Robinson: A Biography

Recently, as part of my on-going Iain Sinclair/Chris Petit/general psychogeography obsession, I had cause to read Petit’s novel ‘Robinson’. A superbly seedy, underrated gem, it’s depressing to find that it has since gone out of print (again). Originally published in 1993, Granta brought out an edition in 2001, but it has lapsed back into completely underserved obscurity. It charts the gradual dissolution of an unnamed narrator as he falls under the malign influence of the eponymous character, described in the book as someone who cultivates his resemblance to Orson Welles’ portrayal of Harry Lime in ‘The Third Man’. This cinematic reference seems natural from a writer who is also one of the best experimental filmmakers in Britain, and the notion of filmmaking suffuses the book. The narrator works on the fringes of the industry in London, and after falling in with Robinson amongst the after-work world of dingy Soho boozers, he becomes involved in the other man’s small-time, semi-criminal enterprises. This culminates in the two men establishing a sinister cast of players and technicians to help them make low-budget porn films which they sell to the European market, trying to inject a sense of surreal artistry to a workmanlike sex industry. As Robinson become more bloated and corrupt, the narrator gradually tries to carve back some of the squandered normality of his previous life.

‘Robinson’ is a genuinely dark piece of work, hinting at apocalyptic collapse in its final chapters, but what fascinates me in particular about it is the provenance of its title character. At the same time as Chris Petit was writing his book, the director Patrick Keiller was making his own explorations into the overlooked areas of the city. ‘London’, and its sequel ‘Robinson in Space’, both follow an unseen character called Robinson, a part-time lecturer obsessed with solving the ‘problem of London’ through focused derives through the city’s (and the country’s) liminal spaces.

Who is Robinson then, and how did both men come to use him at roughly the same time? Is he the same figure in both mediums, in Petit’s novel and Keiller’s films? In ‘London’, the narrator and his companion both walk out to Stoke Newington in order to access residual traces of Daniel Defoe’s residence in the area. Defoe, of course, was the author of ‘Robinson Crusoe’, the first recorded use of this character’s name, and the critic Merlin Coverley has identified Defoe as the godfather of psychogeography, in terms of his reimagining and subjective remapping of urban space.

Part of Coverley’s project is to wrest the roots of psychogeography as a ‘discipline’ and practice away from Situationism and Guy Debord, and replant them in solid London earth. At the same time, he establishes a timeline of Robinson-references in a variety of writers, artists and poets. Rimbaud coined the verb ‘robinsonner’  to describe a sense of purposeful daydreaming or mental wandering, inspired by Baudelaire’s earlier use of the flâneur as the emblematic figure of European modernity. Kafka and Louis-Ferdinand Céline both have characters called Robinson in significant cameo roles, and the enigmatic American poet Weldon Kees frequently drew upon Robinson in his work. The poet Simon Armitage, who became obsessed with Weldon Kees at an early stage in his career, writes about Robinson in his first collection, ‘Kid’. Poems like ‘Robinson in Two Cities’ and ‘Mr Robinson’s Holiday’ dwell at length upon the character’s easy access to the city, his paranoia in coastal guest houses. Iain Sinclair chases down some of the same hints and speculations as Coverley, but we are no nearer to understanding who this figure is, and why the name has caught at the imagination of so many different writers.

I might one day try to collate all of this information and write a biography of Robinson, a Robinsoniad, that ties together his mysterious origins and contradictory histories. Who is he? Where did he come from? Where is he going? And does he know what all of these people have been doing with his name?


2 thoughts on “Robinson: A Biography

  1. Tom

    Petit’s novel sounds brilliant (I’ve just ordered a used copy on the basis of your post) – and Celine’s character has to be one of the most beguiling in modern lit. Although my tastes are no guarantee of commercial potential (a death knell, more likely), put me down for a copy of the Robinson biography!


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