Friday, December 8, 2017

Book review: Ballad of a Wounded Man - The allure of Hollywood author Clancy Sigal

It’s good to know that if you live long enough, history turns your antagonists into clowns and bitterness recedes into reminiscence. Meanwhile, new political clowns take the stage, new witch hunts are mounted, and the lady writers keep scribbling about the brutal men.

Clancy Sigal: Black Sunset: Hollywood Sex, Lies, Glamour, Betrayal, and Raging Egos
Reviewed by Laura Kipnis 

A decade or so ago I was asked to participate in the test-drive of a software platform, funded by a big foundation, designed to revolutionize the concept of the book group. A bunch of other women writers and I were supposed to read Lessing’s The Golden Notebook, which had been scanned into this software, and type our comments in the margins of the book; then the reading public would join in, blogging about our comments, all of which would effectively transform TGN into an exciting interactive text. I think the master plan was that virtual book-reading collectives would soon erupt worldwide and literacy would flourish, though for reasons I never learned, none of this got past the beta stage.

When we arrived at the section of TGN where the Saul Green character first appears—this is Anna Wulf’s tormented, magnetic American boarder, with whom she’s fated to fall “hopelessly in love”—as someone always pleased to have a bit of literary gossip to share, I said that Saul Green was based on Clancy Sigal, the American writer and Communist who was one of Lessing’s lovers. Sigal had himself written a novel in which Lessing was a character, I wrote, adding, “I read his autobiography years ago but remember nothing of it.”

Something about Saul Green has always riveted me. Maybe it’s that he so transfixes Anna: He’s bristling, disruptive, mocking, all too fuckworthy. She claims to hate the “brutal sexual inspection” he subjects her to on first meeting—“there was no humour in it, no warmth, just the stockman’s comparison-making”—but it’s not like her inspection of him is any less brutal: She scrutinizes his suspicious pallor, the way he covers his lies with compulsive verbiage, the whimpering in his sleep, the neurotic isolation he exudes. Even the way he stands, like a caricature of an American in the movies: “sexy he-man, all balls and strenuous erection.” He’s a cad, sleeping his way through left-wing London, but she’s never met a man with as much insight into a woman—or such a “real man” in bed. She humiliates herself by reading his diaries to find out which of her friends he’s bedding on any given day; when she dreams about him, he’s an “old dwarfed malicious man” with a great menacing penis protruding through his clothes.

Shortly after my comment about the Saul-Clancy connection, a reader with the handle “Brutalman” posted on the blog section of the website: “What a pity Laura Kipnis could not remember Clancy Sigal’s ‘autobiography.’ (Actually, ain’t no such animal, but still.) That hurts.” This took a few beats to process. Who on earth would know whether or not Clancy Sigal had written an autobiography? He wasn’t exactly a household name. Also, there was something about the phrase “ain’t no such animal” that struck me—it reminded me of Saul Green himself, who’s always calling Anna “lady,” like a movie gangster or cowboy (“Lady, you sure know how to make me feel a hick”), and correcting her naïveté about life… read more:

Excerpt: The first time Clancy Sigal went to jail he was 5. His mother, a Socialist union organizer, had been arrested in Chattanooga, Tenn., for violating social and legal norms when she convened a meeting of black and white female textile workers. Hauled away to the jailhouse, she took Clancy with her.  As an American Army sergeant in Germany, he plotted to assassinate Hermann Göring at the Nuremberg war crimes trials. A victim of the movie industry’s Communist-baiting blacklist, he represented Barbara Stanwyck and Humphrey Bogart as a Hollywood agent (but improvidently rejected James Dean and Elvis Presley as clients).  

During a 30-year self-imposed exile in Britain as an antiwar radical, Mr. Sigal was the Nobel Prize-winning novelist Doris Lessing’s lover and flirted with suicide as a sometime patient of R. D. Laing, the iconoclastic psychiatrist.  In short, in a mixed-bag life of almost a century, Mr. Sigal had enough rambunctious experiences to fill a novel — or, in his case, several of them. He drew on his escapades in critically acclaimed memoirs and autobiographical novels, developing a cult following, especially in Britain. But when he died on July 16 in Los Angeles at 90, he had never quite equaled the fame and commercial success achieved in the United States by other stars in his literary constellation — none of whom burned more blisteringly.