PUBLISHERS OF LITERARY FICTION SINCE 1983
Gustav Meyrink uses this legend in a dream-like setting on the Other Side of the Mirror and he has invested it with a horror so palpable that it has remained in my memory all these years.
A remarkable work of horror, half- way between Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and Frankenstein.
There is a hang-dog, in-the-know colloquially seedy quality about the book which is far earthier and grittier than anything in Kafka's The Castle or The Trial. The suffocating bureaucracy of old Central Europe - at once oily and ruthless, petty and overbearing -is very well evoked sand permeates the entire book. "The Irish Times" This is a fever of a book. An hallucination, a wild writer's improvisation on an old Jewish fairy tale. The Golem reveals its secrets in the lives of murderers and thieves, not seers. Its sufferings are not devilish torments, but bitter sex games played in the shadows of Ghetto corridors. There is no sweetness in the low-life, no salvation in a condemned man's understanding.There is not a letter of sentimentality in The Golem. For an esoteric classic Meyrink's novel is short on mysticism and long on materialism. It does for Prague what Joyce did for Dublin and Bely for St.Petersburg.
Many books have been praised for their dreamlike quality, but I've yet to meet one which captured so accurately that nagging unease which the dreamer experiences, as he tries to square the details of his waking life with the situation in which he finds himself, at once so strange and so familiar.
The book is profoundly unsettling, shifting from dream to wakefulness. Pernath, the amnesiac, is searching for the key to his past, looking for the door to his memories. The ghetto is a winding cityscape populated by extraordinary characters, many of which have their own secrets which Pernath attempts to untangle. The novel reminds of the London of Dickens's darker novels, as well as Kafka.
A superbly atmospheric story set in the old Prague ghetto featuring the Golem, a kind of rabbinical Frankenstein’s monster, which manifests every 33 years in a room without a door. Stranger still, it seems to have the same face as the narrator. Made into a film in 1920, this extraordinary book combines the uncanny psychology of doppelganger stories with expressionism and more than a little melodrama… Meyrink’s old Prague – like Dickens’s London – is one of the great creation of city writing, an eerie, claustrophobic and fantastical underworld where anything can happen.
Meyrink's tale reinterprets the idea at the root of the Golem legend, producing a darkly mysterious story that constantly calls into question the nature of identity and self. Hidden in the shadow of Kafka's glory, Meyrink's masterful knack for the phantasmagorical has perhaps not received all the praise it should have. This book, a long and strange tale that captivates and confuses in equal measure, suggests the world at large would do well to get better acquainted with him.
Often overlooked in favour of more traditional classic titles like Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde or the works of Poe, Gustav Meyrink's 1915 German chiller The Golem takes the gothic genre and twists it until we don’t know what's what. Set in the darkest recesses of an old Prague ghetto, we follow Meyrink's creeping dialogue as a creature known as The Golem appears on one of its 33-year cycles in a room without a door, looking suspiciously like the narrator.
Gustav Meyrink's macabre, mesmeric fiction is eclipsed only by the weirdness of his own life as a Prague bank manager at the beginning of the 20th century, who discovered Kabbalah and cannabis and was imprisoned for taking investment advice from the spirit world. His most famous work, The Golem, reads like the anguished outpouring of a man who believes himself to have been terribly wronged, based on the horrific myth of a monster that springs to life and terrorises the ghetto every 33 years. It's extraordinary to consider that Meyrink was a contemporary of Kafka – though the novel contains a trial, a prison and a castle, Meyrink's Prague is the antithesis of modernism: a superstitious, archaic world of alchemists, mystics and "mysterious creatures that drift through life with no will of their own, animated by an invisible magnetic current like a bridal bouquet floating in the filthy water of the gutter". Meyrink's neurotic, metaphysical style can be difficult to fathom at times; but Mike Mitchell's pacy, genuinely creepy new translation is long overdue.
The Golem remains Meyrink's most visionary satisfying work. He was skilled at transforming imagery drawn from hermetic, religious and folklore traditions into startling symbols, just as a character in the novel is said to do:'It must have been one of those deranged metaphors he uses to take you by surprise; you don't understand them at first, only later they unexpectedly take shape and give you a profound shock, like a harsh light suddenly striking some unusual object'. Meyrink's Golem is only distantly related to that of Jewish folklore, in which an inanimate clay being was brought to life by Rabbi Low in sixteenth-century Prague to protect the denizens of the Jewish ghetto. Instead, he is a weird,shambling figure stalking the narrator, who has woken up to find himself in the ghetto in the early twentieth century suffering from amnesia. Unsavoury neighbours whisper that the Golem emerges from a doorless chamber every thirty-three years to wreak havoc, and it becomes clear that the menacing figure is the narrator's doppelganger, a spiritual presence calling him to remembrance and salvation - or destruction. Modern Prague, with its crooked streets, askew homes and resentful inhabitants is, like the Golem, mere matter impelled by spirit, but deformed by its blindness to the numinous. The narrator observes '... the innermost nature of the mysterious creatures that live around me: they drift through life with no will of their own... I felt as if the houses were staring down at me with malicious expressions full of nameless spite: the doors were black,gaping mouths in which the tongues had rotted away, throats which might at any moment give out a piercing cry, so piercing and full of hate that it would strike fear to the very roots of our souls'.
Meyrink believed that the cataclysms of the new century were the result of aglobal spiritual crisis: many of his novels and stories end apocalyptically. But several like The Golem,conclude with a marriagw. Their riven protagonists undergo a 'chymical wedding' of opposites and attain the spiritual harmony that Meyrink himself craved.
The Golem had a magnificent reception, and the collected volume published in 1915 sold 200,000 copies. Meyrink went on to write several more books, including The Green Face, Walpurgisnacht, the White Dominican and The Angel of the West Window. All have been published in English by Dedalus Books since the mid-1980s, and Mike Mitchell's excellent 1995 translations are definitely worth seeking out.
Meyrink was, of course, a contemporary of Kafka, and his novels have a lot in common with Prague's better-known fantasist. As Robert Irwin says in the introduction to the Dedalus edition of The Golem: "We have the Castle which is not Kafka's Castle, the Trial which is not Kafka's Trial, and a Prague which is not Kafka's Prague." HP Lovecraft was more succinct, calling The Golem "the most magnificent weird thing I've come across in aeons!"
A century after its first publication, The Golem endures as a piece of modernist fantasy that deserves to take its place alongside Kafka, from an author whose life was almost as fantastic as his fiction.
Golem, a play created by the theatre group 1927, which opened last week at the Young Vic in London to rapturous reviews. Golem uses the age-old myth of a clay man come to uncanny life – most famously interpreted by Czech novelist Gustav Meyrink – as a parable of our relationship with the handheld artificial intelligence that increasingly mediates our world.
Hallucinatory and elliptical, The Golem was originally published in serial form in 1913-14 and conveys the mystical associations and interests that the author was exploring at the time.
The novel centres on the life of Athanasius Pernath, a jeweler and art restorer who lives in the ghetto of Prague; as well as the lives, the characters, and the interactions of his friends and neighbours.
The Golem, though rarely seen, is central to the novel as a representative of the ghetto’s own spirit and consciousness, brought to life by the suffering and misery that its inhabitants have endured over the centuries.
Gustav Meyrink (1868 – 1932) was an Austrian writer, but the work for which he is probably best known today, 1914 novel THE GOLEM (Dedalus pb, 280pp, £8.99), is set in Prague where the writer lived for twenty years. Its central character is the jeweller and art restorer Athanius Pernath, who lives in the Jewish ghetto and who, in his efforts to help the beautiful Angelina, is drawn into the feud between embittered student Innocence Charousek and the junk dealer Wassertrum. At the same time, Pernath falls under the influence of the saintly Hillel and is attracted to his idealistic daughter Miriam. And lurking in the background is the myth of the golem, a creature brought to life by a rabbi to protect the ghetto’s inhabitants from their enemies according to some, and a manifestation of their collective psyche according to others.
This is a strange and elliptical book, with a convoluted plot in which nothing is what it at first seems, combining themes of mysticism and gutter crime, horror and personal identity. Pernath is a far from reliable narrator – early on we learn that he may have suffered some form of psychotic break, so that his memories of the past are blocked, while a further framing device reveals that he is not at all who he claims to be and the whole story could simply be an act of memory on the part of another. And though it gives the book its title, the golem is a bit player in this production, a monstrous figure that stalks the city streets every thirty years, causing fear wherever it is seen, and between visitations stands alone in an upstairs room to which there is no entrance. To this quasi-metaphysical backdrop Meyrink adds a wealth of detail, primarily to do with the city of Prague itself, which is recreated on the page in real depth – its ghetto, home to the poor; the houses of the elite and the gaols where the innocent and guilty alike linger; the clubs and bars in which decadence and desperation vie for elbow room; the ruins from which we get blurry impressions of past grandeur; the city’s dramatis personae of plotters and adulterers, convicts and lovers, wise men and fools. Guided by others, including his larger than life friends with their stories of forgotten glories, Pernath wanders through it all like a character in a dream, seemingly indifferent to whether he resides in a mansion or a gaol, and ultimately all that he experiences may turn out to be a dream, which is part of Meyrink’s genius. Not everyone will enjoy this book, if I’m allowed a banal observation, but it is an important work of speculative fiction, one that addresses themes and uses methods that still enthral us today. To appreciate where we are going, you need to look back at where we have been, and should you look over your shoulder, Meyrink is one of the figures who dominate the skyline.
0. The Golem by Gustav Meyrink, translated by Mike Mitchell
When I was 17 and had just met my mentor in all things strange and marvellous, the Icelandic surrealist artist Alfreð Flóki, he gave me a copy of this novel and told me we could have no further conversation before I had read it. It is a fever dream of a book. The protagonist’s mind melds with the legend of the Golem of Prague, the original artificial man of clay created by rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel in the 16th-century ghetto. And my mind melded so thoroughly with the novel that 13 years later I decided to bring the golem story into the folds of Icelandic literature by any narrative means necessary.