THE ECLIPSE AND RE-EMERGENCE OF THE BILDUNGSROMAN

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You Can’t Win by Jack Black (AK Press/Nabat 2000 £12).

Bad by James Carr (AK Press/Nabat 2002 £11).

Sister Of The Road: The Autobiography of Boxcar Bertha by Dr Ben Reitman (AK Press/Nabat 2002 £11).

Memoirs Of Vidocq: Master of Crime by Francois Eugene Vidocq translated and edited by Edwin Gile Rich (AK Press/Nabat 2002 £14).

Nabat is an offshoot of AK Press edited by Bruno Ruhland whose avowed intention is ‘reprinting forgotten memoirs by various misfits, outsiders and rebels’. A curious concept especially as one of the books in the series Sister Of The Road is actually a novel, although when it first appeared it did find some readers credulous enough to believe it was the ‘genuine’ autobiography of a female hobo. Sister Of The Road is easily the worst book in the Nabat series, an anarchist fantasy written by one of Emma Goldman’s lovers and boosters Dr Ben Reitman. This absurd tale of one woman’s education in life and politics concludes as follows: “Long after Lowell had gone to sleep that night I lay awake staring into the dark, thinking. In my heart I knew, of course, that I must do what he had told me to – settle down and be a mother to my child. He had said that I had been running away from something and suddenly I realized what it was – I had been trying to escape my own natural need to be responsible for someone, to live for someone else, some special individual person who belonged peculiarly to myself. For years I had told myself that I didn’t want to be tied down, that I wanted to keep myself free to help others, to uplift the vast mass of struggling humanity. And I knew now that I had been rationalizing my need to be a mother, dissipating it over the face of the earth when its primary satisfaction lay within reach of my own arms.”

As a political text Sister Of The Road is desultory; it is laced with a pseudo-revolutionary bourgeois idealism in which anarchists are viewed as existing separately from the proletariat, and thus somehow able to bring the torch of enlightenment to ‘the vast mass of struggling humanity’. This book
suffers from a typically Bakuninist fetishisation of the so-called ‘lower depths’, with the result that the lumpen-proletariat (the refuse of all classes) is of greater interest to the author than a revolutionary working class. It doesn’t take long to grasp both Reitman’s politics and his didactic intentions; as a result of this the unfolding of the plot is tediously predicable. Bertha must not only experience life as a hobo but fall in with a shoplifting gang, so that Reitman can take us in his pedestrian way through various types of crime, law enforcement and even drug addiction. Likewise, after Bertha has become a prostitute and there is a raid on the brothel where she is working, it would take a peculiarly inattentive reader not to realise that rather than being one of the girls who escapes, she will instead be nicked so that the author can take us through assorted legal procedures. Similarly, when Bertha is given an enforced medical check up for venereal disease, the anti-dynamics of the plot demand that she have the clap so that Reitman can provide us with his pseudo-scientific understandings on the matter. Sister Of The Road harks back to the Russian nihilist novels of the nineteenth century and lacks the focus of post-Profumo Affair fakery such as Marjbritt Morrison’s Jungle West 11. Morrison’s faked autobiography restricts itself to the London sex trade of the nineteen-fifties and sixties and is divided into four parts; viz, Apprentice, Street Girl, Call Girl and Hostess. Despite the didactic fashion in which Morrison’s book takes the reader through all aspects of the London sex trade, its focus on the Notting Hill area of west London and very specific parts of the lumpen proletariat, alongside the ways in which criminal activities emerge from and are mediated by institutional and other forms of racism, marks this as a much more modern work than Reitman’s dry as dust tome.

Jack Black’s You Can’t Win is confessional in form. A ‘former’ hobo and burglar takes delight in describing his criminal activities while proclaiming somewhat too insistently that he has reformed. The criminal life-style is as repetitive as any other kind of alienated existence – and so once the narrative gets going we hear the same thing over and over again.
The tone is similar to more recent cat burglar autobiographies such as Peter Scott’s Gentleman Thief and I suspect Black’s book is as self-serving as this contemporary memoir. Scott was trained up in big time burglary by Ray “The Cat” Jones, and in an Oedipal refusal to acknowledge his debt to the older man, the self-styled ‘Human Fly’ never misses an opportunity to portray the bloke with whom he served his apprenticeship in a poor light.
Scott presents himself as a reformed criminal in Gentleman Thief but after the book was published he found himself once again up before the beak for a dim-witted scam involving himself, the drug-addled son of another celebrity criminal and a nicked painting. In an afterward to You Can’t Win, Bruno Ruhland suggests that Black omits to write about his more violent acts of criminality in any detail, or his activities as a prison drug dealer. That said, You Can’t Win should be read by anyone with an interest in the ‘true’ crime genre since it is both extremely well written and historically
interesting as an account of American criminal activity at the tail end of the nineteenth-century. Memoirs Of Vidocq takes us even further back in time to Napoleonic France and much more obviously than You Can’t Win comes across as a piece of self-vindication and self-justification. Vidocq was a former criminal who became a police spy and then a detective. His account of prison escapes and trickery illustrates very well how modern crime is produced by capitalist property relationships. By presenting himself as an upholder of public order and defender of the reigning society, Vidocq cuts an even sadder figure than more recent loser crims – including Peter Scott – who simultaneously yearn for both adventure and ‘the good life’ of bourgeois respectability (at the expense of everyone else, of course).

Moving on, Bad by James Carr is the most politically credible of the books Nabat have published to date. Carr unflinchingly describes his involvement in gang rapes and the way he thought about such anti-social behaviour when he was an active participant in it, before delineating his evolution towards a revolutionary consciousness at odds with the militantism of his friends who joined the Black Panther Party. Bad is neither a confession nor a
justification, and if parts of it read like fiction this is in the positive sense of it coming across as an anti-apprenticeship novel rather than a bildungsroman. Carr shows very well how all of anarchism can be found in the idea that it is possible to live differently in this world, and that instead of seeking refuge in idealist dreams we need to fight together as a class for a revolutionary transformation of this world. Read intelligently, all the Nabat titles illustrate the futility of anarchism; but it is Carr who most consciously articulates the ways in which we can move beyond a purely spectacular opposition to capitalism. That said, all these books are worth a gander, since even Reitman’s novel illustrates well albeit unintentionally the absurdity of anarchist ideology. There is a male and American bias to the Nabat list, with the next announced title Beggars Of Life: A Hobo Autobiography by Jim Tully further compounding this state of affairs. So to sum up, rather than seeing Nabat reprint titles that I’m already familiar with such as Woman Of The Underworld by Zoe Progl or The Autobiography Of A Super-Tramp by W. H. Davies, I’d rather see them issue ‘outsider’ autobiographies from around the world that I haven’t already read. Currently top of my list of criminal autobiographies that I’ve never seen but would like to peruse is Burglar To The Nobility, the long out of print memoirs of “Ruby” Sparks. Likewise, to add balance to this series it would be nice if Nabat at some point issued a collection of ‘Cony Catching’ pamphlets from Elizabethean London, which mark the historical limits of the modern ‘true’ crime genre more effectively than Vidocq’s decidedly unreliable memoir. Regardless of whether Nabat succeeds in correcting its lop-sided attraction to anarchist idealism, this is nonetheless an imprint that those of us with a taste for the negative will be keeping an eye on.

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  • 1 jacob fry // Dec 9, 2009 at 11:05 pm

    hello ive just read your article, and i noticed that you havent read Burglar To The Nobility by Ruby Sparks. he was actually a member of my family. and currently im trying to find a hard copy of the book, but all i have is a photocopy of the whole book. its all there but i would prefer the real copy. have you heard where i could find/buy this?

  • 2 Diane de Vere // May 28, 2012 at 9:34 am

    Jacob I too have a photocopy- my sister got a hardcopy through Amazon a couple of years ago
    Ruby’s sister was my grandmother
    be good to contact

  • 3 Mary Jackson // Jul 20, 2012 at 10:03 pm

    I would love to get a copy of this book, for
    Ruby’s daughter. If anyone has a copy for sale
    please respond.

  • 4 Tania // Nov 21, 2014 at 8:07 pm

    Hi,
    I am looking for a copy of Burglar to Nobility as well, I know these posts are from a while a go but I would love to contact relative of John Ruby Sparks as I am developing a documentary on him, please e-mail at t.cooper@cmjprod.ca
    Thank you!
    Tania

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