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Sinclair’s Rodinsky’s Room and the Art of Autobiogeography

Christopher C. Gregory-Guider

Sinclair’s works are part of an increasingly vibrant urban gothic subgenre that, in Britain, centres around London and includes such authors as Peter Ackroyd, J. G. Ballard, and Michael Moorcock. While the particular foci of such works varies, there is a common preoccupation with the city both as spectacle and as site of spectres from the past, as well as with the ever more ubiquitous surveillance technologies. All of these works pay tribute to the densely-layered heterogeneity of the city’s history, inspiring appreciation for some of the myriad ways in which the metropolis has been conceived and imagined over time.[1] Also common to these London-based narratives is a sustained interest in the peripatetic as a privileged mode of engagement with the city’s topography, a fact that links the emergent writing on the city in Britain with a lineage of self-conscious urban walking than extends back at least as far as Dickens and De Quincy, and can be compared fruitfully with Benjamin’s autobiographical ramblings as well as with the perambulatory activities of the Surrealists, Situationists, and, more recently, the Psychogeographers.[2]

My interest in the psychogeographical component of Iain Sinclair’s peripatetic works stems from the fact that the author brings the concerns and strategies of this movement to bear on private memory and memorialisation, something that is not usually addressed by psychogeographers’ more socio-economic agenda. In Rodinsky’s Room in particular, Sinclair and Lichtenstein mould London into a personalised geography of their biographical subject, David Rodinsky. The annotated London A-Z found in Rodinsky’s former lodging contains numerous idiosyncratic itineraries inscribed on the maps in red pen. Both Sinclair and Lichtenstein regard these markings as an ‘act of displaced autobiography … life skewed into geometry’ (185), blueprints for the spatial practices of a now vanished body. The act of retracing these itineraries reframes the city through the (imagined) subjective gaze of Rodinsky; in the absence of any trace of his physical body, his life is memorialised through the recreation of a selected series of his movements, glances, and gestures, with East London as the stage on which these memorial acts of miming take place. This emphasis on Rodinsky’s ephemeral traces on the city streets is combined with an enthusiastic fascination with the material and textual objects that he left behind in his room. These ‘indestructible whispers’, as Sinclair refers to them, also bear witness to — and perhaps even bear the imprint of – Rodinsky’s vanished body, serving also as a dormant and fragmented alphabet out of which a narrative of the self might be assembled. The room itself can be seen as an externalised and materialised architecture of the inner self, full of clues regarding the hopes, fears, and desires of its former occupant, a ‘map of a mind that anyone capable of climbing the stairs can sample’ (174).

Rodinsky’s Room’s self-conscious staging of this productive interchange between person and place qualifies it as an ‘autobiogeography,’ or a work of life-writing in which the story of person is refracted through the story of place.[3] In addition to illuminating this phenomenon, my analysis of Sinclair’s and Lichtenstein’s Rodinsky’s Room seeks to articulate the dynamic relationship between the authors’ meditations on the inanimate material objects that populate their biographical subject’s room and their intangible perambulatory retracings of Rodinsky’s footsteps through London. Are these two distinct memorialisation strategies opposed, or do they mutually illuminate one another? To what extent do the objects inform and inspire the peripatetic retracing of Rodinsky’s footsteps, and, conversely, how do the perambulatory journeys shed light on and give significance to the objects? How do Sinclair and Lichtenstein ghost-write the vanished Rodinsky back into the discourse of the city using only indicators of some of his peripatetic itineraries and a motley collection of material and textual traces he left behind? In addressing these questions, I make a claim for Rodinsky’s Room as an autobiogeography par excellence, a paradigmatic instance of the memorialisation of a biographical subject through the representation and revisitation of the places he once occupied and/or traversed.

Rodinsky’s Room

At some point in 1969, David Rodinsky disappeared, leaving the contents of his room above the Princelet Street Synagogue in London’s East End (Spitalfields) undisturbed until their rediscovery in 1980.[4] The first person to enter the room felt as if he had entered a time capsule: everything was in great disarray, hundreds of books, notebooks, and scraps of paper spread across the floor, as well as a calendar (displaying January 1963, the same year the synagogue closed) hanging in the corner, and a congealed, half-eaten bowl of porridge.[5] Later, apocryphal details about other items in the room began to circulate: dust-filled boots, the imprint of Rodinsky’s head on his pillow, a mummified cat. Subsequent visitors would not be able to resist rearranging the objects into a more romantic configuration, a fact revealed in Danny Gralton’s seductive photographs in which items from the room were shifted into strategic arrangements to heighten the mystery surrounding a man who appeared to have vanished. Esoteric diagrams and notebooks containing scribblings in multiple languages prompted speculations regarding Rodinsky’s potentially prodigious progress in Cabbalism, grasping the hidden secrets of language, and even psychic communication. Iain Sinclair and Rachel Lichtenstein heard of the room and went to investigate. They found that the Princelet Street Synagogue had become the set of a sensationalised film in which Rodinsky was depicted as a reclusive Golem with frightening powers.[6] As they navigated their way through the dry ice and false cobwebs with which the film crew had adorned the building, they realised that there was a story to be told that was being gradually eclipsed by the entertainment and tourist industries’ appropriation of the few known facts about Rodinsky’s life. They subsequently embarked on an intensely-committed research project that would culminate several years later in the publication of Rodinsky’s Room, an unauthorised biography of sorts in which the main subject is memorialised through a combination of documentary research and speculative peripatetic retracings of his footsteps.

Rodinsky’s Room as Autobiogeography

Throughout the book, we are asked to reflect on the extent to which Rodinsky’s sudden disappearance transferred some of the properties of his personhood to the room in which he once resided. Rodinsky’s story becomes closely synonymous with ‘the story of a sealed room. The room is his doctored autobiography’ (189); the ‘trick of the thing,’ writes Sinclair, ‘was to strip him of his history and to translate him directly into the substance of the room that had housed him’ (67). Lichtenstein declares that the room is Rodinsky’s ‘portrait, his flesh and blood’ (219). The facade of the Princelet Street Synagogue and the four inside walls are thus, respectively, a kind of geographized metonym for Rodinsky’s interior (i.e. subjective) consciousness and exterior face or body. In the absence of any surviving photograph of Rodinsky, his abandoned room and the building in which it is located stand in for his physical countenance while also suggesting an interiority of person. Like the set of Beckett’s Endgame, Rodinsky’s room is a physical reconstruction of his skull: the crowded interior of the room along with the highly personal objects contained therein are material correlates for the otherwise unrepresentable collection of thoughts, memories, fears, and desires that, together, constitute Rodinsky’s identity.[7] The room’s solitary window becomes, in this reading, a kind of bi-directional eye at the heart of Sinclair’s and Lichtenstein’s memorial project, which alternates between showing how Rodinsky was perceived by the outside world and how the world looked from Rodinsky’s perspective. Particularly fascinating is the mutually-constitutive relationship between city and self suggested by this metaphor. Architectural structures and spaces both influence and are influenced by the subjectivities of those who occupy and traverse them. My designation of Rodinsky’s Room as an autobiogeography stems from this work’s dynamic interpolation and interbraiding of person and place, alternatingly framing the former from the vantage point of the latter, and vice versa. The objects left behind by Rodinsky constitute a particularly fertile site where the categories of person and place overlap. The densely-layered objects of the room simultaneously comprise both a landscape and ‘personscape,’ physical features of the city that if studied and meditated upon evoke the human being whose habits and movements sculpted their unique topographical configuration.

The list of objects found – and purported to have been found — in Rodinsky’s room is immensely evocative and diverse, suggesting a plethora of potential personas for the man who once possessed them. A by no means exhaustive index of these items includes dust-filled boots, religious artefacts, a mummified cat, a calendar, 78 rpm records, empty beer bottles, a half-drunken cup of tea, medicinal wine, rugs, kosher food, a bowl of congealed porridge, cigarette packs, an empty case of spectacles, an old photograph of Prague Synagogue, ‘fossilized blankets’, a gas lamp, ‘stiffened pyjamas,’ a wallet full of roubles, bubblegum cards from Iceland and Venezuela, a pillow with the imprint of the head of its former owner, and ‘chunky tweed jackets, so hairy that they appeared to still be growing’ (256). Also discovered in the room are many textual items such as over fifty boxes’ worth of books (with countless margin notes), cabbalistic diagrams and charts, newspapers (dating back to World War I), receipts, identity documents, court orders, letters, dictionaries, ‘hand-drawn maps on the backs of cigarette packets’, ‘chocolate wrappers covered in Arabic text’, and notebooks with writings in various languages (Sumerian, Arabic, Japanese, Yiddish, Greek, Russian, Egyptian hieroglyphics).

The discursivity and sheer variety of this assortment of objects tantalisingly offer countless clues for generating a reading of Rodinsky’s life while simultaneously resisting and undermining any one particular interpretation. For example, while a select number of items can be clustered to impose a certain unity and consistency to the personality of their former owner, a different list completely disrupts this portrait. If viewed in its entirety, these objects resist their discoverers’ attempts to arrange them into a comprehensive, contradiction-free characterisation of Rodinsky’s identity – hence Sinclair’s warning to Lichtenstein that they constitute a ‘trap’ (35). While Sinclair is content to shuffle these indeterminacies into endless patterns of suggestive meaning, Lichtenstein becomes increasingly motivated to fill in the many gaps of Rodinsky’s life, to explain the contradictory information she receives regarding his intellectual ability (genius or mentally-handicapped), psychological status (misunderstood or mentally-ill), and public persona (recluse or life of the party; miser or generous beyond his means). This approach is increasingly at odds with Sinclair’s anti-ontological agenda that values mystery and myth over the sterility of the fully-explained and understood story. I reflect at various points on these increasingly tendentious (but not necessarily diametrically opposed) memorialisation strategies in my discussion of the significance of textual and material objects in Rodinsky’s Room and their relationship to the peripatetic journeys made by the biographical subject (and retraced by Sinclair and Lichtenstein).

Objects as Holy Relics

At first, Sinclair and Lichtenstein are quite united in their view of the many objects that Rodinsky left behind as holy relics of sort, materials charged with the presence of the hands that once handled them. From the ‘temperature’ that remains in these ‘found objects,’ Lichtenstein performs ‘new ceremonies’ that emphasise the talismanic power of Rodinsky’s former possessions (57). A self-appointed high priestess, she presides over a ‘service’ in an abandoned slaughterhouse where selected items from Rodinsky’s room are displayed as if on an altar to the gathered congregation of visitors. Pre-chosen officiates take turns bearing witness to their first encounter with the abandoned room. One imagines expressions of awe from the gathered assembly, each of them eager to touch one of mystery-laden objects on the green-velvet display table, to conjure up the thrill felt by the collector as he brings his precious finds into the proximity of his possession.

The suggestion deducible from Rodinsky’s Room is that while objects possess a certain power to conjure the presence of their former owners and historical periods, this power is contingent upon their arrangement into certain strategic configurations by the committed, well-informed custodian. It is therefore only the studied, inspired engagement with objects that transmutes them from mute fragments into evocative lieux de memoire.[8] The otherwise banal wardrobe found in the corner of Rodinsky’s room becomes, through the richly resonate prose of Sinclair, a memorial space, a ‘scene’ or ‘stage’ through which we can connect with Rodinsky, a ‘part barrier, part entrance to a parallel dimension’ (Benjamin, Illuminations 62; Rodinsky’s Room 69). Sinclair’s characterisation of the wardrobe as ‘part barrier, part entrance’ reminds us that our attempts to journey to the past from which such objects come to us is just as likely to meet with the uncompromising impediment of the wardrobe’s back panel as with infinite recesses that open onto the enchanted topography of Narnia. The wardrobe – and any other item in Rodinsky’s room – is only ever, in Sinclair’s words, ‘an avatar of Rodinsky, a lugubrious displacement’ (21). Perhaps the most striking illustration of this complex status of objects as both barriers to and doorways into the past is Lichtenstein’s inclusion of the accidental double-exposure of Bessie’s (Rodinsky’s sister) face superimposed onto Rodinsky’s Hebrew-English dictionary. This ersatz portrait of Rodinsky combined with an image of a foreign-language dictionary reminds us that autobiogeography (and autobiography more generally) is always an act of translation in which something of the original is lost, forever eclipsed by the very words that are meant to convey the reality of this original.

Stranded Objects

Having considered Sinclair’s and Lichtenstein’s treatment of Rodinsky’s recovered possessions as holy relics of sorts, I would like to examine the palpable tension in Rodinsky’s Room between objects as static fixtures of the cityscape and objects as part of the metropolis’ circulatory flow of commodities. There is a frequent vacillation in Rodinsky’s Room between the ‘locking of individual items within a magic circle in which they are fixed as the final thrill, the thrill of acquisition, passes over them’ — to quote Benjamin — and the relinquishment of objects back into the circulatory traffic of the city. A useful point of comparison to this aspect of Sinclair’s and Lichtenstein’s memorialisation project is Ben Katchor’s comic strip, ‘Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer’. The eponymous protagonist wanders the streets of New York City in search of commodities that have momentarily eluded the relentless processes of buying, selling, and consuming that lock most of the innumerable items that populate the modern capitalist city into a continuous flow. Discarded cigarette butts are collected, labelled, and framed with loving care, while discontinued inventory from yesteryear is sought out in abandoned warehouses located on the city’s peripheries. In following Knipl’s journeys through the city, it becomes increasingly clear that nostalgia, desire, and even memory are strongly influenced by the protagonist’s obsessive attempt to manipulate the circulatory patterns and processes of the multitude of commodities that, together, are the life-blood of the metropolis.

Rodinsky’s Room exhibits a similar fascination with the way in which the objects in Rodinsky’s abandoned room have been removed from the circulatory orbit of the city’s commodities, and indeed, from the flow of time. Much of the magnetic appeal of Rodinsky’s room stems from its long-time status as a sealed mausoleum, an over-sized time capsule whose contents assume greater significance as a result of their having uncannily eluded the dispersive and eroding forces that accompany the passage of time. For decades the objects in the room appreciated in value, somehow spared (for the most part) from the prying hands of relatives, doctors, paramedics, coroners, and thieves as well as from the deleterious effects of the elements. And yet, paradoxically, many of these well-preserved items also bear the scarifications of time, conveying a sense of frozen duration: the rock-solid, moulded bowl of porridge, the dust-filled boots, and the desiccated, dust-like tea leaves in bottom of Rodinsky’s cup. One of the early visitors to the room was particularly struck by this half-drunken cup of tea and the small fragments of tea leaves still visible in its base:

I always remember the first image I had of that room was of the people going up there and finding it and finding the tea leaves were still there in the cup. And I think it was just that one little detail that really made me think about the way that we leave things and a fear I have always had about maybe going out in the morning and never coming back and all the little traces of you that would be left behind. (94)

In addition to the point made above, significant here is both the acknowledgement of the unusual cohesion of objects in Rodinsky’s room despite the passage of time, as well as the acknowledgement of the deep-seated human need to believe that we somehow outlive the death of the body. The draw of Rodinsky’s room is therefore largely more to do with its status as a privileged zone in which the dispersive and decaying properties of time have been temporarily suspended than with anything strikingly unique about Rodinsky’s actual life. This life becomes interesting precisely because of its autobiogeographical transmutation into a room and a collection of objects that hold themselves aloof from the forces of oblivion that relentlessly sweep through the streets of the city, gradually erasing the individual traces on its surface. Rodinsky was the chosen mastodon appointed to stumble into the proverbial tar pit, fated to leave behind a skeleton that survives long after his contemporaries’ remains have turned to dust. What moves and motivates — for good or for ill — all those who take an interest in the room is the fact that its contents (and the life they indirectly evoke) have remained so long beyond the realm of human witness. Captivating to these individuals is not just the question of what can be known about Rodinsky’s life, but rather the fact that this life was for such a long period of time unknown, and would have remained so had it not been for the accidental discovery of the room.

Following the discovery of the room, Sinclair and Lichtenstein gradually rouse the objects in the room from their long slumber, selectively reintroducing certain items back into the orbiting mass of rubbish and relics that stream through the concrete arteries and veins of the city. As mentioned previously, there is almost an erotic element to this movement of Rodinsky’s effects back and forth between their formerly ‘frozen’ status in the room and their subsequent re-absorption into the flow of the street. Great pleasure is taken by Sinclair and Lichtenstein in asserting their temporary ownership of the items — Lichtenstein states in so many words that she has been appointed by God to preside over Rodinsky’s premises and former possessions. In an art exhibition held in the cavernous interior of a former slaughterhouse, Lichtenstein displays carefully selected artefacts from Rodinsky’s room, while Sinclair adds to the atmosphere by reciting his poetic speculations into a microphone. After the exhibition, the items are returned to the ‘magic circle’ of Lichtenstein’s ‘ownership’, the ‘thrill of acquisition’ passing over them (Benjamin, Illuminations 62).

This eroticised fort-da exercise in which objects occupy a kind of liminal zone between the glass case of Benjamin’s collector and the self-propelled circulation of commodities in the city recalls again the adventures of Katchor’s Julius Knipl. In ‘The Lay-Away Planner,’ Knipl accompanies his friend, Morris Borzhak, on his daily journey to assess his ’empire’ of ‘six hundred pieces of merchandise’ that he has placed on lay-away in various establishments across New York City (27).[9] Borzhak enthusiastically explains to Knipl that the beauty of the lay-away plan is that ‘when you buy something outright, it disappears into your closet or becomes ruined through wear. Here, they keep it for you in perfect condition with your name on it … for a fraction of the price!’ (27). The appeal of lay-away, then, is that it preserves items from the effects of time while simultaneously keeping them just on the cusp of the endless flow of goods that course through the city. This same impulse is apparent in Rodinsky’s Room when Lichtenstein exhibits some remnants from her late grandfather’s clock repair shop (again, the reference to time is significant) in the window of one of the last remaining Jewish establishments on Princelet Street. Sealed in resin while simultaneously occupying the quintessential position of the commodity (i.e. the window display), otherwise mundane objects assume the status of holy relics, suggestive of the passage of time while simultaneously positioned somehow just beyond the processes of decay, dilapidation, and disintegration.

This transformation of an object from throw-away commodity to relic occurs when, in Graeme Gilloch’s paraphrasing of Benjamin, ‘the context in which it originally existed has disappeared, when the surfaces of the object have crumbled away and it lingers precariously on the brink of extinction’ (14). Participating in this phenomenon, the commodities sealed for so many years in Rodinsky’s room appreciate in value and suggestibility, gradually shifting from their former infinitely-reproducible quality to their current rarity. Bus tickets, shopping receipts, and chocolate wrappers become portals to another dimension, mundanities now supercharged with a palpable air of mystery. In the limited editions of Sinclair’s work, Dark Lanthorns, he includes a facsimile of the Cadbury’s wrapper found in Rodinsky’s room, its underside covered with a hand-drawn map of the city as well as some kind of indecipherable language or code. We are meant to view this precious artefact as a kind of splinter of the holy cross, a small piece of a reality that remains forever lost to us but also somehow omnipresent, still haunting the streets of the East End. These objects’ power derives not so much from the fact that their original context has disappeared, as Benjamin suggests, but rather from the fact that they provocatively juxtapose implications of their original context with the much-altered context of the present. So, for example, the bus tickets indicate itineraries that while divergent from the routes travelled by today’s buses, still tantalising overlap at various points, suggesting that there is an ongoing dialogic relationship between past and present, even if this relationship is increasingly difficult to trace or to discern. The chocolate wrapper and pack of cigarettes indicate, perhaps, now-disused factories or distribution centres where they were produced and processed. Many of the items found thus encourage memory journeys to seek out their increasingly obscure origins, to determine if these now unanchored objects can be linked to some material referent in the city’s contemporary topography.

Through imaginative speculation and committed research, it is also possible to reconstruct some of Rodinsky’s spatial practices and to resurrect some of the rituals performed by his now absent body. Encoded within the inanimate, material objects he left behind are clues to the animate, amaterial actions performed by his body. The boots, imprinted pillow, stiffened pyjamas, fossilized blankets, and ‘chunky tweed jackets, so hairy that they appeared to be still growing’ outline Rodinsky’s vanished body, while also providing prompts for imagining the rituals of sleeping and dressing that he would have daily performed. Similarly, the bowl of porridge, empty beer bottles, tea cup, battery-powered razor, newspapers, spectacle case, cigarette packs, bubblegum cards, gramophone records, and religious items are associated with the bodily and spatial acts of eating, drinking, grooming, reading, smoking, collecting, listening / dancing / relaxing, and praying. Particularly striking is the way in which some of the objects — the personal items in clear view, the open newspaper, the half-drunken cup of tea, the half-eaten bowl of porridge — suggest the suddenness, indeed the abruptness, with which their owner departed, his rituals forever frozen at a point of incompletion that only his physical return could remedy. These objects are the known variables in a complex equation that allow us at least to approach a better understanding of the one unknown (Rodinsky), even if their infinite suggestibility resists any definitive solution. Ultimately, though, the draw of Rodinsky’s objects is not due to the small amount of information they provide us concerning his habits, rituals, and predilections, but rather in their powerful testimony to the irrecoverability of time, of their whispered refrain that something once was that shall never be again. It is this quality that provokes the strong emotional response of the room’s visitors – their almost irrational obsession with the desiccated tea leaves, the faintly visible script on the piano keys, the imprint in the pillow, the charcoal halo just above the gas lamp. One thinks here of Breton’s description of the inexplicable effect on him of the sky-blue glove in Nadja and his ‘sudden fear’ when its owner began to comply with his request to take it off (56). ‘I don’t know what there can have been, at that moment, so terribly, so marvellously decisive for me in the thought of that glove leaving that hand forever’ (56). Here, and in Rodinsky’s Room, certain objects become screens onto which we project some of our most deep-seated desires, fears, and hopes.

From Objects to Spatial Practices: Rodinsky’s London A-Z

One of the achievements of Rodinsky’s Room is to connect the at first sequestered and unanchored objects of the room to its former occupant’s spatial practices in the larger city. In a confirmation of its Surrealist pedigree, Rodinsky’s Room frequently seeks to animate the material vestiges of the past by mapping them onto the city, an act that recalls Breton’s telling juxtaposition of his discussion of the inanimate sky-blue glove with the mysterious cylindrical device that textually transcribes aspects of Paris’ topography (52). This use of the textual as a link between the inanimateness of objects and the more intangible practice of mapping the city can be usefully applied to Rodinsky’s Room. Both Lichtenstein and Sinclair tend to gravitate towards linguistic metaphors as a way of linking Rodinsky’s possessions with his paths through the city streets. At one point, Lichtenstein refers to Rodinsky’s items as ‘consonants of a forgotten language, bare bones of meaning,’ while Sinclair, with reference to his novel, Radon Daughters, extends this metaphor to the act of perambulation, musing that ‘the physical movements of the characters across their territory might spell out the letters of a secret alphabet’ (96; Lights Out 1). This quote recalls the peripatetic retracings in Paul Auster’s City of Glass (the first instalment in The New York Trilogy), in which the narrator gradually begins to equate the traversal of the city’s surface with the graphic act of textual inscription. Here we enter the terrain of Michel de Certeau’s spaces of enunciation and Bailly’s ‘grammaire générative des jambes’ “generative grammar of the legs”, two theorists whose works suggest a mutually-constitutive relationship between walking and writing, wandering and remembering. Applying this paradigm to Rodinsky’s Room, we might view Rodinsky’s objects as nouns, and his spatial practices in the city as verbs, a reading that resonates with de Certeau’s assertion that, ‘the art of “turning” phrases finds an equivalent in an art of composing a path (tourner un parcours)’ (100). Ultimately, both Rodinsky’s objects (‘nouns’) and the peripatetic retracing of his pathways through London (‘verbs’) are required to compose a legible memorial narrative. These two components of autobiogeography (the material and the amaterial) overlap in the form of Rodinsky’s London A-Z, which functions both as inanimate object and as guide for the perambulatory retracing of his spatial practices.

The London A-Z and the reconstructive journeys it enables constitute Rodinsky’s mental map of the city, a guide to generating an informed speculation regarding some of the ways in which Rodinsky perceived and experienced the city. In the introduction to Dark Lanthorns: David Rodinsky as Psychogeographer, Sinclair decides that ‘the only way to make sense of Rodinsky’s doctored map was to walk his red lines’ (14); elsewhere, describing the public appeal of the London A-Z, Sinclair gives voice to some of the questions pondered by those who learn of its existence: ‘Perhaps these charts would show the peregrinations of an invisible man? If his walks could be repeated, might he be brought back to life?’ (Rodinsky’s Room 185) The conceit is that the physical retracing of Rodinsky’s routes through the city might trigger his memories (Pinder 11). Sinclair’s and Lichtenstein’s following of Rodinsky’s footsteps recalls him to us by giving us ‘readings’ of London that he, in effect, ‘authored,’ since he chose the routes, stops, and points of emphasis. In an actualisation of Benjamin’s flirtation with the notion of ‘setting out the sphere of life — bios — graphically on a map,’ Sinclair’s peripatetic retracings shape London into an oblique biographical portrait of one of its latter-day inhabitants (Berlin Chronicle 259). Sinclair’s journeys through London emphasise the way in which identity is not contained within the confines of the body, but rather bleeds out into the surrounding urban environment. The question of ‘Who am I?’ that Breton famously poses in the opening sentence of Nadja must be answered not simply with reference to ‘whom I “haunt,”‘ but also to where I haunt (11). This geographization of identity is one of the defining attributes and preoccupations of Rodinsky’s Room as well as of many of the other works that constitute the emergent genre of London Gothic.

Sinclair’s retracing of Rodinsky’s footsteps eventually reveals certain tentative links between his at first seemingly disconnected and random journeys. Sinclair notices that ‘certain categories of location receive particular attention’ on these traced routes, ‘institutions such as prisons, asylums, burial grounds and hospitals being especially privileged,’ while the main avenues of tourism are avoided (Pinder 13).[10] Increasingly apparent is a demonstrable preoccupation with institutions of power and control, particularly L. C. C. Claybury Mental Hospital, whose tower Sinclair discovers to be the ‘fixed compass-point from which Rodinsky drew his circuits of London. All his maps were based on that sightline’ (Dark Lanthorns 32). As a result of Lichtenstein’s research, we learn that this is the hospital where Rodinsky’s sister, Bessie, was sectioned, a fate that would befall Rodinsky himself when the authorities forced him out of his home on Princelet Street, setting in motion a series of events that led to his eventual entry into a mental institution in Surrey (Longrove), where he later died of heart failure. A narrative of dispossession also underlies Rodinsky’s perambulatory excursions through Dagenham, which we learn was the area where he was placed in a foster family for several years following the death of his mother. Aspects of Rodinsky’s identity thus emerge not simply from Sinclair’s and Lichtenstein’s meditations upon his former possessions, but also from their attentive following of his physical journeys through London, which, together, constitute a posthumous autobiogeographical portrait.

As more details of Rodinsky’s life are learned, Sinclair is keen to maintain the ultimate elusiveness of his identity and to guard it against those who would appropriate it for their own ends. Property developers, enthusiastic about the popular appeal of Rodinsky’s story, are especial targets for Sinclair’s scorn: ‘Composed. Contrived. Authenticated. Grant us a ghost in the attic, a broken weaver’s loom, and we will do you a dozen kosher Georgian units, at 200k a throw, for the Far Eastern catalogue’ (64). Such parodic gestures — never very far from the truth — demonstrate how Rodinsky’s life is all too easily banalized into a colourful story by property speculators and those who seek to impose a kind of Disneyfication on the East End. As a consequence of such efforts, Rodinsky’s genuine otherness is domesticated, made safe, appropriated as bourgeois adornment, as ‘character.’

Rodinsky as Golem

Sinclair’s concern to maintain the otherness of the Rodinsky story – as well his commitment to the autobiogeographical interweaving of person and person, past and present, animate and inanimate – find their most metaphorically-rich expression in Sinclair’s chapter, ‘”Mobile Invisibility”: Golems, Dybbuks and Unanchored Presences.’ Here, Sinclair draws a sustained comparison between Rodinsky and the mythical Golem, a figure of Jewish folklore referenced at various points in Hebrew scripture. A popular medieval variant of this myth (which in turn inspired numerous variants) centres around Rabbi Löw of sixteenth-century Prague.[11] Concerned with the growing anti-Semitism of the period, Rabbi Löw decided to use his powers to create a servant that would help the Jews by, among other things, dispelling common rumours of the time, the most grievous of which were allegations that Jews were responsible for the death of Christian children. Rabbi Löw used mud from Prague’s Moldavka River to fashion a crude facsimile of the human form. After performing a ritual, the Golem comes to life and proceeds to carry out the tasks and missions that Rabbi Löw proscribes. Irrespective of the many variants of this myth, the Golem’s power is seen as intrinsically linked to his undefined quality, his inherent unplaceability.

Sinclair and Lichtenstein (the latter to a lesser extent) repeatedly compare Rodinsky to a modern-day Golem, an apt association that brings into sharp relief many of the key components that comprise the autobiographical act of memorialisation. The Golem is literally an animated place, an amalgam of mud, tree limbs, and rags that is imbued with mobility, the power to haunt. Just as in the case of the Golem, it is impossible to separate person from place in the autobiogeographical memorialisation of Rodinsky’s life and its material vestiges. The appeal of Rodinsky’s room is precisely its status as a personified place, as an uncanny transmutation of flesh and bone into geography. And yet, the static tranquillity of the room only achieves genuine memorial power when the Golem within is released and allowed to wander the streets, an act performed by Sinclair’s peripatetic retracing of Rodinsky’s itineraries through the city. Objects and architectural spaces remain mute and dormant until activated by human motion, a truth echoed by the fact that the Golem (whose name derives from the Hebrew word gelem, meaning ‘raw material’) only comes to life after Rabbi Löw walks around him seven times. It is this peripatetic component that elevates my reading of autobiogeography beyond a facile equation of person with place. Despite its provocative pairing of these two entities, both maintain their essential otherness.

As discussed previously, a tension mounts over the course of Rodinsky’s Room as Sinclair’s attempts to maintain the otherness of Rodinsky’s story begins to contrast with Lichtenstein’s ongoing demystification of Rodinsky’s life. Sinclair relishes opportunities to occult the unexplained aspects of Rodinsky’s biography, the mysterious patterns formed by his wanderings, the indications of his knowledge of cabbalism, the electric quality of the air in his room. This approach jars with Lichtenstein’s assertion that there is ‘nothing romantic about the room,’ and her expressed belief that Rodinsky’s life ‘was grim and lonely’ (300, 301). As the book progresses, one increasingly has the sense that Sinclair’s recounting of Gustav Meyrink’s description of the fate of the Golem (contained in his work, Der Golem) functions as a potential critique (even if unconscious) of Lichtenstein’s increasing insistence on disclosing the specifics of Rodinsky’s story.[12] In Meyrink’s book, a mob assembles to discover definitively whether the Golem exists, ransacking the synagogue where it is purported to dwell. After each room is searched, a sheet is hung from the window. When they finish, they realise that one room has not been searched — a hidden room without any entries or exits. Sinclair reads this as a cautionary tale, a warning: ‘In obscurity the golem is immortal. He defines the singularity of place. … When the golem’s hiding place is uncovered, and his myths are made public, then the ghetto loses its integrity’ (181). While this critique is aimed at the media, property developers, and tourist industry, it is difficult not to perceive its at least partial applicability to Lichtenstein’s memorial approach. Her efforts at explanation gradually erode the indeterminacy that allows Rodinsky’s spectre to haunt the city, to roam freely down its alleys and back ways. Her factual discoveries about Rodinsky’s life might be compared to Meyrink’s description of the mob’s hanging of sheets out of each window of the Altneu Synagogue in Prague, gradually exposing the Golem’s hiding place to the public gaze. Continuing with this reading, Lichtenstein’s careful and well-meaning attempts to catalogue and archive the items in the room might be seen further to defuse the energies that make possible Rodinsky’s autobiogeographical afterlife.

Despite the textual evidence that solicits this accusation, Rodinsky’s Room disallows this kind of one-sided reading. After all, the Golem is indisputably seen as a dispeller of false rumours, a service that Lichtenstein might be said to provide as a result of her committed efforts to reveal the human being behind the many myths. Or, to take a different tack, the Golem is represented as a creature whose mysterious powers must be tempered if they are not to assume a sinister quality and/or exert a deleterious effect on the people whom it is meant to serve. Many variants of the myth indicate that Rabbi Löw is forced to remove the shem from the Golem’s mouth just before the Sabbath in order to check his growing power and to prevent Jews from worshipping him as an idol.[13] Lichtenstein’s research-based approach holds in check the many proliferating rumours about Rodinsky that threaten to sensationalise, invent, and eventually eclipse the actual facts and experiences of his life. In further support of Lichtenstein’s approach is Roger Luckhurst’s critique of what he sees as a zeal for hypermystification, occultation, and the ahistorical in Sinclair’s works, as well as in those by authors writing in a similar vein:

Unable to discriminate between instances and largely uninterested in historicity (beyond its ghostly disruption), the discourse of spectralized modernity risks investing in the compulsive repetitions of melancholic entrapment. In this mode, to suggest an inevitably historicized mourning-work that might actually seek to lay a ghost to rest would be the height of bad manners. (535)

In support of this accusation is the fact that it seems indisputable that Sinclair is far more interested in writing about a mysterious, crazed cabbalistic scholar who hit upon a vanishing spell than elucidating the tragic story of a potentially mentally-ill loner who lived an uneventful life of seclusion until his forced institutionalisation. And yet, to stop here would be a simplification of Sinclair’s project to prevent the hijacking of the city’s unique identity and inhabitants by the ever more dominant forces of consumer capitalism. In the same article in which he levies his critiques of Sinclair’s writing, Luckhurst recognises, and seems to appreciate, Sinclair’s contention that ‘if “the occult logic of ‘market forces’ dictated a new geography” of London, … [Sinclair’s project] is a necessary counter-conjuration, a protective hex against the advancing armies of orthodoxy’ (534). Depending, then, on one’s viewpoint, it is possible to forgive, tolerate, or even celebrate Sinclair’s enduring commitment to othering the city’s narratives. If Rodinsky as a man is laid to rest by Lichtenstein’s factual account of his life and marking of his place of burial, Rodinsky as Golem is allowed to continue to wander uninhibited through Sinclair’s textual London. Rather than resolving this tension between Sinclair’s and Lichtenstein’s memorial projects, Rodinsky’s Room embraces the many questions and insights prompted by these differing approaches, a fact that lends the text much of its power and sophistication.


[1] For information on multimedia, London-specific projects informed by similar themes, see the website of the publisher, Artangel: For a particularly insightful reading of two of these projects (including Sinclair’s and Lichtenstein’s memorialisation of David Rodinsky), see David Pinder’s article, ‘Ghostly Footsteps: Voices, Memories and Walks in the City’.

[2] The Psychogeographers might be defined as neo-Surrealists with a more marked political bent . Psychogeography, as a science — or perhaps more accurately, as a practice — has been defined as ‘the study of the effects of geographical settings, consciously managed or not, acting directly on the mood and behaviour of the individual’ (‘What is Psychogeography’). Various psychogeographic organisations — chief among them the London Psychogeographic Association (LPA) — are in existence and publish material (most of it electronic) that exhibits a fascination with ‘druidic ley-lines, masonic influences in architecture and occult sources of power seen as a way of broadening the political critique of urban geography with the “occult” implicit suggestion that there always is “something else” behind the most banal aspect of life’ (‘Basic Banalities’). Great emphasis is placed on the subversive potential of wandering haphazardly through the metropolis, bypassing the direct and indirect attempts by city planners to usher as many people as possible along the commercial corridors in order to maximise their spending potential. The ideology of capitalism, according to the psychogeographers, has systematically led to a domestication of the inherent diversity and discursivity that informs the modern city, sacrificing its variety and differences to the vagaries of the market place, which rigidly homogenise the population into the reductive categories of buyers and sellers.

[3] For some preliminary theorizing of what is to be understood by ‘autobiogeography,’ see the special issue of the journal, Reconstruction: ‘”Autobiogeography”: Considering Space and Identity’.

[4] Between 1870 and 1914 more than 100,000 Russian and Polish Jews immigrated to London’s East End. Among these immigrants were David Rodinsky’s parents, Barnett and Haicka Rodinsky, whose families were from a small shtetl called Kushovata, near Kiev (in the former Ukraine) (Rodinsky’s Room 166).

[5] The first person to enter the room was either Douglas Blane, a Spitalsfields trustee, or David Jacobs, a local historian (Rodinsky’s Room 46-7).

[6] The film referred to was a student production (National Film School) entitled, ‘The Golem of Princelet Street’.

[7] This reading of Rodinsky’s room as a skull is indebted to Hugh Kenner’s analysis of Beckett’s Endgame. Describing the opening scene of the play, Kenner remarks that, ‘This is so plainly a metaphor for waking up that we fancy the stage, with its high peepholes, to be the inside of an immense skull’ (155).

[8] I borrow the term ‘lieux de memoire’ from Pierre Nora’s work, Realms of Memory, in which he describes lieux de memoire as ‘complex things,’ ‘At once natural and artificial, simple and ambiguous, concrete and abstract, they are lieux — places, sites, causes — in three senses: material, symbolic, and functional. An archive is a purely material site that becomes a lieu de memoire only if imagination invests it with a symbolic aura. A textbook, will, or veterans’ group is a purely functional object that becomes a lieu de memoire only when it becomes part of a ritual.’ (14).

[9] ‘Lay-away’ refers to a service offered by many retailers in the United States, whereby a customer can request that an item be reserved until s/he has paid the full price.

[10] More specifically, Rodinsky’s route passes by Pentonville Prison, Holloway Prison, Whittington Hospital, and L. C. C. Claybury Mental Hospital.

[11] This variant is alleged to have been sparked by the actual discovery of the lifeless Golem in the attic of the Altneu Synagogue in Prague (Rodinsky’s Room, 182).

[12] It is important, however, to point out that Lichtenstein’s approach to Rodinsky’s story and the more general act of engaging with the past is not merely biographical fact-gathering. For example, she consults mystics during her sojourn in Israel and places great stock in unexplained condenses and impulses. Also, Lichtenstein’s approach to memory and memorialisation is markedly people-centred: her chapters are full of elongated dialogues with the disparate personages she encounters over the course of her research.

[13] The shem is a sacred wafer that Rabbi Löw had to place in the Golem’s mouth in order for it to become animated. [^]

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To Cite This Article:

Christopher C. Gregory-Guider, ‘Sinclair’s Rodinsky’s Room and the Art of Autobiogeography’. Literary London: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Representation of London, Volume 3 Number 2 (September 2005). Online at Accessed on [date of access]