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the Complete Review
the complete review - essay

Rodinsky's Room


Rachel Lichtenstein
Iain Sinclair

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To purchase Rodinsky's Room

Title: Rodinsky's Room
Author: Rachel Lichtenstein and Iain Sinclair
Genre: Essays
Written: 1999
Length: 344 pages
Availability: Rodinsky's Room - US
Rodinsky's Room - UK
Rodinsky's Room - Canada
Le Secret de la chambre de Rodinsky - France
Rodinskys Raum - Deutschland
  • The paperback edition includes a new Afterword by Lichtenstein
  • Includes numerous illustrations and photographs

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Our Assessment:

B+ : well-presented London curio

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Age B+ 5/6/2000 Fiona Capp
The Guardian A- 18/3/2000 Nicholas Lezard
The NY Rev. of Books A- 21/9/2000 Rosemary Dinnage
The NY Times Book Rev. A 13/8/2000 Alan Riding
The Spectator . 19/6/1999 Stephen Cang
The Tablet . 26/6/1999 Robert MacFarlane
The Times A 10/6/1999 Tobias Hill
TLS A 4/6/1999 Anthony Rudolf
Die Welt . 23/10/1999 Ulrich Baron

  Review Consensus:

  All like the story and acknowledge that it is fascinating, but few really give much of an opinion about the book.

  From the Reviews:
  • "While Lichtenstein carries the reader along with her passion, Iain Sinclair's contribution is less compelling; his largely detached, analytical stance coolly deconstructs the myth of Rodinsky. His commentary on Lichtenstein's quest could have been much more effective if not for his self-conscious and sometimes overblown style." - Fiona Capp, The Age

  • "This is a rather special book, which at times seems to verge on its own disappearance. We are somewhere "between Welfare State poverty fable and Dostoevskian myth", the book's bathos part of its ambiguous message." - Nicholas Lezard, The Guardian

  • "High-flown phrases are thrown about like fake pearls (.....) All ridiculously pretentious, of course, and one or two of Sinclair's chapters could well be cut from the book. But this 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." - Rosemary Dinnage, The New York Review of Books

  • "(W)hat makes Rodinsky's Room so enthralling is that it works at several (...) levels. (...) (Lichtenstein and Sinclair's) collaboration -- they write alternating chapters -- works exceptionally well." - Alan Riding, The New York Times Book Review

  • "It is his very obscurity, his oddity and his own ordinary, sad story that make of Rodinsky and his room such effective containers for this poignant book." - Stephen Cang, The Spectator

  • "(T)he book compensates for the defusing of its own myths. It stars not one obsessive but three: not only Rodinsky but Sinclair (shabbily brilliant, tetchy, a cynic with all the scorn of a would-be believer) and Lichtenstein (raw, trapped in the room and glad of it, furiously dedicated to her search)." - Tobias Hill, The Times

  • "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." - Anthony Rudolf, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       David Rodinsky lived in a room at 19 Princelet Street, an old synagogue in London's Spitalfields. He disappeared in 1969 and was generally forgotten until around 1980, when his room was reopened. No one had apparently entered it since Rodinsky's mysterious disappearance, but once opened it caught the imagination of a number of people. Inside was a mess of papers and personal effects, notes and books in many languages, cabalistic diagrams, dictionaries -- all covered in dust, much of it soaked from the rain that leaked in.
       Among those whose imagination the find captured was Iain Sinclair, who wrote an article about Rodinsky: "The Man who became a Room". With no other traces of him left, Rodinsky -- easily pigeonholed as a reclusive scholar -- was readily reduced to all that was left of him: his room, the many books he had collected, and the many pages he had filled. A young Jewish art student, Rachel Lichtenstein, researching the thesis she wanted to write about the immigration of Jews to the East End, also stumbled across Rodinsky's room, which by the 1990s had already assumed somewhat mythical proportions. Fascinated by what she found (and concerned by how much had already been lost) she devoted many of the next years to researching the life of Rodinsky.
       Rodinsky's Room is a collaborative effort: in alternating chapters Lichtenstein and Sinclair write their stories and the story of Rodinsky. Lichtenstein's sections are the more archaeological, as she describes her efforts to find out more about Rodinsky. Sinclair's are a bit farther flung and analytic, looking at the larger picture and following Lichtenstein's quest from afar. There is some overlap, but the two tracks generally complement each other well.
       Lichtenstein's story is as much a search for her own identity as for that of Rodinsky. Born Rachel Laurence, she changed her name by deed poll to that of her grandparents ("reclaimed" it, as she writes). An Englishwoman of Jewish heritage she is fascinated by her family's past and seeks to find her own identity there. Rodinsky becomes the focus around which she can build her quest.
       Lichtenstein's efforts on Rodinsky's behalf -- and that of the whole, dying community --are impressive. Rodinsky is clearly symbolic of a past that is being forgotten and ignored, and Lichtenstein aims to capture and preserve that past. By reclaiming him she is also reclaiming much of London's Jewish history. An early scene finds her shocked to witness a performance-piece where Jewish books of historic value are being torn to pieces. Her intervention helps rescue at least some of them; no one had realized the books might be of any worth.
       Lichtenstein combs through the material found in the room, and seeks out those who might have information about the elusive Rodinsky. She goes to Israel (both getting away from the project for a time being, and also getting closer to it) as well as to Poland (coming tantalizingly close to the shtetl Rodinsky's family probably came from).
       Lichtenstein presents the mystery of Rodinsky from all sides. The clues his books offer suggest scholarly talent and obsession, while others point to a sad, lonely, and unexceptional existence. Lichtenstein finds room for both interpretations, generally avoiding mythologizing Rodinsky.
       Lichtenstein's own quest of finding herself does, occasionally, intrude too far in the text. There are too many weepy scenes set in Poland, emotion that, though obviously honest, seems shallow in Lichtenstein's presentation. Otherwise she writes confidently and straightforwardly. She knows she has a good story, and she tells it quite well.
       Sinclair's contributions are also enjoyable, with only one or two digressing too far into the London-specific. With a watchful eye he follows Lichtenstein's progress, and comments and elaborates on it, also offering his own changing take on Rodinsky and his room. His contributions here are welcome (and not overwhelming) variations on the theme, a perfect counterweight to Lichtenstein's narrative.
       The often striking photographs are also a useful and welcome addition to the text.
       The closure that Lichtenstein achieves seems somewhat forced; nevertheless, she and Sinclair have written a formidable book. Rodinsky's room (more than Rodinsky the man) is a fascinating piece of history, and Lichtenstein and Sinclair's reactions to it almost always absorbing. Recommended.

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Rodinsky's Room: Reviews: Iain Sinclair: Other books by Iain Sinclair under review:

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About the Authors:

       Iain Sinclair is a London author, born in 1943, who has written several collections of poetry, as well as a number of novels and documentary works.

       Rachel Lichtenstein, born in 1969, is an artist.

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