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Lost World

Rodinsky’s Room

by Rachel Lichtenstein, by Iain Sinclair
Granta Books, 338 pp., $29.95

Could you tell me where Spitalfields is?” a lady from Australia asked me in London’s East End the other day. “Ah, Spitalfields—a magic, mythical place,” I said. “Created by novelists and historians and architects and performance artists. Very hard to find.” (Actually, what I said was, “I’m not sure.”) Then we both noticed that we were staring at a street sign saying “Spital Street.” We could be forgiven for missing it: it was covered with graffiti.

It is hard to get across to a non-Londoner what time has done to the East End of Dickens and Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor. Docklands, of course, brashly built where cargoes were unloaded before containerization, is Yuppie City. The Isle of Dogs is home to a faltering neo-Nazi party, manned by thuggish boys stupefied by the changes around them; their great-grandfathers would have been Mayhew’s rat catchers or sewer cleaners. Hackney is almost gentrified, and Hoxton of unsavory memory is already awash with art galleries and coffee bars. Whitechapel, which more or less encircles Spitalfields, is a special case. Imagine, perhaps, the Bronx: bomb it a bit during the war, rebuild a bit in ugly blocks of social housing, neglect it a bit again, take in some 150,000 Bangladeshi immigrants, attract the interest of social historians in its fine seventeenth-century church and a handful of Georgian streets, bring an artists’ colony into its derelict storerooms, and finally, in the current crazy property boom, put tiny apartments on the market for å£200,000 each. And this is to leave out its most famous feature, the Jewish ghetto, which flourished until the 1950s.

It is still poor, and jumbled, and, even for London, horribly rubbish-strewn. It owes its special history to its being a magnet for successive waves of refugees who brought their poverty with them: Huguenot weavers fleeing persecution, Jews fleeing pogroms in Eastern Europe, Bengalis fleeing grinding poverty in their home villages. The central synagogue is now a mosque. There is still, in Brick Lane, a beautiful little nineteenth-century Church of England school; on the wall of the Whitechapel art gallery there is a plaque in memory of Isaac Rosenberg, the poet killed in World War I; but the shopfronts are all Iqbal and Sayeed, and street signs are in English and Bengali. A thoroughly Cockney-looking pub turns out, on close inspection, to be supported by some kind of heritage fund—Muslims, I suppose, being non-drinkers.

Already by the time of World War II many of Whitechapel’s Jews had prospered and moved out into northern and eastern suburbs. Perhaps an author will come who can chronicle the Muslim “ghetto” as Israel Zangwill did the Jewish one in the nineteenth century. In spite of its squalor, it was, he wrote, “a world which hides beneath its stony and unlovely surface an inner world of dreams, fantastic and poetic as the mirage of the Orient where they were woven, of superstitions grotesque as the cathedrals of the Dark Ages in which they had birth.” There could hardly be a better description of the spellbinding construction that Rachel Lichtenstein and Iain Sinclair have built in alternate chapters in Rodinsky’s Room. Zangwill’s best-known book, The Children of the Ghetto, opens in a “dull, squalid, narrow thoroughfare…connecting Spitalfields with Whitechapel, and branching off in blind alleys.” It could be the very street where, in 1991, Lichtenstein first walked into the room.

The room! There are three histories told here: the room’s; the tenant Rodinsky’s; and Rachel Lichtenstein’s, who pursued the vanished tenant. When Lichtenstein, a young art student, first entered an empty attic over a derelict East End synagogue, she was not the first to breach it—though it would make a better fairy tale if she had been. It was first opened up, by Iain Sinclair’s reckoning, some years earlier, during a general clearing-up of the Spitalfields area. The investigators found a room mysteriously abandoned—stacks of old newspapers and notebooks, dried-up tea leaves still in a cup by the unmade bed and a porridge saucepan on the stove. Old clothes hanging in the cupboard, empty beer bottles, cracked vinyl records. Letters signed in the name of D. Rodinsky and a calendar fixed at January 1963—

Every surface overflowed with books on subjects ranging from the Talmud to the study of hieroglyphics…. Taped inside many books are numerous inserts by Rodinsky: hand-drawn maps on the backs of cigarette packets, a ten-rouble note, a faded photograph of a synagogue in Prague, bubblegum cards from Iceland and Venezuela, chocolate wrappers covered in Arabic text. Numerous handwritten notebooks were also found containing Phoenician tables of time, cabbalistic diagrams, bizarre poems, and humorous anecdotes. All these abandoned possessions, appearing like the consonants of a forgotten language, bare bones of meaning, waiting for Rodinsky’s return to receive their full expression.

This is from Iain Sinclair’s text, which was first read out by Lichtenstein as a piece of performance art staged in an abandoned abbatoir, and now published, along with Lichtenstein’s own account, in the book.

The room had left wonderfully open the questions: Who, where was David Rodinsky? The blank page was soon written over, with conjectures and art shows and photographs and films—Zangwill’s “inner world of dreams,” of fantasies, superstitions, mirages. Sinclair, author of poetry and phantasmagoric novels, was also fascinated by the place and then by Rachel Lichtenstein’s growing passion for it. His role in the book is to blow bubbles, play conjuring tricks with time and space, exaggerate surrealistically, rave elegantly, pose ontological paradoxes. The room invited it; and the area was already darkened, for those who liked spooks, by the Jack the Ripper murders nearby and by Peter Ackroyd’s sinister novel of Spitalfields, Hawksmoor. At the more down-to-earth level, there were two (at least) factions pulling in opposite directions over the newly revealed room: the Georgian conservationists, who wanted to seal off old Spitalfields from surrounding squalor, and those whose interest was in the vanished life of the ghetto. “We excavate the history we need, bend the past to colonize the present,” as Sinclair says. Rodinsky’s Room is not only a mix of fantasy and community history, a comparison of the lives of a present-day Jewess and a poor immigrant Jew; it is also a study of mythmaking.

When Rachel Lichtenstein arrived at number 19, Princelet Street in 1991, before she climbed to the attic room, she saw the abandoned synagogue:

I felt my way along the corridor and opened the door at the end. The peeling paintwork of the synagogue was lit by warm yellow candlelight. The faded purple cushions on the bimah were covered in tattered prayer shawls that looked as if they had been sitting there for decades. The wrought iron balcony was thick with dust and cobwebs. Various artefacts from the attic were strewn around the floor. I cried.

The twenty-one-year-old art student had been born Rachel Laurence, daughter of an anglicized Jewish father and a Gentile mother. She had been seventeen when her father’s father, Gedaliah Lichtenstein, died. He left a study full of books in Polish, Hebrew, and other languages, and religious relics that she barely understood. She changed her name back to Lichtenstein; enrolled at art school in memory of her grandfather, whose hopes of art study in Poland had been dramatically disrupted; based her three years’ work at college on his life and that of the East End immigrant. She was passionately in search of a heritage. In Sinclair’s chapters, he makes much of the legends of the dybbuk* and golem. If there was a dybbuk possessing Lichtenstein it might have been her grandfather, who urged her on from place to place and person to person in search of David Rodinsky. And the vanished tenant of the attic must have fused for her in some way with the ancestor who took his long past with him to the grave.

She found out that her grandparents had had their first English home—where they ran a watchmaking shop—in the same tiny street where Rodinsky had lived above the synagogue, and so probably had been married in the Princelet Street synagogue itself. She felt a sense of destiny. She persuaded the authorities to let her become artist-in-residence in the building, running local tours and events, archiving and cataloguing a little museum. She put out advertisements for anyone who had known David Rodinsky, pursued every contact. Though the attic had been more or less cleared, she still prowled it. She found pencilings on the piano keys, warped floorboards where Rodinsky had washed and cooked; kosher food packages, maps of journeys around London; letters from social workers, and a cabbalistic diagram. She was obsessed, ferocious. Perhaps the dybbuk was Rodinsky, after all?

In the archives of the local library she found descriptions of what Princelet Street would have been like in Rodinsky’s time—which was not so long ago, after all:

One tenant likely to benefit from the renovations is a 71-year-old widow who has lived in Princelet Street for 41 years. Mrs. Daren lives on the first floor of a squalid house that smells of rats’ droppings. Giant cracks in the back wall let in the light, damp in other walls has stained the peeling paper. Mrs. Daren has an outside toilet, no hot water and faulty wiring. A council inspector declared the house unfit for human habitation. The development officer says her home is not the worst in the street, and some of the Bengali households are deplorably overcrowded.

As did, no doubt, those earlier inhabitants, Lichtenstein found her health affected by dust and damp and lack of light: asthma turned to pneumon-ia, and she temporarily dropped the Rodinsky quest for recuperation in the dry air of Israel.

So far, the history of the room, of the locale, and of Rachel Lichtenstein are intertwined, almost one. The history of David Rodinsky himself, which is skillfully kept in half-suspense for much of the book, is—to anticipate—not magical or mystical, but very ordinarily sad. Then there is the history of how myths grow.

This is Sinclair’s territory, and he gives it all he’s got. He had already had a hand in the invention of Spitalfields in his book, White Chapell: Scarlet Tracings, of 1987. The myth got well underway. When Rachel Lichtenstein discovered Princelet Street four years later, she was told by a film technician then using the old synagogue as a set,

I heard that when they first opened the room, a mummified cat was found sleeping in his bed. There were hundreds of books up there, containing mystical formulas, and it is believed he managed to transport himself out of the room without ever leaving.” The lighting man leaned closer. “His boots were still there, standing in the corner, filled to the brim with dust.”

In Sinclair’s airy vision, Rodinsky was

a synagogue caretaker, a Talmudic scholar, a holy fool; a man who invented himself through his disappearance. A simpleton who achieved competence in half a dozen languages, alive and dead. A sink-school dropout who made translations from the cuneiform texts of the Fertile Delta. A penniless haunter of cafés. A city wanderer who assembled a library that filled more than fifty cases. Rodinsky was a shape whose only definition was its shapelessness, the lack of a firm outline.

And so on.

The half-Jewish art student pursuing him must “find some resolution or lose herself forever in the attempt.” Nobody else could do it, Sinclair says. High-flown phrases are thrown about like fake pearls—“vertical time,” “unmanifest existence,” “ancestral archetypes.” A mist of secrecy and magic is floated like one of the fogs from London’s coal-burning days. Beckett and Poe are called upon, and old Jewish tales, and Paul Celan’s poetry, and Antonioni’s L’Avventura. All ridiculously pretentious, of course, and one or two of Sinclair’s chapters could well be cut from the book. But his necromancy is now and then glorious, and a counterpoise to Lichtenstein’s straightforward, openhearted account of her quest. Like eating a sandwich of curry and ice cream.

The actual sequence of events, as far as it can be disentangled, was, first, the opening of the attic above the deserted synagogue, then increasing interest in it as a piece of Whitechapel history; headlines in local papers, attention from survivors of the vanished ghetto, wider media interest that included Sinclair’s own article, “The Man Who Became a Room”; publication of evocative photographs; the setting up of a heritage center in the house; Rachel Lichtenstein’s arrival and the beginning of her obsession, her network of inquiries; then, as the balloon of mythmaking floated up, plays, art shows, interviews, rumors, and mystifications. Myth complete. Balloon now, after this engrossing book, ready to deflate and, gently, sadly, to sink.

Why the fuss, though, over a dirty room found abandoned in a slum? True, there are fairy-tale elements in the bare story: the secret room, the garret of La Bohème and the dying Traviata and mad Mrs. Rochester and Wallis’s painting of the death of Chatterton—even a hint of the sleeping beauty. There is the encapsulation of the lost world of the immigrant ghetto. There was the fact that, a couple of streets away, the crypt of Hawksmoor’s eighteenth-century church was then yielding up skulls and broken artifacts while it was under restoration and, at the same time, that Ackroyd’s Hawksmoor came out, evoking an old, secret East End.

Sinclair hints at more brutal reasons for the growth of the Rodinsky myth. Spitalfields was not only torn between the interests of Jewish patrons and the “New Georgians,” who were exquisitely reinstating old Huguenot houses. It was being watched by property speculators. So, he says, “those with a vested interest in defining Spitalfields as a zone of peculiar and privileged resonance needed a mythology to underwrite the property values.” “Spitalfields has been floated,” he says cruelly:

It’s delousing itself in readiness for a stock market quotation…. The “catacombs” beneath the old Fruit Exchange of Spitalfields Market are now used as storage space for craft hawkers, peddlers of organic vegetables, sentimental tat, ethnic pillagings and food so fast you’re hungry again before it hits your stomach…. It’s a stage the territory has to pass through before it is totally colonized by the land greed of the City.

It may be true that a Rodinsky myth was useful to developers or competing local groups, or it may be only ben trovato. More certainly, the presence of the young artists enjoying cheap studio space must be relevant; they were delighted with the Rodinsky story. Rachel Lichtenstein was herself one of these, and presented two exhibitions, as well as a permanent Holocaust exhibition installed in a West London synagogue. The intensity of her personal search, from 1991 onward, surely fanned the flames. Though her chapters in Rodinsky’s Room are less surreal than Sinclair’s, she had her own moments of myth and magic. She “saw” Rodinsky in the street in full Hasidic guise more than once; he turned out to be an ancient from the ghetto days, dealing in string and paper bags. In Israel, recovering from the East End damp, she had come to the decision to adopt a fully Orthodox way of life, though once back in London it proved to be too hard to maintain. So she visited a rabbi reputed to be a psychic and cabbalist and put a question to him: Should she take up the religious life in Israel, or should she write the Rodinsky book in London?

The rabbi…began to make a strange chart in pencil on a large piece of paper in front of him…. After about ten minutes he stopped, looked at me, took a deep breath, and then closed his eyes while resting his hands together as if in prayer. Finally he opened his eyes, threw down his hands on the table and looked straight at me…. “You are connected to the olam hasod, the secrets of the earth, you are the one that peels back the layers of the earth, like an onion, to find the meaning. This man, Rodinsky, his neshama, his soul, is connected to yours, you must continue your search, it is this search that will lead you to the right path.”

He blessed her and she left, for the final part of her search.

She had already acquired basic information. She knew that Rodinsky had died in 1969 aged forty-four, of pneumonia plus “epilepsy with paranoid features.” But why outside London, in Epsom, Surrey? She had met a neighbor from Princelet Street: “Poor David, of course Iknew him, alav ha-shalom. I feel he is dead now.” He had worked in a shoe factory at one time, the mystical, magical creature. The family was reclusive, the sister had died, he lived on alone in the attic in squalor. As a child, it seemed he had been put into foster care. He was thin, shabby, rejected help. Angry, bitter, religious, clever. “A lost soul,” said a cousin. With a group of other people researching their roots, Rachel Lichtenstein traveled to Poland. “For the first time I recognized that I was not alone in my obsessive pursuits but part of a worldwide phenomenon in my generation.” They visited crumbling cemeteries, found the tomb of a rabbi famous for supernatural powers. They wept together, sang old traditional tunes; talked to a Polish Catholic whose family had been killed by the Nazis for being communists, who had survived by hiding under a Jewish gravestone. Then the last horror, the tourist round at Auschwitz. While they were saying Kaddish, the mourning prayer, there, Lichtenstein realized that her one final task was to find Rodinsky’s grave and say the prayer for him.

Sinclair had seen the young artist as “someone even crazier than I was”:

…capable of handling bureaucratic obfuscation, working the files, spending days chasing dead ends on a hot telephone; travelling like a spy, winning the sympathy of fragile family connections. Someone who belonged here by birthright.

For himself, it was the room as symbol that was the obsession and starting-point for fantasy. He had mused on the notion of Rodinsky as golem, recalling Gustav Meyrink’s Der Golem of 1915: a man-made monster like Frankenstein’s, haunted and haunting in the dark. Kafka was brought in, and Prague, capital of alchemy. Had the recluse in the attic achieved alchemical enlightenment, the gift of tongues…? Sinclair’s own tongue is in his cheek at this point, and he breaks off to quote a neighbor’s recollection:

I knew him when young, a pasty-faced chappie who always looked undernourished…. He was a tenant together with his mother in two rooms let to them above the Princelet Street synagogue, not a scholar, his sustenance was given to him and his mother from Jewish charities.

As Lichtenstein establishes dates, times, places, Sinclair senses the power of the empty room diminishing. Her sympathy now is not for myths but for the undernourished chappie, a loner, a dispossessed person who nevertheless held on to his inheritance, and awakens fellow-feeling. She now has a partner and a baby (need you ask the name?), and the good health to complete her work.

Through the files of a Burial Society and a Welfare Board she traces Rodinsky to a now demolished psychiatric hospital in Epsom. “It was a sad place,” she is told. “…It was the epitome of the Victorian mental asylum, taking the mad as far away from their point of origin as possible.” It was “the kind of place that was full of cabbalistic geniuses and religious scholars wrapped up in the world of metaphysics. In that period there were many mistakes made.”

The cemetery stretches beside a motorway. The grave is found—no headstone, just concrete and tin and gravel. She asks that the soul of David Rodinsky is granted rest, on the wings of the divine presence.

Rodinsky’s Room is part community history, part meditation on themes of presence and absence. It has no ending, let alone a “happy ending.” The Rodinsky story is nothing singular; loneliness and poverty and neglect have not gone away. There are Rodinskys in hospital wards, refugee hostels, and London doorways, begging. It is a good thing to remember them.

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