The first thing I feel I have to say about Gustav Meyrink’s novel, The Golem, is that it’s intensely, thrillingly strange. Dreamlike, elliptical, informed by theosophical and occult symbols, it wrong-foots you; nothing in it develops the way you’d expect, not in terms of character or plot or imagery. And yet that strangeness feels almost like a side-effect, a byproduct of its insistence on its themes, on its vision, on its focus on the reality of Prague and on whatever it is that lies beyond that reality. Perhaps the strangest thing about the book, published in installments in 1913 and 14 and published as a whole in 1915, was that this odd esoteric horror story was also tremendously popular in its day.
It was Meyrink’s first novel. A banker with an interest in theosophy and the occult, apparently for a time a member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, he turned to writing after being thrown in jail for using spiritual guidance for his investments. He published a number of short satirical fictions, and then The Golem, which made his fortune. More novels followed, dealing with similar metaphysical themes. He died in 1932. The Golem remains his best-known work, certainly in the English-speaking world (though often cited as the inspiration for Paul Wegener’s multiple Golem movies, there seems to be no direct conection between films and book). It’s been translated several times; I have the 1995 version by Mike Mitchell.
Written in the first person, the book follows a gem-engraver named Athanasius Pernath who lives in the Jewish Ghetto in Prague (but is apparently not himself Jewish). Pernath is suffering from a strange loss of memory; a woman who knows him begs him to hide her in his lodging, but he cannot recall who she is. Then a strange man presents him with an ancient book of Jewish mysticism, whose elaborate first letter needs to be repaired. Pernath accepts the task; but this is only a sub-plot, and much of the action involves following Pernath through interactions with an odd set of characters around him — a sinister junk-dealer named Wassertrum; his bitter enemy, the medical student Charousek; the saintly archivist of the Jewish Town Hall, Shemaiah Hillel; and Hillel’s lovely but unworldly daughter, Miriam. We follow Pernath also through dreams and visions, through his life among puppeteers and whores and slumming aristocrats and deaf-mutes.
The Golem, the legendary artificial man of Jewish legend, does not appear as one might expect; there is no simple clay automaton. It is “a spritual epidemic.” One character says:
“Perhaps it is right here among us, every hour of the day, only we cannot perceive it. You can’t hear the noise from a vibrating tuning fork until it touches wood and sets it resonating. Perhaps it is simply a spiritual growth without any inherent consciousness, a structure that develops like a crystal out of formless chaos according to a constant law.
“Who can say?
“Just as on sultry days the static electricity builds up to unbearable tension until it discharges itself in lightning, could it not be that the steady build-up of those never-changing thoughts that poison the air in the Ghetto leads to a sudden, spasmodic discharge? A spritual explosion blasting our unconscious dreams out into the light of day and creating, as the electricity does the lightning, a phantom that in expression, gait, and behaviour, in every last detail, would revel the symbol of the soul of the masses, if only we were able to interpret the secret language of forms?
“And just as there are natural phenomena which suggest that lightning is about to strike, so there are certain eerie portents which presage the irruption of that spectre into the physical world. The plaster flaking off a wall will resemble a person striding along the street; the frost patterns on windows will form into the lines of staring faces; the dust drifting down from the roofs will seem to fall in a different way from usual, suggesting to the observant that it is being scattered by some invisible intelligence lurking hidden in the eaves in a secret attempt to create all sorts of strange patterns. Whether the eye rests on a uniform sameness of texture or focuses on irregularities of the skin, we fall prey to our unwelcome talent for discerning everywhere significant, ominous shapes which grow to gigantic proportions in our dreams. And always, behind the spectral attempts of these gathering swarms of thoughts to gnaw through the walls surrounding our everyday existence, we can sense with tormenting certainty that our own inmost substance is, deliberately and against our will, being sucked dry so that the phantom may take on physical form.”
I’ve quoted this passage at length because it seems to me to encapsulate several key features of the book. The concern with dreams, and the interaction of dreams and reality. The concreteness of symbols, and the way that prosaic everyday things can acquire a profound, even disturbing, spiritual charge. And the concern with reading meaning into those simple things, an act of reading so feverish that, even if that potent sense of meaning did not previously exist, the act of perception brings it into being by its own dreadful insistence.
The Golem is a symbol in a highly symbolic novel. These symbols are built up, as symbols are, in bits and pieces, in patterns of recurring imagery; but also through hints and elliptical developments. The chapter I’ve quoted from describes Pernath’s amnesia as a wall — “we’ve managed to wall up his illness, if I can put it like that, just as you might build a wall round the site of some tragedy” — after it presents the story of the Golem, who lives in a certain house in the Ghetto, in a room with no entrance: like Pernath’s memories, walled up. That room seems to return at the climactic moment of the novel; then the very end of the book jumps forward thirty-three years, by which point we’ve almost forgotten how Pernath’s friend, the puppeteer Zwakh, speaks of the Golem coming “once a generation,” and how he remembers encountering what he now takes to be its manifestations sixty-six years before, and then thirty-three years after that.
Other images return: the moon; crowds of faces; stones, of various sort; rope. The hanged man: the book is haunted by the hermetic tradition, by the Cabbala and the Tarot and alchemy and esoteric tales about the foundation of Prague and the coming of an Antichrist. In many other fictions that convoluted symbol-system can seem alienating, signifiers of a complex set of correlations that require information from outside the text to really grasp; there is none of that here, as all the various bits of imagery are given meaning and emotional heft from events within the story. They do point to mystical themes, and for all I know it may be that those who grasp the various meanings of these symbols will find particular significance in the way Meyrink deploys them. But you don’t have to come to the story with any of that knowledge to be drawn into the sense of importance that Meyrink confers on his imagery.
Ultimately, I think the book works because of that sense of intensity; that slightly manic, slightly uncomfortable, slightly off-centred feel of things that have more weight to them than they ought to have. More meaning than they can adequately contain. The book is very like a dream in that: it has the inexplicable vitality of dream, the persistent sense that everything it presents, however superficially commonplace, has become dreadful — indeed that the dreadful is contained within the commonplace.
The book makes this work because it mixes its intense dreamlike symbols with intensely real experiences and settings. As I mentioned, Meyrink spent some time in jail; that comes out in an extended nightmarish sequence in which Pernath is imprisoned on suspicion of murder. Meyrink’s depiction of city streets, of lowlife bars, feels true as much as it feels like something more-than-true; it has the surreal quality of what we think of as real life. The book links moments of absolute reality with webs of imagery, dream, and mysticism. What should be real becomes invested with the esoteric sense of magic; the sense of immanence of dream. Anything can happen, and something will.
The setting is vital: Prague is not described lavishly, yet it colours the entire book. There’s a distinct feel to the demi-monde Meyrink describes that evokes a place and time; but more than that, there’s a precision in the way he uses specific points within the city. Event and setting feed on each other. The place becomes an image. City legends shape and spice the story, connecting with each other and with the broader occult symbols. The feel of dream and the feel of an actual place, with lived-in history, work together.
Stylistically, the book is a masterpiece of restraint, while not feeling like it’s restrained. It describes things and events with a manic focus, but also has a keen feel for what each event, character, and symbol are doing in the overall story — we get Pernath’s perspective on events, but that overheated, hallucinatory perspective belies the fact that there’s a solid structure to occurences. Things seem random in the first part of the book; but as it develops, we begin to see how they connect. So does Pernath, but at the same time we see how he’s trapped by his own subjectivity; how, in a sense, the book comes to be about his attempt to transcend that subjectivity.
It’s not surprising that Pernath does not feel like a conventionally realistic character. He’s a man in a dream; we come to understand just how much this is so at the very end, but it’s clear from the beginning that he’s not a typical naturalistic literary construction. Lacking memory, he lacks history, context; although we come to understand some of that context later on, his actions continue to feel disconnected from each other, determined more by visions that come to him, by random discoveries, by apophenic moments — the perception of patterns with unnatural meaning.
Remarkably, Meyrink succeeds in giving all this material shape. As I say, underneath all the occultism and imagery and hallucinatory visions is a solid structure of plot and event. It doesn’t necessarily resolve in a realistic way, but it does resolve effectively in that the symbols have a feel of coming together and in some way explaining themselves. I think a careful reading can explain how they all relate, but even without that joining-up of puzzle pieces, I found a distinct sense of inevitability and release at the climactic point, which was heightened by the denouement that followed. It’s a remarkable accomplishment, an ending in which mysteries are at some level solved without being explained.
I didn’t really know what to expect from the book. It’s sometimes mentioned as early horror fiction in the vein of Dracula or Frankenstein; it’s a little like the second of those, not much like the first. It feels perhaps as much or more like Kafka, a prefiguration of modernism in the way it undermines the traditional sense of character, the way it opens itself up to fragmentation and the irrational. The way it incorporates myth as a way of patterning events while also undermining the linear and logical and conventionally literary. It’s a horror novel, perhaps, but the conclusion isn’t horrific in the slightest, and I found it less likely to instill fear than it was a kind of unsettled awe. It’s highly effective, highly unusual, and thoroughly successful.