ruled out reconstruction. “It was inconceivable that we should build a replica of the real chamber and people it with the dozens of representatives and senators in period dress,” wrote Gordon. “Yordan solved the problem economically by having Shaw, as Custer, pose in front of a painting of the crowded congressional chamber. I thought it looked fake but few other people noticed or cared.” Obviously Gordon had not viewed the movie for some time when he wrote those sentences: the backdrop is not the chamber, crowded or otherwise, but the dome itself.

In any event, the important feature is the speech, and Shaw’s delivery of it. “There is no Indian problem,” he says. “There is only a White problem.” The problematic issues par excellence being hypocrisy—treaties broken even as they are signed—and corruption. It is not officers in the field who are growing fat, Custer says, only politicians. “The American people have the right to know who is responsible…” thunders Shaw. “The guilty parties… You are going to have to look right here in Washington. And you are going to have to look in high places. I know the men who are responsible and I am going to give you their names.” I can well imagine the secret smiles of satisfaction on the faces of Zimet and Gordon, for whom (in a different context) the naming of names would have been abhorrent, as Shaw concludes the accusatory speech, the sort of speech they must have dreamed of throwing back in the faces of their persecutors at HUAC.

A curious postscript to the movie suggests that the Committee might have been better advised to look in a different direction for un-American activities. It turned out that Ty Hardin, who played Reno, was typecast. He could have been Clint Eastwood, but instead of directing Unforgiven and being elected Mayor of Carmel, his career went nowhere, and four years after playing Reno, he became the guiding light of the Arizona Patriots, a quasi-fascist militia, and editor of their in-house magazine, which urged Christian patriots to band together, and reprinted antisemitic diatribes. Its members stockpiled weapons and ammo in anticipation of Armageddon. Eventually even the FBI reckoned that these self-styled “freedom fighters” were anything but, and raided their HQ, scattering their members to the four corners.

Like all movies about the Frontier, Custer of the West is a palimpsest, in that it uses the past to comment upon the present. Gordon’s wry joke about how “a couple of blacklisted writers did succeed in smuggling a bit of red propaganda into a Hollywood film… well, redskin propaganda anyway,” is both funny and true. It seems that Custer’s dybbuk—or ghost—is doomed to shuttle between left and right, between martyrdom and villainy, depending upon contemporary circumstances, notwithstanding the best efforts of the Custer Association of Great Britain to stick to the facts.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

CLIVE SINCLAIR began his career as a writer in 1973. In 1983 he was one of the original Twenty Best of Young British Novelists. So far he has produced fourteen books, which have earned him the Somerset Maugham Award, the PEN Silver Pen for Fiction, and the Jewish Quarterly Award. His latest book of stories, Death & Texas, was published in 2014. He lives in London, with the painter Haidee Becker. His son, a film-maker, lives in Los Angeles.

Matthew Asprey Gear’s interview with Clive Sinclair appeared in print in issue 2 of Contrappasso and is online at the Los Angeles Review of Books.

[The title picture is a detail from the original movie program as reproduced at In Cinerama]

New Double Issue launch on 10 April!

Contrappasso Double Issue, April 2015

Contrappasso Double Issue, April 2015

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Roll camera…

Contrappasso starts its 4th year with a DOUBLE ISSUE.

Writers at the Movies, edited by Matthew Asprey Gear and guest Noel King, brings together many kinds of artists who have been captivated by film: its imagery, history, personalities and political edge. Across essays, fiction, poetry, interviews and photography, the contributors are James Franco, Emmanuel Mouret, Sarah Berry, Barry Gifford, Michael Atkinson, Luc Sante, R. Zamora Linmark, Richard Lowenstein, Anthony May, Michael Eaton, Jon Lewis, Jonathan Rosenbaum, Scott Simmon, Clive Sinclair and the late, great Richard Hugo.

Companion issue Contrappasso #8 takes the journal’s adventures in international writing further and wider, with its biggest selection of new fiction and poetry, from nine countries.

There’s an interview with Filipino authors F. H. Batacan and Andrea Pasion-Flores, plus stories by Pasion-Flores, US authors Rick DeMarinis and Kent Harrington and, in a Contrappasso first, a long-overdue translation of Argentine modernist author Roberto Arlt (with translator Lucas Lyndes)…

…plus the most poetry in any Contrappasso issue, with work by Nicaragua’s Blanca Castellón (translated by New Zealand’s Roger Hickin), Spain’s Alicia Aza (translated by J. Kates), China’s Lu Ye and Geng Xiang (translated by Ouyang Yu), New Zealand’s Kerrin P. Sharpe and Mary Macpherson, the UK’s Bill Adams and Richard Berengarten, the USA’s Floyd Salas and J. Kates, and Australia’s Elias Greig, Philip Hammial, Travis McKenna, Sascha Morrell, Tony Page, Sarah Rice, Frank Russo, Page Sinclair, Alex Skovron, Paolo Totaro, Lyn Vellins, Luke Whitington – and one of the last poems by the late, much-missed Morris Lurie.

This Contrappasso DOUBLE ISSUE presents the most writers so far, across the widest range of fields.

And… cut.

Clive Sinclair classics now available as ebooks

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Here’s an enthusiastic recommendation: Hearts of Gold (1979) and Blood Libels (1985), two early classics by Contrappasso interviewee and fiction contributor Clive Sinclair, are now available in Kindle ebook format. We urge our Kindle-bearing readers to seize the moment.

And while you’re at it, why not download Sinclair’s most recent collection of stories, Death & Texas (2014)?

The books are also available in epub format at Waterstones: Hearts of Gold, Blood Libels, and Death & Texas.

And remember, you can read Matthew Asprey’s long interview with Sinclair at the Los Angeles Review of Books and also a further chat on the occasion of the publication of ‘Death & Texas’.

A few words with Clive Sinclair on ‘Death & Texas’

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Clive Sinclair‘s new story collection, Death & Texas, has just been published by Halban in paperback and for Kindle.

Contrappasso editor Matthew Asprey exchanged a few words with our regular contributor by email.

MATTHEW ASPREY: Clive, it’s been more than a year since our long interview was published in Contrappasso and the Los Angeles Review of Books. In the interim Contrappasso was thrilled to publish two of the stories now included in Death & Texas. Those two stories alone jumped all over the world—Atlanta, Israel, Germany, the USA. Where else does the new book take us?

CLIVE SINCLAIR: As you say, the stories you published in Contrappasso had itchy feet: one rambles from Atlanta, GA, to Brinkley, AL; while the other starts in London, looks in upon New Mexico, then moves to Jerusalem, Passau, Germany, before finally coming to a halt back in London. Other locations in the book include Texas, as you might expect, New Orleans, Machu Picchu, and Shylock’s Venice. Perhaps I am best characterized as a travel writer too shy to embrace the locals, therefore forced to people the exotic locations with my own inventions. This has been my MO for many years now. So that when I glance at my older stories I am no longer certain what really happened and what I made up. Addressing one of the narrators a character sums it up nicely: “Did we really do all the things you said we did, or was it just wishful thinking?”

MA: I was happy to meet Kinky Friedman and Fess Parker in “Death & Texas”.

CS: Not half as happy as me. I first saw Fess Parker on a big screen in a grand old cinema (long since demolished) on Oxford Street, in the heart of London’s West End. In those days there were long queues to see popular movies, which only sharpened the anticipation. Of course movie stars are called stars for a good reason; their images are transported on rays of light, and they live light years away from ordinary mortals. Or at least that was how Fess Parker appeared to me as he defended the Alamo in the guise of Davy Crockett. So imagine my excitement when I discovered that, having quit acting, he ran a winery and a hotel a few hundred miles from my temporary residence in Santa Cruz, CA. How could I not go? And how could I not include the encounter in my story about Davy Crockett? Looking back upon it, the occasion still seems as unlikely as an ancient Greek taking tea with Achilles.

Fess Parker as Davy Cricket

Fess Parker as Davy Crockett

I first came across Kinky Friedman much later, by which time my critical facilities were fully developed. So I felt we both inhabited the same planet at least. Moreover, I felt that our world views had similarities; both of us being mordant Jews of the opinion that our Achilles heel does not reside only in the backside of our foot, but in every pore of our bodies. I visited the Kinkstah on his family ranch, near Medina (the one in East Texas, not Saudi Arabia). Needless to say, after the visit I played his songs all the way to San Antonio: “No, they ain’t makin’ Jews like Jesus anymore,/ We don’t turn the other cheek the way they done before.”

MA: How did you connect with the publisher Halban?

CS: Well, the Adam & Eve of my writing career were Clive Allison and Margaret Busby. We had a lot of fun in those early days, especially with Hearts of Gold and Blood Libels. In a way I’m looking to repeat the experience with Martine and Peter Halban, another bookish duo. When I was with a larger outfit there was an expectation that everything—from book design to marketing—was assigned to professionals, who would handle everything  with the flair of Savile Row’s bespoke tailors. This was not always the case. Now, if the book doesn’t read well or look good I have only myself to blame. I am looking to recapture that sensual experience—that bibliosexual moment—you are never going to get with a kindle.

MA: Still, I’m glad to see the book is available for e-readers. In the last dozen years you’ve published a pair of novellas (Meet the Wife) and a travel narrative in your patented mode of ‘dodgy realism’ (Clive Sinclair’s True Tales of the Wild West). And now you’re back with your fourth book of short fiction. What brings you back to the short story?

CS: I have been thinking more and more that the short story—or the novella, at a stretch—is my natural form. At any rate, it is what I do best. By which I don’t mean better than anyone else—God forbid—but better than my own longer fiction. When I write I try to thread together well-made—even beautiful—sentences. I do this because I remain enamoured of my raw material: viz words. And the way they strike the five senses: the sight, the sound, the smell, the feel and the taste of them. But there is a constant balance to maintain between the felicity of the prose, and the efficiency of the narrative. In the short-story the scales can be more pleasingly biased toward the former. What makes The Great Gatsby so great is that Scott Fitzgerald found a way of so vitalizing his exquisite prose that it actually motored the narrative; each image being not only decorative, but also functional. But The Great Gatsby is a rarity: more often such hyperactive prose in a novel tends to bedazzle the reader, until in breathless admiration or sheer frustration they lose the plot. This is less likely to happen with a short story. The same applies to the intensity of emotion a short story can contain. Put all that in a novel and the poor reader would be in great danger of sensory overload, like Barbarella in the Orgasm Machine. So I write short stories as an act of charity; to save lives and preserve sanity.

MA: You’ve dropped tantalising hints at a detective novel in the works. What else have you been up to and what can we expect in the future?

CS: You know, of course, what happened to the man who knew too much. So I feel a certain responsibility toward both questioner and reader as to what might happen if I were to reveal too much too soon. What I can say is that I have a detective, whose singular vulnerability is his USP (as I learned to say in my Mad Men days). The trouble is that he’s still in want of a client. And he is in want of a client because his creator is short of one master criminal, a Moriarty de nos jours. What I need, in other words, is a suitable crime to solve. So if there are any crooks manqué out there with a seemingly perfect caper ready to green-light please give me a clue. Though I do have a few caveats. A few years ago I taught a course on detective fiction at the University of East Anglia, and took the opportunity to acquaint myself with a few fiends who had achieved both commercial and critical popularity. My response, I confess, was less enthusiastic, prompting me to eschew any thoughts of serial killers, sex maniacs, psychopaths, cannibals, or any other perverted dispatcher of young women, however high their IQ. Such characters invite a form of  erotic sentimentality. All of which is not to say that the book will be over-cerebral. The one thing for sure is that blood will flow.

Here is the trailer for Death & Texas:

from issue #2: ‘STR82ANL’ by Clive Sinclair (excerpt III)

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[In addition to a career-spanning Clive Sinclair interview, issue #2 of Contrappasso features STR82ANL, a never-before-published novella by the British author. Here is the third of several excerpts.]

MEANWHILE, alone in their 7th floor hotel room, Zachary Siskin is beginning to pine for Ida. When the phone rings sometime after midnight he assumes—not unreasonably—that she is calling to explain her absence.

“Where are you?” he says.

“Perhaps I should tell you who I am,” a man answers, “before I tell you where I am. Hickory Waxwing at your service. Ruddy Turnstone’s right-hand man. That’s the who. The where is downstairs in the lobby. Now for the why. When he got home from the Sapsuckers’ soiree—which he said had developed into the dinner party from hell—my lord and master immediately dispatched me to guide you through Atlanta’s demimonde. ‘Leave no stone unturned in the pursuit of pleasure,’ were his instructions. I am here to carry them out to the letter. Am I to understand that your wife has not yet returned? Meet me in the bar, and we’ll wait out her coming in the company of good ol’ Jim Beam.” Hickory Waxwing adds that he is easy to spot, his hair being the colour of a Georgia peach (though not naturally so).

Sure enough Zachary Siskin spots him easily. Both men order their bourbon neat.

“Have you noticed,” says the blond-haired one, “that our names are practically homonyms? Though we don’t look much alike. And probably don’t act much alike either. What is it you do, Mr Siskin?”

“I’m a rabbi,” replies Zachary.

“Jesus,” exclaims Waxwing, “a Jewish one?”

“Most of us are,” replies Zachary.

Hickory Waxwing whistles.

“I would never have guessed,” he says. “Does it bother you to be seen with someone like me?”

“Someone like you I do not know about,” replies Zachary, “but with you I have no problem.”

“I was under the impression that your God took a dim view of Sodom and its eponymous perversion,” says Hickory.

“Fuck my God,” says Zachary Siskin, “I am a rabbi not because I believe in Him, but because I believe in man.”

“I believe in men, too,” counters Hickory, “but not to the extent that I worship them.”

“I don’t worship man, either,” says Zachary, “I simply maintain that he has the capacity to do harm, and the capacity to do good, and that it is my duty to encourage the latter proclivity.”

“Encouragement is perfect,” says Hickory, “the problem with religion over here is that it’s all about control.”

Is that what I am doing, wonders Zachary, trying to control Ida? Nevertheless he calls up to their room three times during the course of the next hour, to check if she has returned unobserved, or at least left a message to ease his worried mind.
From Hickory he learns that his wife had left the party with the Kingfishers. Although it is close to 2.00 am he phones their home. Mrs Kingfisher picks up. He makes his apologies, and is assured that Ida is fine.

“She’s with Art in his studio,” the woman adds. “Been there for a couple of hours at least. I can only assume that he persuaded your wife to sit for him after all. He can be a very persuasive man.”

Zachary downs another measure of Jim Beam (his sixth) and says to his new bosom buddy: “Okay, Hickory, let’s go turn over a stone or two.”

Waxwing does a double-take. He knows how to burn the candle at both ends, but doesn’t know how much of this knowledge he should share with a rabbi.

“What is it you’re hoping to find under them?’ he asks.

“Naked women,” replies Zachary.

“What sort?” asks Waxwing, beginning to wonder if his companion really is what he said he was.

“Not whores,” replies Zachary, “dancers.”

“You want to see a titty show?” exclaims Waxwing.

An excerpt from Clive Sinclair’s novella STR82ANL, whichappears in issue 2 of Contrappasso Magazine, available in Paperback, Kindle Ebook, or other Ebook formats @ Smashwords.

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from issue #2: ‘STR82ANL’ by Clive Sinclair (excerpt II)

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[In addition to a career-spanning Clive Sinclair interview, issue #2 of Contrappasso features STR82ANL, a never-before-published novella by the British author. Here is the second of several excerpts.]

MRS KINGFISHER SAYS “Goodnight” cheerfully enough as Ida follows Arturo’s Maglight down the garden path to his studio at its furthest end. He unlocks its door, switches on its lights, and points towards an easel at its centre, to which a canvas is secured. The first thing Ida notices is that the model is naked (save for a discreet scrap of white towelling).

“You didn’t mention anything about me having to take my clothes off,” observes Ida.

“That’s because it’s not obligatory,” replies Arturo.

“How many have kept them on?” asks Ida.

“None,” replies Arturo, “but that’s because they are determined to demonstrate that no mutilation can stop them remaining objects of desire.”

“Bollocks,” laughs Ida, “they strip because you’re a bully.”

“You are suggesting that I threaten them with my fists, or put a gun to their heads?” he asks in mock-outrage.

“Don’t be an idiot,” says Ida. “You know as well as I do that the relationship between painter and sitter is a form of wrestling. In the end one has to submit to the will of the other. Which is why—despite the entreaties of Ruddy—I have declined to accept commissions from the likes of Elton John. I fear that his very presence in my studio would force me to produce a representation, something that would be much more to his liking than mine. So I stick with sunflowers, anemones, and anonymous models. That way I can make paintings.”

“I am not blind,” says Arturo, “I know that your paintings are a thousand times better than mine, that you have true greatness in you. I can also see that you are not impressed by my work, that you think it is shit. Of course you are right. The example you are looking at is more soft-porn than portrait. My only real interest in the sitter was to show that women can have mastectomies and still have great looking breasts. But you are far too English to tell me so yourself. Perhaps that is why your paintings still fall short of their potential. Some vestige of that Englishness stays your hand at the last moment, prevents you from delivering the coup de grâce. I have the temperament, but lack your divine gift. If only I knew how to teach, I would teach you how to strike without fear, how to take without guilt.”

“You are absolutely right,” she replies, “I need to learn how to take.”

“And to give, and to give your all,” cries Arturo, “Damn it Ida, let me paint your portrait. Fuck the other women with breast cancer. Let me do it for my own enjoyment. Sit in that chair over there.”

And Ida sits, like Missy the poodle.

She watches as Arturo dismisses Breast Cancer Survivor No. 19 from the easel and replaces her with a blank canvas. How is he going to prepare it, she wonders, watching him open an earthenware jar and tip something that resembles red-brick dust on to a marble work top. Of course she identifies it immediately as Armenian Bole. Who would have thought it, she muses, he is going to prepare the canvas exactly as I would have done?

“I see we are going Dutch tonight,” she observes. “I am surprised. I had you down as a German Expressionist.”

“That is because my other sitters were flighty things, women of the air. Whereas you are an earthier creature.”

An excerpt from Clive Sinclair’s novella STR82ANL, whichappears in issue 2 of Contrappasso Magazine, available in Paperback, Kindle Ebook, or other Ebook formats @ Smashwords.

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from issue #2: ‘STR82ANL’ by Clive Sinclair (excerpt I)

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[In addition to a career-spanning Clive Sinclair interview, issue #2 of Contrappasso features STR82ANL, a never-before-published novella by the British author. Here is the first of several excerpts.]

“HERE COMES ART,” says Mrs Kingfisher, as her helmetless husband roars down the Sapsuckers’ private driveway on his green-and-cream Harley Bobber. “Now we can eat.”

The others continue to stand on the lawn, lazily sipping white zinfandel from flutes, which glow in their hands like electric light bulbs. Only the English couple, Zachary and Ida Siskin, regard the new arrival with curiosity, as he leaps from his bike and embraces his wife like a sailor home from the sea.

“Do you know him?” asks Zachary Siskin.

“By reputation alone,” says his wife. “He’s a mediocre painter. Worse even than me.”

“Mr & Mrs Sapsucker would beg to differ,” Zachary replies, “at least on the self-assessment.”

Dedicated collectors of his wife’s work, they have volunteered to host a dinner in her honour, though the true Master of Ceremonies is Ruddy Turnstone, proprietor of the Turnstone Gallery, where Ida Siskin’s new show has just been hung (hence her presence in Atlanta).

Mr Sapsucker is a pain-relief specialist, and his wife a psychiatrist. Both are obviously successful, since they inhabit a mansion on West Paces Ferry Road, but neither is a good advertisement for their particular skill. Mr Sapsucker looks like a man with a bad toothache, while Mrs Sapsucker comes over as a crazy woman. Who else but a crazy woman would think of dressing like Ophelia saved from drowning, with various fresh flowers pinned to her dress, and magnolias in her hair?

One of the live-in maids comes running from the house to whisper something in her ear, whereupon Mrs Sapsucker beckons her guests to follow her into the house. She offers a brief tour, the purpose of which is to show off the five Siskins the Sapsuckers already own. Being keen to make it an even half-dozen Ruddy Turnstone has brought along a self-portrait from the new exhibit. He hangs it above the mantelpiece in the dining room (replacing an amateur effort by Mrs Sapsucker herself) so that all can admire it in situ while the meal is consumed. Hired help serve the expectant diners with cold soup. Pacific Rim Gewurztraminer (chilled to the bone) is poured.

Arturo Kingfisher, who also shows at the Turnstone Gallery, examines Ida Siskin’s portrait with a professional eye. She paints herself as though she were the child of darkness and shadow, he thinks, and what has emerged is dishonestly presented. Her lips are pursed, her features pinched. Something essential has been held back, deliberately secreted in the darkness and the shadow. She looks like… I know… she looks like a chatelaine. The chatelaine of her own psyche, the jailer of improper and improbable desires. He takes a candid look at the original. For God’s sake, he thinks, the woman is the double of Simone Signoret. If I were Mr Siskin I should make haste to pick that lock, lest someone beats me to it.  He dips his spoon in the white soup. It tastes of custard and vanilla, and is an unpleasant reminder of the Zupa Nic or ‘Nothing Soup’ of his detested homeland. He hears his wife asking Zachary Siskin about the flight from London.

“Entirely predictable,” the Englishman replies, “even the dream I had was the sort of dream you’d expect to have at 30000 feet above sea level. It went like this. I entered a row of ruined terraced houses turned into a Theatre of the Grotesque, and showed my ticket to an usherette, who wordlessly tore off the stub and led me up innumerable flights of steps. Reaching the top at last she switched on her torch. Its beam penetrated the darkness, and I saw that my seat was not in a row of velvet-covered push-downs, but on a narrow ledge attached to the building’s back wall. Facing the bricks I shuffled along the plank, which was made of varnished wood. Not unlike a bookshelf, it occurred to me in the dream. I rotated anti-clockwise on my heels, and lowered myself cautiously, until my backside was resting on something solid, though my feet were dangling over the void. I could just make out my wife, far below in the stalls. She was obviously trying to tell me something, but I could neither hear nor lip-read over such a distance. By now I was not alone on the ledge. A young woman was sitting to my left. For the longest while nothing passed between us. Finally I said, ‘Remind me not to stand up…’ At which point a stewardess shook my shoulder, said something about clear air turbulence, and ordered me to fasten my seat belt.”

An excerpt from Clive Sinclair’s novella STR82ANL, whichappears in issue 2 of Contrappasso Magazine, available in Paperback, Kindle Ebook, or other Ebook formats @ Smashwords.

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Contrappasso at the LARB: An Interview with Clive Sinclair

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Clive Sinclair

Our friends at the Los Angeles Review of Books have taken first dibs on the online publication of ‘El Hombre Valeroso’, our expansive interview with British author Clive Sinclair.

The interview, conducted by Matthew Asprey, originally appeared in Contrappasso issue #2. The LARB had this to say:

ONE OF THE GREAT PLEASURES for us at Los Angeles Review of Books has been the opportunity afforded for serial discovery. In this case, of the extraordinary English writer Clive Sinclair, whose bibliography betrays the influence of everyone from Nabokov to John Ford, but also of the splendid quarterly Contrappasso, a periodical that — like Sinclair — moves restlessly, thrillingly among its interests and concerns. From neglected masters like Floyd Salas and James Crumley, to less-neglected ones like David Thomson and Elmore Leonard, the Sydney-based Contrappasso publishes international writing of the highest order. We are pleased to present Contrappasso editor Matthew Asprey’s interview with Clive Sinclair, below, and encourage you to visit contrappassomag.wordpress.com to discover more.

‘El Hombre Valeroso’ begins:

CLIVE SINCLAIR was born in England in 1948. He is a recipient of the Somerset Maugham Award, the Jewish Quarterly Prize, and the PEN Silver Pen Award for Fiction. He holds a doctorate from the University of East Anglia and is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.

Sinclair’s novels include Blood Libels (1985), Cosmetic Effects (1989), and Meet the Wife (2002); his stories have been collected in Hearts of Gold (1979), Bedbugs (1982), and The Lady with the Laptop (1996). Sinclair’s most recent book is True Tales of the Wild West (2008), an experiment in the new genre of “dodgy realism.”

The following interview is based on a transcript of a conversation I had with Sinclair at his home in London in early 2011. More than a year later, the raw transcript was edited and restructured, supplemented by further questions and answers by email, and finally revised by interviewer and interviewee.

MATTHEW ASPREY: Your first book, Bibliosexuality (1973), is a very obscure title. I’ve never seen a copy. Do you want to tell me anything about it?

CLIVE SINCLAIR: I’d rather not but, since I can see the thumbscrews bulging in your pockets, I’ll oblige. The title is a neologism, of which I remain rather proud, and look forward to one day seeing housed in the OED. Bibliosexuality describes a disorder of the senses in which a perverse relationship with a book is not only desired, but also achieved. In short, the novel offered the world of letters as a substitute for the real thing. The main influence on it would be my time at the University of East Anglia, where I encountered the likes of Malcolm Bradbury, Angus Wilson, Jonathan Raban, and the Sages — Lorna and Victor. I had no idea what I was getting into. I went there in a completely arbitrary fashion and as a complete innocent. The aforementioned practiced what was then called New Criticism, which insisted that the text be examined as an artifact entire unto itself. The very opposite of structuralism, unknown (at least to me) at the time. You — the critic — ask about the author’s intentions and intentionality. For example, that yellow vase on the shelf. Why yellow? You assume everything is there for an artistic purpose. The book that I produced as a consequence was immensely self-conscious. Of course it was heavily influenced by Nabokov. It was full of linguistic resonance and also the sex element, to put it roughly. Portnoy’s Complaint had just come out in 1969. So it was a mishmash of influences. It could have been brilliant. It wasn’t, but it could have been.

MA: How old were you?

CS: Twenty-one when I wrote it….

LARB

Read the complete interview at the Los Angeles Review of Books

or in issue 2 of Contrappasso Magazine, available in Paperback, Kindle Ebook, or other Ebook formats @ Smashwords.