Friday, May 8, 2009

Heaven forbid anyone should spend his life in perpetual expectation of meeting the Golem - Gustav Meyrink's The Golem

The golem story is so flexbile. Gustave Meyrink's novel The Golem (serialized 1913-4, published as a book in 1915) somehow manages to omit the golem entirely. Or else it's narrated by the golem. Whichever way, this golem is not the big clay fellow we've grown to love - see left.


The Meyrink novel is wild stuff. A gem-cutter, our narrator, lives in an apartment in Prague's Jewish ghetto. He is schizophrenic and has lost all memory of his past due to a hypnosis cure (he doesn't remember that either). A mysterious stranger, who may very well be the Golem, or is the narrator himself, gives him a mystical book to repair (right). A beautiful woman wants his help covering up her affair with a doctor. A young lunatic wants revenge against the sinister Jewish junk dealer, who, it turns out, is his father. Um, there's a saintly rabbi, and his beautiful, miracle-attuned daughter. And, let's see, several murders. Our hero ends up in prison for one of them. But it turns out that it's all a dream, or is it, and although one might be likely to groan at that old chestnut, I didn't, not in this case.

This is pure E. T. A. Hoffmann, in some ways quite derivative. A not-quite-ordinary person gets caught up in some tangled supernatural plot involving characters who constantly transform into other characters and strange powers that somehow set everything right at the end. There must be a dozen Hoffmann stories that work this way. The Golden Pot is the most famous, maybe. The Devil's Elixir is better. Meyrink knew them both, very well, too well.

The Golem has its own originality, though. First, Hoffmann is the great pre-Freudian Freudian fiction writer. Meyrink gets to filter Hoffmann through Freud. The schizophrenic narrator is key - a good part of the effective horror of the novel is that every scrap of reality, every stray phrase or gesture, becomes imbued with significance. The narrator lives in a state of perpetual uncanniness. Readers familiar with Nabokov's "Signs and Symbols" will pick this up immediately.

Second, the Prague setting is interesting. The golem story is just one local detail of many. The actual 1890 collapse of the medieval bridge over the Moldau, for example, is inserted into the plot - the narrator thinks he caused it, mentally. The strange ending, with the gem-cutter, disoriented after months in a dark prison, wandering through a Jewish quarter destroyed not by a pogrom but by modern urban renewal, ironically invokes the golem without even mentioning it.

Finally, sometimes Meyrink's prose is really good, even aside from the horror-story atmosphere business:*

"For answer came a sound as though a rat had scampered over the keys of a piano." (36, Dover edition)

"The snowflakes sped like regiments - little miniature soldiers in white furry coats - past the panes of my window, on and on, one behind the other, always in the same direction, as though in universal retreat from a particularly formidable foe." (75)

"A man with a long beard, and official sword, coat, and cap, but with bare feet and trousers tied together at the ankles, stood up, put down the coffee-mill that he was holding between his knees, and ordered me to remove my clothes." (140)

The bare feet and the coffee-mill - to me, that is the stuff.


Meyrink was a genuine occultist, and at times The Golem plunges into a bog of will o' the wisps, strange gases, and mystical claptrap. At its best, the Kabbalistic Buddhist Egyptology or whatever it is provides Meyrink with striking, original images; at its worst, its empty and dull. A reader with more patience for tarot and whatnot may think otherwise.

There are also a fair amount of anti-Semitic stereotypes. E. F. Bleiler, in the introduction to the Dover edition, thinks that the philo-Semitic stereotypes balance things out, and points out that the Nazis agreed, gleefully banning and burning Meyrink's books. The split is consistent with the divide in the mind of the narrator, but an artistically superior book might dispense with the stereotypes completely, no?

The Dover edition includes more of these dramatic lithographs, by Hugo Steiner-Prag. Who is he? Maybe you can find out and let me know. The illustrations do fit the text, exactly.


I'll end golem week with some different illustrations, from David Wisniewski's 1996 Golem, although neither my little thumbnails nor my scanner can do justice to his amazing work with cut-paper. Wisniewski tells the Yudl Rosenberg version of the story, basically, with one amusing amendation. The golem, once de-activated, usually has to be stored somewhere. In Meyrink's version, for example, there is a secret golem storage room, accessible only by tunnels, where the narrator somehow ends up spending the night. I. L. Peretz covers the golem with dust and cobwebs.

Wisniewski buries the golem in books, which I thought was an appropriate metaphor for Golem Week, and, frankly, for everything else I do at Wuthering Expectations:



Actually, click to enlarge - they came out better than I thought.

* Postscript: I forgot another first-rate device, the sculptor theme. The narrator makes cameos; another character is a puppeteer and carves a puppet head that represents either the narrator, or the Golem, or both; wax figures pop up in unexpected places. There's also a "hanged man" theme that links the prison scenes, the tarot cards, and other odds and ends.

8 comments:

  1. http://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/11/world/europe/11golem.html?_r=1

    Golem week.

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  2. For once, I'm ahead of the world! Prague, it turns out, is crammed with golems, just as I said, except I meant it as a joke - "a recent musical starring a dancing golem," all right.

    And how about where the derivatives trader says that the golem will protect him from global recession? Good luck with that.

    Thanks for the link to that odd article. Very much worth reading, if just for the last two paragraphs, the tale of the golem's great-grandson.

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  3. You're a trendsetter!

    Before last week, all I knew of the golem legend came from a quote in the movie Stranger Than Fiction (a man thinks he's trapped in a piece of fiction, goes to a professor of literature for help, and the professor asks the man if he's been "earth made holy by rabbinical elders" - among other things).

    This has been quite the education. Archetypal stories like that of the golem are fascinating - the (d)evolution of the original legend, the manipulations they endure at the hand of author after author...

    AND people seem to really love golems.

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  4. Interesting, isn't it, how the golem has become so cute. In most of these stories, whatever their purpose, it is definitely not cute.

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  5. That's a creepy looking golem. When he is clayey and lumpy it's easy to think of him as cute and harmless. I've really enjoyed golem week!

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  6. The Meyrink / Steiner-Prag golem has a touch of Nosferatu about him, doesn't he? That would be an audacious, and possibly offensive, reworking of the golem legend - a vampire golem.

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  7. Hi Amateur,

    Bon, I have re-read the Golem. My memory played me some tricks, but the big picture was quite intact: it is definitly in the funky esoterism category, though maybe unintentionnaly funky (even if the final hat-shaped pirouette tone down the seriousness of it). Still a very good book: the side story between Charousek and the broker (don't know if it's the good word: brocanteur in french...) is tragic as can be. On the whole, the most intriguing facet is maybe that, that there is only side stories, the plot is indiscernible, as is the Golem itself. Baroque à souhait. And defintly Villiers de l'Isle-Adam-esque. (I see that the Cruel Tales have made an appearance in your to-read bar; and note, smiling, that I will be ready for your rendition of The Scarlet Letter: I have just started to read it... And I'm already astounded by the humour in his introduction, a master piece all by itself [it might sound funny, a guy who discover Hawthorne when all you american guys already knew him almost in utero].)

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  8. This is my first time with The Scarlet Letter. I had the same reaction as you - I was not expecting the humor, not at all. There are a few good jokes scattered through the novel itself, too.

    Thanks again for the Villiers de l'Isle-Adam recommendation. I've almost been overdoing it with the strange French books (Gautier, Nerval, Baudelaire, Villiers), but one seems to naturally lead me to another.

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