Thursday 3 February 2011

'the withered debris of the past'

The Golem 
by Gustav Meyrink
translated by Mike Mitchell

I was very lucky to receive this gorgeous book from The Folio Society and not a little intrigued by it as the legend of the Golem has been a ticklish interest ever since reading Michael Chabon's The Amazing Adventures Of Kavalier And Clay and after spending a weekend in beautiful Prague. The Golem, a man-like being created from clay and brought to life through Hebrew incantations, has long been a part of Jewish folklore and the classic narrative concerns Judah Loew, a leading Rabbi in 16th century Prague who created and animated a golem to protect the Prague ghetto from anti-semitic attacks. Golem narratives come in different forms however and whilst this novel, originally published in 1914 and translated into this English version by Mike Mitchell in 1995, was thought by many to be the basis for the 1920 film of the same name it is in fact a very different beast.

Before looking at the book itself it is worth taking a moment to look at the life of its author which offers an exciting and occult narrative of its own. Meyrink was the pseudonym chosen by Gustav Meyer, an Austrian by birth who moved to Prague with his mother at the age of sixteen to study business. He set up his own banking company but the definitive moment in his life happened in 1892 at the age of 24 when he apparently stood ready to kill himself, gun in hand, when a scratching at the door led to his discovery of a leaflet that had been passed under it entitled Afterlife. This coincidence began his lifelong obsession with the occult and lead to his study of its literature as well as that of the Kabbala, mysticism and other esoteric pursuits. In fact he was charged with using spiritualism to defraud as part of his banking operation in 1902, a two month stint in jail followed bringing an end to that facet of his career but providing the inspiration for the imprisonment sections of this novel and the pressure required in general to push him towards his work thereafter as a writer and translator. Real fame and success finally came to him with the publication of The Golem but he endured personal tragedy just before his death when his son was seriously injured in a skiing accident and went on to commit suicide at the age of 24, the very same age that Gustav himself had stood ready to do the same. Meyer himself died later the same year.

With all that interest in the occult it is no wonder that The Golem is such a heady concoction. A book that left me disorientated for much of its length, I will confess immediately that I am in a poor position to write a truly satisfactory 'review' of it. Instead, in a similar manner to the experience of reading it, I can offer impressions and feelings and an assurance that it is exactly the kind of dark, complicated and challenging read that deserves its classic status. Fans of the unreliable narrator will be on that familiar, shifting ground, in fact Athanasius Pernath, as Iain Sinclair puts it in his introduction, isn't so much an unreliable narrator as 'a curious case of missing identity, a receptacle for borrowed carnival masks, transmigrated souls hungry for a host.' In fact the man narrating the novel may not even be the 'real' Pernath but let's not make this any more complicated than it needs to be as this gem cutter in the Prague ghetto is a central character with a void at his own centre; he seems to have no memory of his childhood and little grasp on anything but the very recent past, his present is haunted by daydreams, nightmares and visions that blur the lines between fantasy and reality and there is always the sense that those around him know more about him than he does himself. This is most obvious in a scene where Pernath overhears the conversation of some of his acquaintances who think he has fallen asleep. They seem to talk of his madness, an episode he has forgotten entirely, and even a stay in a lunatic asylum.

'Topics such as the Golem should be avoided when Pernath's around,' said Prokop reproachfully...Zwakh nodded. 'You're quite right. It's like taking a naked light into a dusty chamber, where the walls and ceiling are lined with mouldy cloth and the floor is ankle deep in the withered debris of the past: one little touch and the whole lot would burst into flames.'

That potential conflagration is a great description of the book as a whole, filled as it is with combustible material; rich images, rumour, tradition, fear and paranoia just some of them. If Pernath is in part a void then he leaves the Prague Ghetto itself to fill the novel with its many inhabitants and its own distinctive character. There is the distinctly dodgy Wassertrum who owns a junk shop and could well be a murderer too, a vengeful student named Charousek who has Wassertrum in his sights, a wealthy philanderer, a promiscuous girl in her early teens and Hillel, a learned man who acts like a spiritual guide to Pernath in his moments of crisis, providing him with the knowledge and protection to safely negotiate the perils of his shattered mind.

And what of the Golem itself? Well, it is difficult to say for sure. Many in the Ghetto have their own theories.

'I have thought about this long and often, and I think that the closest approach to the truth is something like this: once in every generation a spiritual epidemic spreads like lightning through the Ghetto, attacking the souls of the living for some purpose which is hidden from us, and causing a kind of mirage in the shape of some being characteristic of the place that, perhaps, lived here hundreds of years ago and still yearns for physical form.'

'Perhaps it is right here among us, every hour of the day, only we cannot perceive it. You can't hear the note 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.'

The Golem is perhaps the physical form given to the fears and trauma of the Ghetto's inhabitants, perhaps of the Ghetto itself, but there is also the 'gigantic, secret link' between its legend and the strange dreams and visions of Pernath. There is of course no single explanation, or no satisfactory one anyway, the reader is so immersed in the soporific effects of the murky storytelling that it is far better to enjoy the trip, a little like watching a film by David Lynch, than to hope to solve the narrative. If we cannot trust that the narrator knows what is going on, that he even knows himself particularly well then it is possible to conclude that everything we have read can be called into question.

This edition is well served by the high contrast illustrations by Vladimir Zimakov (more of which can be found here), an evocative translation from Mike Mitchell and I can't stress enough the sheer pleasure of reading such a high-quality hardback with paper stock so thick it's almost card, proper stiff boards, tight binding and that pleasing heft in the hand. I may not quite have got a grip on the novel but it was a pleasure doing so on the book itself.


Anonymous,  3 February 2011 at 16:43  

I have a fondness for the exceptional physical presence of Folio Society volumes for certain types of fiction -- and this seems to be a good example. Thick pages and a heavy book are almost golem-ish in themselves. All of which means I was glad to see your reference to the volume itself.

William Rycroft 3 February 2011 at 18:10  

I don't know about you Kevin but with a lot of books I read being proofs I find that the arrival of a particularly well designed book or a sumptious hardback reminds me of the huge physical pleasure one can derive from books. That's why I have never been tempted to get an e-reader (that and the financial reason!) as yet.

Anonymous,  3 February 2011 at 19:10  

Will: I don't know if you are aware but the Folio Society has a Members' Room not far from your theatre (at 44 Eagle Street) that features their exceptional productions. Since they are recruiting your blog, I am sure they would welcome a visit -- and you would be stunned at how nice their volumes are (my favorite is Robertson Davies' Deptford Trilogy, but that's the Canadian in me). It's outside your brief, but I wish someone would do a post on the room.

And they have exceptional volumes for young people, if you are thinking about venturing into a children's library. (I'd be happy to "gift" a volume or two in recognition of how much I appreciate your blog.)

Here's a link to a small picture of the room: http://www.foliosociety.com/pages/our-history

And I too find reading proof copies a "dividing" experience -- I love the chance to read in advance but regret the lack of proper physical contact with the book.

Anonymous,  3 February 2011 at 21:40  

I love folio got few picked up second hand at times this sounds like a wonderful book maybe a bit beyond me ,all the best stu

William Rycroft 4 February 2011 at 08:50  

Nothing's beyond you surely Stu! It wasn't an easy read by any means but no harder than trying to get a hold on something like Mulholland Drive (which is still enjoyable even if you don't know what the hell is going on)

Kevin, what an intriguing idea. The last time you suggested something outside my brief I wrote that piece about War Horse which people seemed to love so I'll get in touch with Folio and see what we can arrange. I'm actually in the middle of re-rehearsals for War Horse at the moment so spare time is non-existent, so it may be a little wait but 'good things come....'

Anonymous,  14 February 2011 at 17:39  

Just got my email Folio Society newsletter and was delighted to see they devoted a section at the top to your excellent blog post. Well done. Now you do have to pay them a visit.

William Rycroft 14 February 2011 at 17:59  

Ooh, that's exciting. Hello to anyone finding there way here via that newsletter. The wheels are already in motion for a visit, Kevin, just need schedule to clear up to make it possible.

Rob 24 March 2011 at 12:16  

I was just browsing the Folio Society's site, thinking about joining, when I saw the link to your blog on the front page! Hope it brings you some new traffic.

(As for joining, I'm not sure yet. Just have to find the right offer to justify the price...)

William Rycroft 24 March 2011 at 13:13  

Hi Rob. More visitors will always be welcome! Being mentioned in the Folio Society newsletter has already produced one spike *he runs off to check blogstats for today*

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