The Golem [Der Golem] (Dedalus, 2020)
by Gustav Meyrink [translated from the German by Mike Mitchell]
Borges called The Golem "admirablemente visual" ["admirably visual"] in style and "un libro único" ["a unique book"]. Karl Kraus famously lampooned Meyrink's body of work as combining "Buddhism with a dislike for the infantry." Closer to home, Amateur Reader (Tom) has said that Meyrink was "semi-obscure, semi-difficult, obviously not a first-rate writer but easily worth a look or two or three." What could I possibly add to the discussion after those three titans of book talk have weighed in? I'll give it a try by noting that The Golem is nominally the story of one Herr Athanasius Parnath, an amnesiac and/or just plain mad gemcutter living in and working out of Prague's old Jewish ghetto, and a man who may be the doppelgänger of both the frame story narrator of the novel as a whole and the murderous Golem himself (note: the antics move to the beat of their own dream logic here). While at times confusing and, what's worse, a horrorless, occultist horror novel in a way, the dated weirdness of the work makes it easy enough to embrace even today. I loved, for example, the expressionist descriptions of the people and the places in the ghetto as well as its sights and sounds. Parnath at one point claims to finally understand "the innermost nature of the mysterious creatures that live around me," suggesting that they "drift through life with no will of their own, animated by an invisible, magnetic current, just like the bridal bouquet floating past in the filthy water of the gutter." For a follow-up, he adds that "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 soul" (45-46). Of course, the image of "a tinkling sound from the piano, as if a rat were running along the keys" (66) was also a nice audiovisual touch. In addition to the pre-The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari-like visual shenanigans, I was also tickled by Meyrink's pulp sensibilities both w/r/t the references to ghetto slang ("In their jargon [a 'Freemason'] was a name for a man who had sexual relations with schoolgirls but whose connections with the police render him immune to the legal consequences" ) and the random, proto-Arltian descriptions ("He was stretched on the rack of the deathly hush in the tavern") and dialogue ("You can recognise scum by their sentimentality") (76 & 205) as well as the Baudelaire- and Lautréamont-like encomium to a murderer and suicide which climaxes with the declaration that "the poisonous autumn crocus is a thousand times more beautiful and noble than the useful chive" (238). Hugo Steiner-Prag, an artist who knew the real-life Jewish quarter in Prague before it was demolished and did the illustrations for the first editions of Meyrink's Golem, was to have written a non-opium dream chronicle of the Ghetto but it was left unfinished at his death. What a bland and colorless pity.
Gustav Meyrink (1868-1932)