Criminally Neglected Authors: Clive Sinclair and his ‘Bedbugs’ (1982)


One of my previous posts mentioned in passing Jewish-British author (not scientist), Clive Sinclair. His work, as described by a fellow reader and friend of mine, resembles the prose of Philip Roth meshed with Vladimir Nabokov, the latter of which is one of my favourite authors. Having finally got around to his Bedbugs (1982), this tie to Nabokov in this collection is no exception. The stories carry the familiar scent of Nabokov’s meticulous detailing of subtle sexual obsession, colourful and surreal scenes that are to the point of being comical in their playful absurdity:

Humbert: Naked, except for one sock and her charm bracelet, spread-eagled on the bed where my philtre had felled her, so I foreglimpsed her; a velvet hair ribbon was still clutched in her hand; her honey-brown body, with the white negative image of a rudimentary swimsuit patterned against her tan, presented to me its pale breastbuds; in the rosy lamplight, a little pubic floss glistened on its plump hillock. (Nabokov, 1959: 125).

Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita (1959)

Taken from his Lolita (1959), this excerpt mirrors Sinclair’s rich, languid, poetically sexual prose. Pornography for the mind, and I mean this in a good, not critical way. Though Sinclair’s approach to the sexual is a tad less enigmatic:

She tumbles, hits the floor with a thump, and remains utterly inert. Spreadeagled, supine. There is no blood, but I do not know if this is a good sign or a bad sign. Her hand is limp. I feel for the pulse, but it is either stopped or I have my thumb in the wrong spot. Her heart. Situated, of all places, beneath her left breast. I place my hand upon the breast. It is warm certainly. But I can feel no heartbeat, though the nipple tantalizingly hardens. (1982: 15)

But it would be premature to assume that the stories are just purely fixated on sex (in terms of gender or otherwise), and instead what is being communicated in Sinclair’s obscure yet biting prose is the ultimate powerlessness of both man and woman. Power struggles between the sexes is evident, but ultimately each character is at the mercy of love and jealousy. Marriage, then, is a prominent theme throughout many of the stories- Tzimtzum, Somewhere over the Rainbow, Bedbugs, Ashkenazia, while others, such as The Incredible Case of the Stack o’ Wheats Murders deal explicitly with the familiar debate between sexism and freedom of expression. The theme of marriage as a nail in the coffin is revisited in Sinclair’s great work Cosmetic Effects (1989).

Short stories share the similar format as television shows like The Twilight Zone– long enough to draw you in each time but short enough to disappoint you when each story comes to an end. It makes me vaguely distrustful of the subsequent story, but with Sinclair’s seemingly effortless flow through each story, the break in between is not quite so stark. The last collection of short stories I read that followed a similar pattern in each tale was Graham Greene’s sense of love and loss and the tolerance of banality in his May we borrow your husband? (1967). Sinclair’s stories operate in a similar manner, though with a more surrealistic prose that, again, mirrors Nabokov, but which focuses more on the grim realities of love more so than the bittersweet loss of it that Greene masters. In a story like Rainbow, the obscureness can have a tendency to run away with itself. Though Sinclair seems not to take himself too seriously as the bizarre descriptions of sex and childbirth in Rainbow function more as comic relief, too arcane to be taken seriously.

Being both a writer and academic, Sinclair, like Nabokov and Roth, includes these professions throughout the stories, tapping into the sexual frustration of student/teacher relations in a few of the works, like Lolita most evidently, but also similar to Roth’s The Dying Animal. Politically as much as sexually charged, the gender themes interwoven with each segment appear to be fighting against a common enemy bigger than their own differences- whether it be politically or racially motivated. My favourite remains the first of the stories, Bedbugs, a tale that focuses on a conflicted Jewish teacher’s short-lived affair with a German student. The end scene of this one is perhaps the surrealist, though it is the sex scene that I found to be the best aspect- both magical and dark, a pseudo-romantic scene similar to his later Cosmetic Effects. The scene follows:

Possessed now, I turn out the lights so that Inge’s naked body is illuminated only by the smouldering charcoal, a serpentine shape, splashed with red, and undulant stream of lava into which I fling myself.

‘Take me,’ hisses Inge, ‘here, as I am, on the floor.’

While the madness lasts I pump my body into her, aware only of our sweat and the uncontrollable pleasure, dimly conscious of the mocking parody the dying embers cast upon the wall. Spent, prone upon Inge’s salty body, I gasp for breath in the sulphurous air.

‘Please,’ whispers Inge, ‘I am not finished.’ She directs my hand down her belly to a damper place. Slowly my senses settle as I watch Inge’s spectre writhe, and listen to her ecstatic groans…  (15-16)

Cosmetic Effects, meanwhile, contains a slightly less surreal but all the more amusing account of sexual delights between characters Jonah and Stella:

                I look at her in amazement. Fucking Grace Kelly is not the sort of experience a man is supposed to forget…

                ‘Jonah,’ she says, looking up at me with an exasperated smile, ‘you’ll never find an easier fuck than me.’ Her continuing efforts to verify this claim cause the quilt to slide slowly off my back and, in so doing, fully expose the machinery of her love-making; the thighs, the belly, the breasts. Above each of the last are crescent-shaped scars that resemble closed eyelids. Sleep on, my lovelies, I shall not disturb your slumber tonight.

Cosmetic Effects (1989)

Sydney writer and academic Matthew Asprey conducted an interview with the author in 2009, eagerly awaiting publication. He writes in his Global Prowl travel blog:

There was one thing I wanted to accomplish before the unrelenting expense of staying in London forced us somewhere else. One grey wintry morning I went to Chelsea to interview the writer Clive Sinclair. I’d requested an interview by email a few years ago after reading his brilliant story cycle The Lady With The Laptop (1996). Clive welcomed me into his study. He tended the fireplace as we discussed each of his books from the near-disowned Bibliosexuality (1973) to Clive Sinclair’s True Tales of the Wild West (2008). We talked about Israeli politics, his love of Westerns, his wide-ranging travels. When I have time to transcribe the tapes I’ll edit together a Paris Review-style interview. More people should read Clive Sinclair’s books.  See more here: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/column/137902-escape-to-lisbon

More people should, indeed, read his books. These include: Bibliosexuality (1973) , Hearts of Gold (1979), The Brothers Singer (a biography of Isaac Bashevis Singer (1983), Blood Libels (1986), Augustus Rex: A Novel (1992), The Lady with the Laptop and Other Stories (1996), For Good or Evil (1998), Meet the Wife (2002) and True Tales of the Wild West (2008). His works are mostly found on the sites Abebooks.com and Amazon.

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6 Comments

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6 responses to “Criminally Neglected Authors: Clive Sinclair and his ‘Bedbugs’ (1982)

  1. This is a brilliantly written post. I’m completely intrigued and interested now to read Sinclair whose works I’m unfamiliar with. I do like Nabokov and the comparisons were well rendered.

    • I’m glad the post got you interested, Samir. His work is brilliant but sometimes hard to come by. I can’t remember how I came across his work, but I found a bunch of his books in a second hand bookstore in Newtown, Sydney. If you like Nabokov you’ll like Sinclair. Thanks for the comment!

  2. I was gobsmacked by the prose in “Lolita” and in the originality of the novel, so much so that I’ve been singularly unable to enjoy any other novel the man wrote. It is without a doubt in the “top ten” of best 20th century novels.

    • I would have to say that “Lolita” is my favourite book- my copy is quite wrecked from the number of times I have read it. I just kept thinking how colourful the writing was.
      I have an annotated addition which is as much an advantage as it is dangerous; there are so many cultural, historical and linguistic references and it is so intertextually detailed. I also loved how Nabokov made up words. “Pnin” was not bad and I liked “Pale Fire”. But you’re right- he is one of those authors where his most well-known work is justified as his greatest.

  3. Phillip Mannion

    Clive Sinclair is British.

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