The book at hand is Gustav Meyrink’s 1916 short story collection Bats. I love that title. As in “Meyrink is completely ___ .“ Fledermäuse. The cover* is perfect, too, a copy of “Lied in der Dämmerung (Song in the Twilight”, 1931) by my new favorite painter, Franz Sedlacek.
That is Meyrink in oil, right there.
No, the painting is too simple. It is more like E. T. A. Hoffmann, Meyrink’s great precursor. It omits Meyrink’s esotericism, his interest in tarot and kabbalah and secret knowledge. I will disclose that I think all of that is in and of itself nonsense, but it serves two purposes for Meyrink beyond whatever belief he might have in it; first, many writers have done interesting, artful things with this or that esoteric system, the pre-built symbols allowing for all sorts of fun, and second, the mysticism stands in for a more universal gnostic impulse, a yearning for a glimpse of the reality behind reality, a momentary lifting of the earthly veil.
Hoffmann’s stories, full of dreams and hallucinations, use the idea, too. For followers of Schopenhauer, this would be some sort of direct experience of Will; other systems use other terms. The protagonist of “Herr Kuno Hinrischen, Businessman, and the Penitent Lala Lajpat-Rai,” for example, “managing director of the firm: General Charitable Works, ‘Wholesalers of fat, lard and oils,’” has a dream in which he becomes a Hindu ascetic. Unfortunately the lesson he learns by becoming one with the universe is to become a more effective embezzler, since the victims are, after all, also him, so he might as well have the money as them.
“’And the world isn’t real, anyway. I’d never’ve thought there was so much in this Indian philosophy’… From then on Herr Kuno Hinrischen, businessman, was ‘master’ of even the most difficult situations and a convinced follower of the Indian doctrine of the Vedanta to the end of his days. (100-1)
Not every mystic has Meyrink’s sense of humor.
In “J. H. Obereit’s Visit to the Time-Leeches” – no, I will stop there. No story can be as good as that title. It promises too much.
In “Amadeus Knödlseder, the Incorrigible Bearded Vulture” – same problem, right? It is almost disappointing to learn that Knödlseder is actually a vulture, who escapes from the Munich zoo and sets up a neckwear shop which is in fact a front for the murder and devouring of marmots, “[j]ust like Cardillac, the jeweller in E. T. A. Hoffmann’s Fräulein von Scuderi!” (44)
I start with Meyrink’s esotericism but then go straight to his satire. And I have gotten nowhere near what I think is most interesting about him, that he is often a fine writer.
* Bats is to be found, almost, in The Dedalus Meyrink Reader, translated and assembled by the dedicated Mike Mitchell. One story, “Meister Leonhard,” can only be found in The Dedalus Book of Austrian Fantasy 1890-2000, so strictly speaking I have not read all of the Bats. Close enough.