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Clancy Sigal Biography

america dinlock narrator novel

Nationality: American. Born: Chicago, Illinois, 1926. Education: The University of California, Los Angeles, B.A. in English 1950. Staff Sergeant in the United States Army Infantry, 1944-46. Career: Assistant to the Wage Coordinator, United Auto Workers, Detroit, 1946-47; story analyst, Columbia Pictures, Hollywood, 1952-54; agent, Jaffe Agency, Los Angeles, 1954-56. Member, Citizens Committee to Defend American Freedoms, Los Angeles, 1953-56, and Group 68, Americans in Britain Against the Indo-China War. Has lived in England since 1957. Awards: Houghton Mifflin Literary fellowship, 1962. Agent: Elaine Greene Ltd., 37 Goldhawk Road, London W12 8QQ.

PUBLICATIONS

Novels

Weekend in Dinlock. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, and London, Secker and Warburg, 1960.

Going Away: A Report, A Memoir. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1962; London, Cape, 1963.

Zone of the Interior. New York, Crowell, 1976.

The Secret Defector. New York, HarperCollins, 1992.

Uncollected Short Story

"Doctor Marfa," in Paris Review 35, Fall 1965.

Play

Radio Play:

A Visit with Rose, 1983.

* * *

Two documentary novels, Weekend in Dinlock and Going Away, have given Clancy Sigal a large reputation. These novels, imaginative fusions of autobiography, social history and fiction, convey a strong sense of time and place, a powerful feeling of reality.

Going Away (Sigal's first novel, though revised and published after Weekend in Dinlock) is subtitled "A Report, A Memoir." It is a compendium of significant social and political observations, an "American Studies" novel answering the question, "What's it like in America these days?" The time is 1956, the opening days of the Hungarian Revolt, and the autobiographical narrator drives from Los Angeles to New York with the manuscript of a confessional novel, experiencing a nervous breakdown as he passes through America and reviews his past. It is an "on-the-road" novel, a pursuit of lost time, a gathering of the narrator's experiences and a diagnosis of America's spiritual and political malaise: "For years, possibly since adolescence, I have dryly and studiously examined the indications of my own life as a clue to the country at large, as though reading a psychic thermometer."

The narrator is half-Irish, half-Jewish, a radical ex-union-organizer, an ex-Hollywood-agent, an ex-soldier in Occupied Germany; by age twenty-nine he has led half a dozen full, complex lives and reached the end of his road in America. He realizes he must leave America in order to find it. He visits old friends and enemies, sees them in despair and collapse, so he flees his dead past encapsulated in an America of brutalizing forces—billboards, highways, movies, the blank, alienating face of capitalist culture.

Once in England, where he finished Going Away, Sigal also wrote a much smaller but beautifully articulated study of Yorkshire mines and miners, Weekend in Dinlock. A documentary study of a composite mining village in the midlands, the book compares favorably with George Orwell's classic The Road to Wigan Pier. It chronicles the miner's life in the nationalized mines and draws almost the same conclusion Orwell made a generation earlier—that mining is an atrocity, a deadening, dehumanizing torment on which all industrial civilization rests. The novel is also the story of Davie, a Lawrence-like young man who is both a gifted painter and a miner, caught between the need to paint, to escape Dinlock, and the powerful machismo ethic of the miners which demands that he stay on the job and prove himself at the coal face. Finally, the narrator leaves Davie wrestling with his irresolvable conflict, still trapped by Dinlock.

This brilliant small study is a logical extension of Going Away. The narrator has fled America and found in England's coal country yet another world of dehumanizing technology and alienated individuals. The wide-open feeling of crossing America (the loneliness of the land itself) is replaced by the paranoid claustrophobia of the mine shaft and the paranoid closed society of the provincial village. Both novels chronicle the pressures of modern life on the individual, both reflect Sigal's own history: "I was a member, in good standing, of the Double Feature Generation: nothing new was startling to me." Sigal, in Going Away, gives the intense, confessional view of the 1950s in the backwash of McCarthyism, the collapse of the old left, and draws conclusions about his own sense of self: "I see no salvation in personal relationships, in political action, or in any job I might undertake in society. Everything in me cries out that we are meaningless pieces of paste; everything in me hopes this is not the end of the story."

Zone of the Interior carries forward Sigal's odyssey into the 1960s, exploring a subculture of artists and dropouts. An R.D. Laing-like protagonist observes the disintegration of culture and personality in British society of the time. The world has gone thoroughly mad, and the personal experience of insanity, first encountered in Going Away, seems less scarifying against a background of general disillusionment, drugs, and the cornucopia of therapeutic theories that promise personal salvation in the face of apocalypse. The Secret Defector carries forward earlier themes, portraying the progress of an American leftist writer named Gus Black through the England of the swinging sixties, the depressed and punkish seventies, and the Thatcherite eighties.

—William J. Schafer

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