Rodinsky's Room (Granta, 1999) co-written with Iain Sinclair, is based on the true story of orthodox recluse David Rodinsky. This 'extraordinary' and 'unique' book is a testament to a world that has all but vanished, a homage to a unique culture and way of life. Now considered a cult classic Rodinsky's Room continues to be widely reviewed. Since its publication in 1999 it has never been out of print and has now been translated into Dutch, French, Italian and German.
In 1980 a remarkable discovery was made in the attic rooms above a disused synagogue in the former Jewish quarter of East London. An abandoned room was unlocked for the first time in twenty years, frozen in time, with everything more or less in its original state, even down to porridge on the stove and the imprint of a head on a pillow. The room's occupant David Rodinsky, an orthodox Jewish scholar of Eastern European descent, had simply vanished from his home one day in the late 1960s; what became of him, no one knew. The room, a place out of time, was ripe for rediscovery.
Rodinsky's world was that of the East European Jewry, cabbalistic speculation, an obsession with language as code and terrible loss. He touched the imagination of artist Rachel Lichtenstein, who came across the abandoned room in 1990. This text weaves together Lichtenstein's quest for Rodinsky, which took her to Poland, to Israel and around Jewish London, with Iain Sinclair's meditations on her journey into her own past.
I was born in 1969, the same year that David Rodinsky, an orthodox Jew of unknown descent, mysteriously disappeared from his decaying East London loft. He lived above the synagogue where my late grandparents were married. His abandoned room was left undisturbed for over a decade, a reflection of the end of an era, the deserted Jewish East End.
I have been told that when his room was finally opened in 1980, a solidified cup of tea sat next to his unmade bed. On the greasecacked stove stood a near-fossilized pot of porridge. His clothes hung in the wardrobe, heavy with dust. An empty spectacle case, his handwritten name inside, rested on the mantelpiece next to a calendar, the date fixed at January 1963. Towering piles of newspapers were stacked in corners and against the wall. Old 78rpm records, empty bottles, and all manner of accumulated junk filled all the space that was not consumed by books. Every surface overflowed with books on subjects ranging from the Talmud to the study of hieroglyphics. He appears to have been a competent linguist as the evidence in his room reveals his self-taught knowledge of at least fifiteen different languages, many of them no longer spoken. Clothing, books and the remains of food tell us he was religious in his beliefs, but other evidence suggests he was as interested in Irish drinking songs as in the mysteries of the Zohar. 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 Venezula, 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.
Rodinsky’s Room is a riveting mystery as well as a marvellous elegy for a lost world…once you pick up this spellbinding book, you will have to read it straight though.
The book reads like a psychological thriller. Yet what makes ''Rodinsky's Room'' so enthralling is that it works at several other levels. It is also the story of a personal, cultural and religious voyage that leads a half-Jewish Englishwoman to embrace Orthodox Judaism in Israel, to visit death camps in Poland and to delve into the tattered remnants of Jewish immigrant life in London.
This is a mystery and a detective story. It is a story of obsession and possession. It is a story about disappearing people, disappearing buildings and a disappearing way of life. Most of all, it is the story of a man who vanished, and the woman who set out to find him and, in the process, found herself.
This is a book touched with mystical notions, full of astonishing coincidences and lucky breaks .... It is a testimony to Lichtenstein’s energy and empathy that she can make Rodinsky’s drab, largely unoticed life reveal far more than such an easy moral.
The binary structure yields an intertwining and overlapping of flashbacks and speculations, false starts and discoveries, interviews and ideas. Lichtenstein reverts finally to her vocation as a visual artist and moves on to motherhood. Sinclair, meta-biographer par excellence, has put in place another piece in the permanently unfinished jig-saw puzzle of his London. This is a highly original, entertaining and instructive book, a major contribution to our understanding of the former Jewish East End. Thanks to these two mythographers, the story of David Rodinsky will remain with us.