by Jack Robinson
This is a very witty, quick-moving book. It has to be witty, because it is about the depressing, miserable condition of contemporary Britain.1 It has to be quick-moving, because it covers a lot of ground – vignettes, glimpses, quick recreations or summaries of many books, photographs, films. As I read it, the word ‘brisk’ kept occurring to me in response to the writing, the pacing: an unexpected word, perhaps, given the gloom, mess and lostness of the texts it touches on and the dreariness of the scenes it evokes; but then gloom can be mournfully enjoyable. Besides, moving so quickly through so much is itself a kind of recourse in the face of its gloom. It’s a book about literature (and much else) but free of the encumbering formalities of academic writing.
Divide Robinson Crusoe into Crusoe and Robinson, a ‘twosome’ (male twosomes in literature are listed and interpreted, 96-7), and we have a pair in contrast. Crusoe is the famous one, established by Defoe’s novel, though our author doubts that many really read the novel any more. (But then he is himself a Robinson, so he may be unreliable on this point – though actually, behind this nom de plume, he is Charles Boyle.) Robinson is the one who has proliferated, haunted, shape-shifted in recent times, however. We meet him in person, sitting with our author in a café, and we meet him or glimpse him in dozens of books and films and encounters – Kafka (Amerika), Céline (Journey to the End of the Night), Chris Petit (Robinson), Patrick Keiller (a trilogy of Robinson films), Rimbaud (a verb, ‘robinsonner’, to drift, roughly), Kenneth Grahame, the author of The Wind in the Willows (a lunatic named Robinson tried to assassinate him); and more: Fielding, Conrad, Henry James (10-11).
The two are not in total contrast; for instance, Crusoe is without sex on his island and indifferent to it at all times, while Robinson is sometimes misogynistic and sometimes simply a sexual failure (‘He was rejected by the army because of a lung condition. He was rejected by various good women for various good reasons.’ 65). Crusoe, efficient, organized, hardworking, sets the template. It’s the remains of Crusoe’s Britain, ossified, derelict, now simply ‘mean’ where Crusoe was temperate and active, that Robinson has to live in, though the situation is so extreme that Robinson is reluctant to live anywhere, holds living at arm’s length. Crusoe’s energetic piling up of supplies and utensils becomes the ‘thrift’ of the author’s mother, stockpiling tinned food (24), and the culture of rationing after the Second World War, become in turn the contemporary acceptance of ‘austerity’ (110). Robinson is Crusoe’s anti-type, always drifting, unsettled, never belonging, never accepting or co-operating with what he finds around him. He is in fact so thoroughly drifting that he is barely present, not clearly in focus. He passes through a number of phases. Earlier, even though he can already be seen as a ghost, he is persistent and, in his elusive way, he is engaged. This is the Robinson of Keiller’s films, who explores the mess of contemporary Britain as if trying to understand it and sum it up, though he slips sideways away rather than concluding. Later Robinsons disappear. It’s the earlier Robinsons that mostly hold our interest, however, because the author is himself engaged, persistent, troubled. After all, he too is called Robinson, and meets Robinson from time to time, in a café,2 to take the force of the latter’s discontent and scepticism about what he is feeling, and writing:
…he asks me how my own book is coming along.
What makes him think I’m writing a book?
Oh, he can tell. I go into zombie mode. A veil drops over my
eyes. I’ve crawled inside myself. What’s it like in there? No,
on second thoughts he’d prefer not to know. (131)
Whence this disaffection and yet haunting persistence? It’s not exclusively English – there are plenty of European and American Robinsons (for the latter, poems by Weldon Kees and a story by Sherwood Anderson), but it is mainly associated with contemporary Britain: the white male, once privileged, for whom the old roles are now impossible, but unable to escape – still held by – the confident constructive past, represented by Crusoe and by the derelict or tacky mess of today. Yet this Robinson is also shape-shifting: a dissenter, one who refuses, and also, now, become a nomad. Early in the book, the famous footprint that Crusoe encountered on the beach of his island is seen as that of a migrant (44); later we have passages on drifters, ‘itinerants’, migrants, as we circle round to the present day, via a photo by August Sander from Germany in 1929 (116-120). Robinson is almost a migrant himself then, in his drifting, but not quite; he is never a Friday.
These themes – suggestions, improvisations, attempts to catch something both dreary and elusive, as the book assembles texts, glimpses, connections – might and perhaps should depress the reader. But the book is light-footed and enjoyable. See for instance the dazzling summary of Flaubert’s Bouvet and Pécuchet on page 92 – the two men are one of the book’s twosomes, and an instance of Crusoe-esque work and collecting as abject failure – or these extracts from a cadenza on Robinson’s biography:
Robinson was born in Upper Silesia to a woman whose husband was
killed when a mine shaft collapsed a week before his birth. There
was a whip-around. He was born on a ferry in the Irish sea, his
mother’s contractions brought on by the rocking of the boat in a
storm. He was the love child of a Tory minister and an actress in a
TV soap opera. He was born by immaculate conception. He is the
second son of the second son of a defrocked priest. He was born in a
queue for registration. (62)
Robinson’s mother believed that he should be able to drive a car
and fix a dripping tap and make a fortune, if everyone else can do it
why not him, but something prevented him from learning. Nor has he
ever learned to swim or finished a jigsaw or raised a family. In his
passport photo he looks older than he is. (63)
Should it be ‘Britain’ or ‘England’? There’s a case for both: see the note on p.10. In any case, Robinson provides ironic explanations for American readers; for instance the footnote on ‘public schools’ on p.28.
This detail is important. There used to be cafes like this in Australia and the US, but not any more.