Thursday, September 2, 2010

Gustav Meyrink - The Golem

Carl Alexander Wittek, portrait of Gustav Meyrink, 1919

A heavyweight from the world of high finance is suspected of profiteering and loses his reputation overnight - it’s the talk of the town in Prague when it happens to banker Gustav Meyer in January 1902. The co-founder of Bankhaus Meyer & Morgenstern (established in 1889, together with the nephew of poet Christian Morgenstern) is not just a well-to-do businessman, but above all a celebrated figure in society. Elegantly dressed, feared for his sharp tongue, the owner of one of the first automobiles in Prague and something of an occultist - when someone like Meyer is arrested it does not go unnoticed. After two and a half months in detention, Meyer is released. His innocence is proven, but he is ruined all the same: the bank has not survived the enforced closure during the legal inquiry.

 Hugo Steiner-Prag, Illustration to Gustav Meyrink's The Golem, 1915

A bitter man, he decided to turn his back on Prague and seek out a new life in Vienna. It is the start of a miraculously fast metamorphosis, in which the thwarted banker Meyer exits the stage to make place for the successful man of letters Meyrink. Once in Vienna he found employment almost immediately as the chief editor of the progressive periodical Der liebe Augustin, and began publishing satirical stories with only one apparent objective: to affront as many men in high places as possible. The military machine, the clergy, judges, lawyers, speculators - anything that reeks of capital and petty bourgeoisie is the target of his virtuously phrased scorn. 

Titlepage Der Liebe Augustin, No. 12 (1904), devoted to oriental stories

One example is the short story The Siege of Sarajevo (written well before World War One), in which the not too clever prince Aloysius the Kindhearted is called upon to open the annual cattle exhibition with a few well chosen words. After a few stylistic blunders, the confused monarch cuts the cord with a final blunder: "I hereby - declare – the war!" At once the crowd is seized by a ravishing passion and while roaring nationalistic songs, the entire nation plunges into a completely incomprehensible Balkan war. 

 Fritz Schwimbeck, My dream, my bad dream,1915: "The moonlight falls on the foot of my bed and lies there like a large, flat stone."

Not surprisingly, Meyrink became the target of a nationalistic smear campaign once the First World War had broken out. Although he was not Jewish, he was branded as a "typically Jewish" intriguer and an enemy of all that was sound and German. His house came under attack and his books were confiscated in Vienna in 1917. Meyrink’s sardonic pen was admired by influential critics and kindred spirits like Max Brod and Karl Kraus. The former praised the "pugilistic spirit" of his prose, the latter his "predilection for Buddhism, combined with an aversion to the infantry".

 Hugo Steiner-Prag, Illustration to Gustav Meyrink's The Golem, 1915

During 1908 a compilation of his short stories, Waxworks, was published. Being in need of money, Meyrink also started working as a translator and he became a prolific one; during five years he managed to translate into German fifteen volumes of Charles Dickens. In the second half of the 1910s, the satire disappeared from Meyrink's work and the phantastical began to dominate. One hundred thousand copies were sold of his first great novel, The Golem, when it appeared in 1915. In late 1919, Paul Wegener, also starring in the title role, started production of his legendary  film Der Golem: Wie er in die Welt Kam (The Golem: or How He Came into the World), one of the first expressionistic movies. 

 Paul Wegener and Lya de Putti in The Golem, 1920

The Golem is based on an old Jewish legend about rabbi Löw, who formed an immensely strong man out of clay to protect the getto of Prague. The protagonist Athanasius Pernath wanders through the distorted slums of the getto in a nightmare, restlessly in search of the golem. Finally he encounters the creature in a liberating vision as a doppelgänger in the labyrinth of his own soul. The first sentence, "The moonlight falls on the foot of my bed and lies there like a large, flat stone", immediately evokes a sense of oppression which continues to grip the reader page after page. 

 UFA movie poster for the original screening of Wegener's The Golem, 1920

Meyrink's second novel, The Green Face, published in 1916, was also a major success, and holds a bonus for Dutch readers: the story is set in a disquieting Amsterdam, which shortly after the First World War is "flooded with aliens of every nationality". There is desperation in the city, coupled with a deep financial crisis. The crisis mood ends in religious mass hysteria, and while the streets are filled with self-flaggelating penitential preachers, Meyrink allows the city to vanish in an apocalyptic hurricane (below). In later books like The White Dominican, spiritual and occult messages are served up even more starkly, and it is not surprising that Meyrink began to lose his readership from the 1920s onwards. The critics, too, gave up on him: "It’s a shame that a great seer has cost us a great artist", Kurt Tucholsky already wrote in 1917. 

 Fritz Schwimbeck, The Destruction of St. Nicolai in Amsterdam, 1917

The Golem was illustrated with a now famous series of lithographs by Hugo Steiner-Prag. Fritz Schwimbeck illustrated both The Golem and The Green Face and Emil Preetorius was responsible for most of Meyrink’s book designs published by Kurt Wolff Verlag. At the outset of his writing career Meyrink became friends with the artist Alfred Kubin. Amongst others, Alfred Kubin, Richard Teschner and Franz Sedlacek figure in several of Meyrink’s novels and stories. A number of Sedlacek’s fantastical paintings appear to have been inspired in turn by Meyrink’s stories. His 1922 painting Moulage Studio not only evokes Meyrink's Waxworks (A moulage is a wax anatomical model), but also Golems made from mud:

 Franz Sedlacek, Beim Moulagenmacher (Moulage Studio), 1932

Gustav Meyer was born in Vienna in1868. He was the illegitimate son of Baron Karl von Varnbüler von und zu Hemmingen and actress Maria Wilhelmina Adelheyd Meier. Until thirteen years of age Meyrink lived in Munich, where he completed elementary school. He settled in Prague in 1883, where he lived for twenty years and has depicted it many times in his works. In, 1905 Meyrink married Philomene Bernt, and one year later their daughter Sybil Felizata was born, followed in 1909 by a son, Harro Fortunat (the main character of The Green Face was given the same name). By 1920, Meyrink's financial affairs improved so that he left Vienna and bought a villa in Starnberg, Bavaria. The villa became known as "The House at the Last Lantern" after the name of the house from The Golem. There he and his family lived for the next eight years.

Gustav Meyrink with his son and daughter, 1920

The name "Fortunat" did not bring much luck to Meyrink's son: during the winter of 1932, while skiing, he injured his backbone terribly. That meant that for the rest of his life he would be confined to his armchair. On July 12, at the age of 24 he committed suicide - at the same age as his father once was trying to do it. Meyrink survived his son by half a year. He died on December 4, 1932 in Starnberg.

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