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About the Author
Iain Sinclair is the author of White Chapell, Scarlet Tracings; Lights Out for the Territory; Lud Heat; Rodinsky's Room (with Rachel Lichtenstein); and Radon Daughters, all available from Granta Books. Born in Wales, he now lives in Hackney, East London.
Rachel Lichtenstein is an artist, archivist and writer who lives and works in east London. She is also a tour guide and gives lectures on the Jewish East End. She is also the author of Rodinsky's Whitechapel and On Brick Lane.
Read an Excerpt
Did you see the black coat? A zaddik.
They can make themselves invisible I've heard.
David Hartnett, Black Milk
A young Englishwoman, heavily pregnant, is admitted to the office suite of a New York literary agent. She endures all the usual status games with an amused sense of being in an over-rehearsed play: the long wait in the outer chamber, the low chair that leaves her staring across a shimmering meadow of carpet at the big desk, the gilded blitz of family photographs. 'So, you got twenty minutes. A frummer in the attic, he disappears. Who should care? Where's the story?' She laughs, delivers her pitch. She's told it before, often, but it always has the same effect. Rachel becomes the thing she is talking about. He listens. (In the film version you could freeze-frame the cigar smoke.) It's a performance and it's true. Rachel Lichtenstein is the story, a mad quest to discover all that is to be known about 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. The more documentation Rachel could file, the more artefacts she could photograph and label, the more elusive this fiction, David Rodinsky, became. Sheimprovised with all the required roles: private detective, archaeologist, curator, ghost-writer, ventriloquial deliverer of Rodinsky's voice and art. She realized, with a proper sense of dread, that the business of her life, this stretch of it, was to complete whatever it was that Rodinsky had begun: to pass beyond ego, and all the dusty particulars of place and time, into a parallel state. Disincarnate. Unbodied. Eternally present.
There was something mesmeric, possessed, in the way Rachel told her tale. Agents, editors, patrons were instantly persuaded by the passion in that calm, reasonable, Esturine voice. They were dazzled by the wide-set, almond-shaped eyes. Fixed, burning. The young woman with the careful maquillage had arrived for this meeting, unflustered, at the very last moment. What she is describing is happening now, on the instant. The past is adapted, absorbed. She seems to have witnessed events that occurred long before her birth. Like the best detective stories, her narrative is broken into not-quite-resolved episodes. Hooks, cliff-hangers. Telephone calls from the officially dead. Recently found evidence that contradicts all that has gone before. There are no comfortable assumptions to be made. They had to know how it turned out, this tale that began with a sealed room in a deactivated Spitalfields synagogue, and moved out to the eastern borders of Poland and the Ukraine, to New York, Israel, Toronto. The factual and the fabulous met in riotous conjunction. Shallow-breathed whispers from ancient relatives. Internet connections. Death certificates. Numerous fragments that composed an unreliable biography. The man became intimately associated with the place, the dissolution of the Jewish ghetto. There was even, if you wanted to find it, a conspiracy of sorts. Vested interests who preferred to keep the wretched caretaker buried in the files. Files that had long since been lost or destroyed. Rodinsky's life was pressed into legend. It belonged at the end of an era, before memories became memorial plaques. An abandoned room contained all that was left of a man's life and Rachel Lichtenstein understood that it was her task, nobody else could do it, to live that life again, and to complete it. Find some resolution or lose herself forever in the attempt. That was her joy. That was her burden. That was what terrified and excited the men to whom she made her pitch.
Go there today, to Princelet Street, Whitechapel. Number 19, the Heritage Centre. The building releases no light, the windows are shuttered, blind. A weaver's bobbin that hangs from the wall looks like a prayer scroll, a holy relic. I thought of an object I'd seen in the Witney Museum in New York, the legendary Teletype roll on which Jack Kerouac had beaten out On the Road. The thin paper was frayed at the edges, but the text was endlessly flowing, without paragraphs, lurid with real names for real people, uncensored, unrevised. First thought, best thought. The whole delirious, Benzedrine-fuelled narrative spurting onward through digression, faux-naïf hesitation, self-doubt, confession, rhapsody and strategic lyrical thefts from the overwhelming rush of the ordinary. This Spitalfields bobbin became, to my prejudiced eye, the spindle from which just such a roll had been stripped. A memento for a missing text. A text that had been worn away by indifference, the exigencies of the everyday. A text that could only be reassembled by sympathetic magic, some peculiar marriage of scholarship and obsession.
The casual visitor needing visual evidence, the confirmation that such a man once lived in such a place, crosses to the south side of Princelet Street in order to bring Rodinsky's attic, the old silk weaver's gallery, into sight-line. Failure is the inevitable consequence of any attempt to conjure a face, some slight movement, at the darkened window. There is nothing. A TV aerial hangs from the building at your back, doubling with the Heritage Centre's bobbin. What is this heritage? Doors as brown as coffee essence or bottled blood. A stern exterior that gives nothing away. A structure in abeyance. One of those classic Spitalfields views, the frenzy of Brick Lane behind you and the rescued elegance of Wilkes Street ahead. As if this drift in time were an option: Georgian, Victorian, post-war squalor, Square, Folgate Street and Elder Street (blue plaque for Mark Gertler). These streets announce, in their height, their austerity, the shimmer of highly polished windows and freshly painted shutters, that they are too good for us, too good for the period in which they find themselves beached. Here, in Folgate Street, the casual pedestrian notices the flicker of gaslight. A house, number 18, that clearly intends to draw attention to itself by dressing down and pasting its motto, AUT VISUM AUT NON ('You either see it: or you don't'), in the window. As with the Princelet Street synagogue, there's a weaver's bobbin (but this one has been imported). Number 18 is the home, the 'private residence', of Dennis Severs, a Southern Californian who has taken it on himself, over the past twenty-odd years, to conduct a personal interrogation of the past. He sees the house as a set, a sequence of still-life conversation pieces, tableaux, in which (and with which) no backchat is permitted. Severs is an aether broker, a man dedicated to creating 'atmosphere', sculpting rococo fantasies out of his own ectoplasm.
Responding (with measured lethargy) to a loud knock, one of the acolytes takes the cash at the door, and lets visitors know how they are expected to behave. Go into the 'wrong' room in the wrong order and Severs himself, the smiling director, will realign you with a violent 'Shush!' It's a strange experience: to sustain the required tiptoe mood and to pantomime an improper relish for the bells and smells, the brimming chamber-pots and half-digested cakes. The audience are the ghosts, expected to pick up, at least subliminally, on the quotations: the kitchen table laid out like an illustration from Beatrix Potter's Tailor of Gloucester, the attic with its Dickensian horrors. The house is a parallel reality through which you are ordered to float, observing, appreciating, silent. In privileged reverie. Through rooms that never were, moved by false histories (heavily documented) of families that never existed.
How close is this to the experience of the Princelet Street Heritage Centre? It's like the far side of a distorting mirror. The brown doors of the old synagogue are never open, but the building harbours vague ambitions of turning itself into a museum of immigration and false memory. The structure of the building, seen in cross-section, is hierarchic: from the eighteenth-century kitchens, the subterranea of the cellars and stone-flagged dreaming spaces, through the synagogue to the rabbi's living quarters, and Rodinsky's garret. But it is cold, unwelcoming, independent in spirit. The custodian, working away at his own project, desk heaped with papers, is reluctant to grant access to outsiders. He hovers, eager to shepherd them out, to let the empty chambers return to their own quiet pulse. Every invasion, he implies, destroys the understanding he is beginning to acquire, fractures the slow meditation.
Everywhere in the Severs house there are watchers, lurkers, nondescripts doing very little, unconvincingly. Part of the cast. Resting actors. A chorus of extras with carefully ironed faces, bright with cultist excitement. Antiquarian amateurs in fetching bohemian disguise. The studied nonchalance with which they poke the fire, or stand at a dirty window, contrasts with the sombre procession of paying guests. Who are too well-dressed. They don't know how they are expected to behave. They want to signal their appreciation, that they understand, but they've been forbidden speech. They nod in dumb show at Severs. They realize, of course they do, that the arrangement on the table, the punch-bowl, the clay pipes, the tumbled chair, mirrors the painting on the wall, the Hogarthian scene of riot. This is a polite riot, a riot that has frozen, spilled over, neutralized its venom. Become part of the Folgate Street play, the theatre in which the dominant element is the set. Severs, as visible director/author, is pleased with himself, with the house (his programme notes spell out the message); he's Brecht in a baggy sweater. Resins smoke. Candles flicker. Recordings of church bells peal out from every curtained corner. It's a ceremony, a High Church ritual. The notion is that the house has become a theatre of ghosts. It's passed beyond reconstruction and authenticity, these are the spectres of people who never drew breath. The imagery on Severs's prompt sheets is almost sexual: 'candle-lit chambers from which, apparently, their 18th and 19th century inhabitants have only just withdrawn'. You can smell them, see the rumpled sheets, the congealing food. You can read the instructions to the servants. 'Leave ash be; says a warning note pinned to the side of the fireplace. 'It's about what you have just missed.' A house of mirrors, reflections, ancestral portraits of elective families. (Only the yellow bicycle hanging from a wall in the yard gives the game away. Or perhaps that too is another Brechtian jolt.)
The ascent through the Severs house, with its staged manifestations, its vanished presences, runs in parallel (split-screen) to the trudge up the broken stairs of the Princelet Street synagogue. The synagogue's minder will be at your heels, telling you nothing, wishing you away. Severs sweeps you on, playing the illusionist, enforcing a mild mysticism: 'It is what we cannot see that makes sense of what we can.' Severs has conjured a family of 'six poor souls', the Jervises, for his garret. Weavers huddled around a phantom loom. He works hard to maintain the cobwebs, the wool, the Victorian squalor. 'Go on', he whispers, 'experience it all.' Pain and hunger have climbed like tired smoke. Under the roof beams, you will notice pigeon droppings instead of the chirrups of caged birds. (The real birds were picked off by the hawks of Christ Church.) Will we at last stumble over skeletons in rags, the wretched poor whose plight was canted by the Victorian philanthropists, the Quaker brewmasters? Will there be a moment when the assault on our senses, the raree-show, will be transcended? No chance: 'You will discover the rooms empty of their inhabitants who have departed to walk to the River.'
A space as empty as Rodinsky's attic. Or as replete with stopped time. Severs's stage management insists upon respect for what was, echoes from the past, privileged and paid for. The presences, withdrawn from these rooms (which become the separate acts of a costume drama), are those of the special effects boffins, the assistants who pose as visitors. The stinks and the tapes condition you. They tell you how you are supposed to read the scene. It's very different in Princelet Street. Nothing is known about Rodinsky, much is rumoured. There is nobody, to explain the story. One day a man who lived alone in a dead building, in a forgotten part of the town, walked out, disappeared. But it was not a true disappearance, because nobody noticed it. It was a trick without an audience. A retrospective vanishing. That was its power. The room, closed up, sealed with its books, clothes, calendars, was the sole entrance to the narrative. Visitors on the point of departure from the Severs house hear a child's voice: 'Mother -- who are these people?' The theatre has been staged to assert its own immortality, that the cunningly crafted rooms in a surviving Georgian house exist in the abstraction of eternal time. Timeless. Mimicking decay. A warm dust breath. And we, passing rapidly across the stage, are the spooks of the future. Without purchase on life, encouraged to look and admire but forbidden to touch or taste, forbidden to discover that the books in their casual heap are no more than odd volumes of the Waverley novels scavenged from the caves of Cheshire Street.
Chaos is also a condition of Rodinsky's room. But it is a casual chaos. A chaos to which no one is expected to return. The room dominates the temporary trespasser. Rodinsky thrives on what can never be known. He auditions the archetypes. And that is the hook for the unwary. His play is unwritten. There is too much evidence. It will take a fine recklessness to complete the story that this stifled writer began: a room that was so purposefully disarranged, stacked with hints and echoes. Open the wardrobe. Sample the diary. Begin anywhere and you will find more material, tributaries branching from tributaries, than any one life can hope to unravel.