Stride Magazine -

  Guessed Disappearance

Iain Sinclair and Rachel Lichtenstein: Rodinsky’s Room (Granta Books, 1999, second, updated, edition 2000)

Iain Sinclair: Sorry Meniscus: Excursions to the Millennium Dome (Profile Books, 1999)
Iain Sinclair has visited Rodinsky’s room before. If David Rodinsky himself haunts the liminal uncertainty between myth and reality, then it is fitting that, in Sinclair’s novel Downriver (1991), documentary filters into fiction. The ‘Iain Sinclair’ of the novel acknowledges the function of ‘myth’ and ‘legend’ in the Rodinsky story, but the simple singulars he uses here hide how the Great Work of Rodinsky’s Disappearance provides a blank sheet for every spookable near-witness and conspiracy theorist.

The story (as it was known in the 1980s) is this: at some point in the 1960s David Rodinsky, an Orthodox Jew living alone in a room above an abandoned synagogue in a three storey Spitalfields house, seemed to have vanished, leaving behind a baffling array of Jewish hermetic texts and empty beer bottles, works of world linguistics and newspapers, and a Millet ‘Angelus’ calendar (for March 1963). The room was only opened in 1980.

The ‘shrine hoppers’, as Sinclair calls them, declare, ‘He’s all about us’. (DR,p. 135). And Sinclair agrees. For him, the room has disappeared (it had literally: most of Rodinsky’s effects havd been removed, whereabouts then unknown). The few remaining items, such as the diary in which he finds oracular writings (even the JK initials that haunted White Chapell, Scarlet Tracings, Sinclair’s first novel of 1987) and a photograph of a Nazi victim, are traps set by the enigmatic Rodinsky. The room is a ‘deconsecrated shrine, sucking in the unwary’ in the service of a vague ‘dangerous heresy’. (DR, p. 138) The film maker who interviews ‘Iain Sinclair’ in the room is spooked by light through the shutters; his assistant is convinced the dust is the disintegrated form of Rodinsky.

The room (rather than the man) is perfect material for Sinclair, and it is not surprising to see him revisting it. But it is not his business to rematerialise Rodinsky. He knows that for his fiction to work he must disturb just enough of the dust to fog the proceedings with enigma. He doesn’t want to uncover Rodinsky, even in his documentary prose.

Such is the power of the Princelet St Synagogue and its story that it was almost inevitable that someone would set out with the aim of re-materialising David Rodinsky. What was less predictable was that person and Sinclair should team up to produce a book on the subject, Rodinsky’s Room, a book marked profoundly by their differences in approach.

Sinclair intuits this in the opening chapter, when he declares that ‘the fabulous and factual met in riotous conjunction’ (RR, p. 40) in the telling of the story in that liminal fragility ‘before memories became memorial plaques.’ (RR, p. 4) ‘Rachel Lichtenstein understood that it was her task .. to live that life again, and to complete it’. (RR, p. 5) Such completion should, of course, imply closure, but even while he knows his collaborator will close the mystery, Sinclair attempts to keep it open. The room itself is closed, but paradoxically it remains ‘the sole entrance to the narrative’ (RR, p. 11). His first chapter ends with much rhetorical force expelled on the still tricky Rodinsky. ‘Begin anywhere and you will find more material, tributaries branching from tributaries, than any one life can hope to unravel’. (RR, p. 11)  The warning could have been issued to Lichtenstein. We must be thankful that she did not heed it until she thought she was through. (She wasn’t, as we shall see.) Her work, Sinclair states elsewhere, shifting the terms once more, between openness and closure, the fabulous and the factual, is an act of transcribing ‘a work whose essence is to remain unfinished, incomplete, abandoned’. (RR, p. 72) Questions of agency are similarly complicated: if Rachel Lichtenstein ‘nominated the story of David Rodinsky as a way of discovering (or creating) her own past’, (RR, p. 85) then the story she tells is still ‘The task for which he (Rodinsky) had chosen her’. (RR, p. 87)

Ulitimately, Rodinsky’s Room is Lichtenstein’s Book. Of the volume’s 362 pages Sinclair is responsible for barely over 100. He seems to be – rightly – avoiding saying what he has already said in Downriver and in Lights out for the Territory (1997), where we are first introduced to Lichtenstein as an impressive visual artist. He briefly re-narrates the story of his visit to the room with Brain Catling (which appears in a more baroque form in Downriver). He is aware of a number of works of art being constructed on the back of this particular enigma, and lists some of them; they seem to him to be cumulatively destroying the story as he understands it. On one visit he meets Rachel Lichtenstein, who had been searching for him. He accounts for the various visits he makes with other artists to encourage them to response: Jah Wobble (for him Rodinsky is a trickster), Kathy Acker (‘she’d let the idea float’) and Michael Moorcock (who seems non-comittal: ‘I don’t know if the story … touched him’). (RR, p. 272) An anthology of creative responses nose dives into the sand. Sinclair concedes, in his last chapter, ‘Visitors’, that it is Lichtenstein’s task to follow the project through, and he seems to bow out. ‘I wasn’t qualified to hunt down the human story, that would be the task of someone even crazier than I was, someone capable of handling bureaucratic obfuscation, working the files, spending the days chasing dead ends on a hot telephone, travelling like a spy, winning the sympathy of fragile family connections.’ (RR, p. 256) This is a precise enough summary of Lichtenstein’s chapters. ‘Now the book existed. Rachel existed, and she had reassembled the lineaments of Rodinsky.’ (RR. p. 268) But Sinclair realises the loss of his mysterious atmospheric room, one perhaps shared too often now with a number of sometimes indifferent visitors. As the synagogue itself is developing full speed into a Heritage Centre (advert at the end of the book), so Rodinsky is changing into ‘A second Rodinsky. Another life on the pattern of the first. Rachel had lived through her own trials and doubts, the book was writing itself.’ (RR, p. 268)

Such autoecriture, as it were, is only a mirage, of course, and there has been considerable artifice here, not least of all in dovetailing Sinclair’s metanarrative with Lichtenstein’s longer but no less self-conscious autobiography (she reflects on the difficulties of writing such a book). After the spiky noun- or verb- phrase minor sentences of Sinclair, packed with literary references, and knowingly building this work into context with his other publications, both fiction and non-fiction, Lichtenstein’s more vulnerable voice is not only a foil but occasionally a relief. For Sinclair, like William Burroughs, paranoia is a mode of being, a conduit for truths that are stranger than truth. For Lichtenstein, narrative is an auto-poetic mode (she makes herself, as Sinclair hints), but it also an act of discovery and recovery. 

Using the skills Sinclair attributes to her above, and her perfectly orchestrated combination of hunch, hint, coincidences, luck and bluff, Lichtenstein tracks down her man. Although the story is interrupted by international travel and marriage and child-birth (son David), she follows a pre-cybernetic data shadow through the archives of Jewish organisations and its press, and public records, and as a result reduces Rodinsky to a sad, lonely man living alone above the synagogue who became mentally ill, was hospitalised (sectioned) and died, leaving behind a surprisingly visible grave. Even the shrine-hoppers would not have dared to follow.

But Lichtenstein is an artist not a detective, and the story is complicated by that. She produces art that delves into (or creates, as Sinclair perceptively remarks) her own Jewish inheritance: hand sewn images of Polish Ghetto Jews, mosaics of her family made from Middle Eastern shards, Holocaust memorials, as well as an installation (with Sinclair) that tells of Rodinsky’s disappearance. In the reproductions in this book you get a grainy idea of what are already indistinct images of these vanished people, pressed into a respectfully memorialising amber. They are spectral, otherworldly, more detached than Rodinsky himself, the man of whom there is no photograph. There is, however, a photograph of his sister, who herself spent many years in a mental hospital, which Lichtenstein turns into an artistic ghost, an analogue for herself. There is an ethical core to the work, which is the opposite of a piece of vacuous performance art that Lichtenstein stopped by a spontaneous act of direct action. As soon as she realised the performers were ripping up East End records in Yiddish she acts. Such a parable should give pause as to the ethical implications of any artistic act. We cannot simply juggle with the bones of the dead.

The international travel takes Lichtenstein to Israel, where she almost becomes Orthodox, not an easy move for a woman. She imagines Rodinsky’s sister (who owned many of the esoteric books found in the room) trying to follow this route and entertains (if only for a page) the notion that the intellect of the family, the Torah scholar, was the sister, not the caretaker. The most searingly moving account in the book is the trip around the Holocaust sites of Poland, which is unbearably relentless. She narrowly misses the Rodinsky family’s home town. It is while saying Kaddish at Auschwitz that she realises that she has to find Rodinsky’s grave. It is yet another of the linkages of which Derrida spoke when he said, quite carefully, that ‘if there is today an ethical or political question and if there is somewhere a One must, it must link up with a one must make links with Auschwitz.’ (LR, p. 387) This was Lichtenstein’s way, and expresses the poetics of her artistic practice. 

Sinclair pursues Rodinsky in his more oblique manner. In the guise of a cultural commentator, he reads him into a mesh of intertextual references, extra-textual connections. A reading of Pinter’s The Caretaker establishes a web of amnesia and disappearances in Jewish post-War London. The long literature of the golem – middle Europe’s mud homunculus – is brought into sharp focus (as is the myth of the dubykk, Lichtenstein’s possession by the Vanished Jew). The account of Rachel Lichtenstein by Sinclair is affectionate and generous (more genuine than the attempted feminisation of his fiction in Radon Daughters (1994)). Sinclair’s chapters are almost a metanarrational commentary upon hers, but even she is subject to Sinclair’s comparative reading. Innocuously, she is contrasted to the fictional Rachel of David Hartnett’s Black Milk (and to the cover image photo by his fellow stalker from Lights Out, Marc Atkins). However she herself understandably rejects the analogy, or distances herself from the bad magic, when she is compared to another Jewish female artist, the photographer Sharon Kazan, who was murdered by a deranged Holocaust survivor in Cable Street (of all places). As she says elsewhere (and many others must have felt this too!), ‘It felt strange to read about myself in one of Sinclair’s books.’ (RR, p. 57)

The connections – the lines of energy that Sinclair sets up through comparison and intertextuality – are less well-managed in the chapter ‘Who Cares for the Caretaker?’ which focuses neither on Pinter or Rodinsky, but on the figure of David Litvinoff and his brothers. I take the point that in recovering East End proletarian novelists like Alexander Baron and Emmanuel Litvinoff, (as in orchestrating the avant-garde in his poetry anthology Conductors of Chaos (1996)) Sinclair is propagating ‘my belief that the official map of the culture, at any time, would always fail to include vital features. Too many good writers are left out of the canon’. (RR, p. 139) However, the linkage between David Rodinsky and David Litvinoff, seems inconsequential compared to the grace and verve of Rachel Lichtenstein’s investigations which it seems, at this point, to interrupt rather than counterpoint. Even Sinclair’s contention that ‘Cockney visionaries’ can surf the vortex, move without constraint between historical periods employing a kind of temporal Esperanto, where nothing is real and everything is pastiched’ (RR, p. 149) is insufficient to equate the playboy bit-part actor and suicide with the Rodinsky who is beginning to emerge, along with his historical context. It is a notion best contained in the fictions of Peter Ackroyd, from whence, Sinclair tells us, it has been borrowed.1

Lichtenstein is not naïve about history and its irrecoverability, but she will have no truck with a myth that is not of her own constructing. ‘To me, she confides, ‘David Rodinsky’s story seems to touch on a human need for a contemporary myth of discovery and survival,’ something close to the practice of her art. (RR, p. 224) It is also close to the insistence in the philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas that we are held hostage to the Other, that response inevitably involves responsibility. For her, Rodinsky is a Talmudic scholar, a dark, quiet figure, exiled within his exile, holding faith within his faith, making brilliant internal plunges into the resources of his mind, with the aid of the books he reads and the notes he makes. Finding a similar abandoned synagogue in Poland which had been tended by another lone Jew, she imagines multiple Wandering Jews guarding the sacred sites of prayer, and Rodinsky as one of the lamed vavnicks, one of the anonymous 36 good men alive at any one time. It is an effective and moving myth, but one which does threaten Rodinsky’s otherness.

She also realises she is dealing with a withdrawn and unhappy man living in squalor and filth by the end of his life. There is even an avenue Lichtenstein opens but does not follow. When she ponders the apparent cause of Rodinsky’s death, ‘epilepsy with paranoid features’ she reveals that a doctor friend suggests a misdiagnosis of autism. She reflects: ‘This would make sense of the repetitive nature of his notebooks, the transcribed diagrams, long lists and tables: all classic features of autism.’ (RR, p. 158)  This revealing passage sits uneasily with Rodinsky as one of the lamed vavnicks. He could be thought of as a higher functioning autistic, capable of reproducing in his large handwriting scholastic jargon, and with a fair command of language and a love of transcribing what he hears around him: slang, Irish drinking songs. I hear something that alerts me in the tone of the letter to his aunt, his last desperate plea to escape the filthy garret: ‘If you don’t like my cap I will not wear it if you let me have a room.’ (RR, p. 300) I have a little experience of living near this intractable condition and this line of enquiry seems quite possible. This is not to detract from the genuineness of his Jewish faith or his intelligence or his suffering. Perhaps he could be more honoured as such. (I notice also that the word ‘autistic’ is used often in Sinclair’s work, a forensic term for self-enclosure which does not begin to reflect the complexity of the actual condition. The metaphors we live by that others live through.)

But what is happening to me here? This speculation is, of course, a long-distance effect of what Sinclair calls the ‘trap’ of the room and its vanished man. I am reviewing the book and I end up participating in its argument, re-writing the book as I go along, something I have no right to do.

But that is exactly what happened when the book was first published. Sinclair was right when he argued that the story could have no end, even after some of the physical questions are permanently settled.  Yet even he, armed with the A-Z upon which Rodinsky traced mysterious routes around London, suddenly began to rekindle his obsession with the story. (The book Dark Lanthorns (1998) records these ambulatory re-enactments.) Meanwhile Rachel Lichtenstein was slowly laying Rodinsky to rest, quite literally in the consecration of his grave, as she tells us in her 2000 ‘Afterword’ appended to this new edition. But not before she has fielded assorted photographers, poets and passersby who make themselves known to her on the basis of the first edition, people who had contact with the Rodinskys, the synagogue or (extraordinarily) her own grandfather, whose life was the beginning of her quest. Mike Pattison’s photograph of the room prove the others to have been staged. (Sinclair always called the room a ‘set’. But looking at the jumble of 78s across the table before the piano conjures – for me – a world of sound absent from the other stories. Whether autistic or mystic, I can just about imagine the filthily attired shoe factory worker popping a cork on a beer bottle and relaxing to the sounds of ‘Ol’ Man River’ on the gramophone, however incongruous that seems.)

A series of public readings from the book throws up active audiences with memories, stories, images that Lichtenstein incorporates here, as ever, differing in detail. She has to deal with hostile audience comments; they help to inaugurate an evaluation of the book. She is accused of not being knowledgeable enough about the Jewish East End. This is unfair, since the book is the record of her attempt to make sense of that history, a questioning quest, an autobiography. (She turns her accuser into an autobiographer himself, it seems, an obvious and pertinent provocation.) She certainly populates her account with chance-met or hunted out Jewish historians. Yet it seems strange to me that she does not check the cogency of the ‘scholarly’ and linguistic materials produced by Rodinsky. Some call him a genius, others an idiot, another hint of autism, which can send out these contradictory signals.

The main criticism is more fundamental, which questions her right to recover the severely private Rodinsky at all. Her answer that he was already public property by the time she arrived on the trail sounds a little too legalistic, like journalists claiming ‘public interest’ for personal snooping. The answer demands an ethical dimension. Lichtenstein bravely quotes Lisa Jardine’s review of the book’s first edition: ‘Many of the moves Lichtenstein makes, including the marking of the grave and the request for prayers to be said for him, suggest her personal atonement for the appropriations she has made in the name of art’. (RR, p. 233-4)

I have always been severe on writers – particularly those British poets – who operate by exploiting their relatives’ frailties, or by speaking the voice or thoughts of another, by obliterating a real life with their unreal (but not healthily fictional) words. It is the literary equivalence of the intrusive, unforgiveable question, ‘What are you thinking?’ which is ethically a universe away from the more general, generous question, ‘What do you think?’

While I occasionally find Rachel Lichtenstein guilty of this ‘appropriation’, to use Jardine’s words – and I can certainly find it in my own creative writing, I must confess here – the difficulty of her enterprise, both visual and verbal, points to a struggle with representation, with the means – to again allude briefly to the post-Holocaust philosophy of Levinas – of keeping the story a ‘saying’, open to the future, rather than as a ‘said’, closing it into ontological fixity, death by final definition. When she notes,‘I wondered what David Rodinsky would think about their unlikely meeting at his consecration thirty years after his death’ (RR, p.337) she does not speak  for him, but keeps the story an open ‘saying’, a saying so fragilely silent, it can never fossilise into a ‘said’ – even as she attempts to bring to rest her own involvement. It is not atonement, I think, for disturbing that silence.

Sinclair takes a different tack, as ever. When he is accosted at one of the readings by a man who whispers, ‘I am David Rodinsky’ – he fails to recognise an actor from one of the Rodinsky films made in the room – he turns white, according to Lichtenstein! There is some poetic justice here – the Return of the Re-represented! – given Sinclair’s writing method of animating fictional analogues of real people in his novels. But the defamiliarisations of the fiction – as excessive as Gothic – renders the characters fantastical (though not without raising the occasional moral qualm). In Rodinsky’s Room Sinclair’s distance from the Rodinsky myth, his playing at the edges of his world, comes from the fact that the Other to whom he must make responsible response, is not Rodinsky at all, but Rachel Lichtenstein, whose counterword to his own characteristic chasing after ineluctable mysteries and downright bad news, makes this book truly remarkable. I read it in one day, unable (as they say) to put it down.
When that earlier ambulatory documentarist, William Cobbett, first laid eyes on the Royal Pavilion at Brighton, an analogous materialisation of pomposity and emptiness to the Millennium Dome, he wrote of that monstrous amalgam of Chinoiserie and Knocking Shop: ‘As to the “palace” as the Brighton newspapers call it … Take a square box, the sides of which are three feet and a half, and the height a foot and a half. Take a large Norfolk-turnip, cut off the green of the leaves, leave the stalk 9 inches long, tie these round with a string three inches from the top, and put the turnip on the middle of the top of the box. Then take four turnips of half the size, treat them in the same way, and put them on the corners of the box…. There. That’s a “Kremlin”. (RR2)

 Sinclair, in his short book on the Dome, Sorry Meniscus, follows Cobbett’s example, and offers multiple descriptions-as-definition, definitions-as-description. If I pile them up here, like mock heroic similes, it is because I cannot resist them, and because I regard these overdetermined noun-phrases as Sinclair’s most glorious weapon: ‘The Teflon Hedgehog  (SM, p. 42) ... a blob of correction fluid, a flick of Tipp-Ex to revise the mistakes of 19-th century industrialism (SM, p. 12) ... a poached egg designed by a committee of vegans (my favourite) (SM, p. 14) .. an Anthony Caro reprise of Stonehenge (SM, p. 16) ... a blind, milk-white eye staring in innocence at a race of storm clouds (SM, p. 45) ... a junky’s time-killing table sculpture from a greasy caff (SM, p. 64) … (or more morally)  a Bunyanesque target, a revivalist tent show on the far side of a swamp’ (SM, p. 54). His nearest epithet to Cobbett’s, ‘a heap of icing sugar with twelve match-ends stuck in it’ (SM, p. 64) contrasts with the more politicised barely visual ‘visions’ of it later in the book: it is ‘Disneyland on message’ (SM, p. 74) as well as ‘a bald skull stretched to its limits to accommodate anyone prepared  to kick in the necessary millions for a trade stand’. (SM, p. 82) By the time we read that the Dome is ‘the Big Idea, the idea which is no idea, a skin with no pudding’, we know that description has slipped into an almost self-defeating denunciation. The Dome, teflon sheen, will not allow this language to stick. It is – physically and ideologically – ‘entirely self-referential, a metaphor for its own narcissism: ‘form without function’ (SM, p. 89). Nothing sticks but the desire to hate it (though Sinclair quotes some self-serving ‘conversions’ to the cause of the Dome).

When Sinclair asks, ‘Wouldn’t it be more of a challenge to find something positive to say about a construction that was hated by two-thirds of the population?’ he has a point; it reveals a discomfort in the text. (SM, p. 90) Anyone, from right-leaning to crazed apocalyptic, in this Age of Irony, would know this story well: the siting of the New Labour vision thing on a carcinogenic landfill, the utter vacuuousness of any ideological content, the squalor and disaffection that surround this charmed circle, the huge sums of money sunk into this ‘Experience’. This is no Rodinsky’s Room (though even that is destined to become a Heritage Centre). There is some loss of authority, here, given the public territory Sinclair traverses. He usually works by contestation and conspiracy theory and finds being in the majority for once uncomfortable. But nobody else could tell the story so vividly (it does not even need the obligatory Krays or Blake to subvert the vision thing to his own vision). The image with which the book begins, of Sinclair holding up the virtual Dome of the planners’ glossy brochure to its inevitably disappointing realisation, is unforgettable as a perfect corrective to this era of proposition, proposal, and prospectus. Alternatively, readers of Downriver – Sinclair himself points us in its direction – will applaud the way fiction has nearly become reality (one of Sinclair’s abiding and fearful beliefs about acts of inscription, that they are divinatory). The deregulated Tory fiefdom of Canary Wharf, which he so hilariously surrealises there has in reality not quite given way to the ghastly light show for The Widow, but to a New Labour zone of ... of ... – if only anyone knew what it was meant to represent before it merely represented itself, a pure Baudrillardian simulcrum. ‘Time’ the officer of the Dome bravely tells Sinclair when pressed for its theme. But it is not the arresting time of the Four Horseman, those traditional millennial spoilsports, but the ‘time’ of ‘having a good time’, a celebration of day zero of year zero’s zeroness, a rite de passage of the clock watcher. The Dome’s false hopes and the suspected techno-apocalypse of the Millennium Bug (remember that?) came and went like the tick-pop of the cork-tock of the moment itself.

What captures my imagination are more familiar, that is, more personal Sinclair impressions: of his attempt to travel from Hackney to the Dome by public transport, for example. The fine balance of the apocalyptic and the quotidian - on the station platform with the  ‘speaking-in-tongues feedback from the public address system’ (SM, p. 68) – heightens the absurdity of the Dome and its pretensions, and warms us to Sinclair. ‘Don’t think I’m whingeing,’ he declares ebulliently, after delivering a carnivalesque portrait of social gridlock; ‘There’s been nothing like it since the high days of the Eighties. Total craziness. Lunatic decisions from the top down’. (SM, p. 70) All of this brings a sigh of relief, but reminds me how much a satirist is in danger of gloating over the reality that threatens to defeat his or her artifice, unless he or she jumps ahead into the absurd. How he or she must be complicit or remain silent. Sinclair shows no sign of taking the latter course.

What a shame, though, that Sorry Meniscus was published before the Millennium Jewel Heist. Awash with conspiracy theories – the missing white van which ‘escaped’ the massive police entrapment, one gang member’s unexplained relationship with his policeman brother-in-law – the story is destined for Sinclair’s pen. Perhaps he saw his favourite Kray gang apologist Tony Lambrianou on the box tut-tutting the naiviety of the ‘robbers’, their nostalgic adherence to outdated techniques of ‘villany’. Or better, heard Lambrianou’s mate musing on the length of the sentences meted out for the audacity of ploughing a JCV into New Labour’s dream: ‘Fifteen years! That’s criminal, that is!’ But it’s only a flash in the pan of the next millennium.

Note. Quotes from Rodinsky’s Room are marked RR in the text. Those from Sorry Meniscus as SM. And those from Downriver as DM. The quotation from The Lyotard Reader (ed. A Benjamin, Blackwell, 1989) is marked LR. The quotation from William Cobbett’s Rural Rides is marked RR2 in the text.

1. This confesses an interesting intertextual relationship between Ackroyd’s work, particularly Hawksmoor (1985), with its borrowings from Sinclair himself, and White Chappel, Scarlet Tracings and other works by Sinclair.

                   © Robert Sheppard 2002