Gustav Meyrink: The Golem in Prague

6741330Prague is a city that lingers long in the mind and heart. Today though, it feels to me a triply divided city — the older sections jammed full of tourists and shops and mummified and tidied and meant for display, the newer suburbs that everyday vibrant life and imaginings have now been pushed into, and the awe and wonder of what Prague once was as experienced through the words of its authors. There are no hard and fast boundaries between them, geographical or otherwise, they are rather layered (even if found more in one place than another).

Meyrink’s The Golem is brilliant, taking you backwards to a Prague that I think perhaps is now only very rarely visible in shadows and courtyards. The Prague once visible through such windows in the Jewish ghetto:

If I turned my head a little I could see my window on the fourth floor across the street; with the rain trickling down, the panes looked like isinglass, opaque and lumpy, as if the glass were soggy. (41)

Meyrink writes in 1914, already the streets he described are mostly gone, lost in the 1895 sweep of renewal that cleaned and tamed it. But many of the themes explored in the Kafka museum about the relationship between author and city, words and experience, are here connected. I quote at length, because this is one of the most awesome passages where the city becomes what is real and sentient. More real, more human, more purposeful in many ways than the lives held within it, who become the phantoms:

I turned my attention away from him to the discoloured houses squatting side by side before me in the rain like a row of morose animals. How eerie and run-down they all looked! Plumped down without thought, they stood there like weeds that had shot up from the ground. They had been propped against a low, yellow, stone wall — the only surviving remains of an earlier, extensive building — two or three hundred tears ago, anyhow, taking no account of the other buildings. There was a half house, crooked, with a receding forehead, and beside it was one that stuck out like a tusk. Beneath the dreary sky, they looks as if they were asleep, and you could feel none of the malevolent, hostile life that sometimes emanates from them when the mist fills the street on an autumn evening, partly concealing the changing expressions that flit across their faces.

I have lived here for a generation and in that time I have formed the impression, which I cannot shake off, that there are certain hours of the night, or in the first light of day, when they confer together, in a mysterious, noiseless agitation. And sometimes a faint, inexplicable quiver goes through their walls, noises scurry across the roof and drop into the gutter, and with our dulled sense we accept them heedlessly, without looking for what caused them.

Often I dreamt I had eavesdropped on these houses in their spectral communion and discovered to my horrified surprise that in secret they are the true masters of the street, that they can divest themselves of their vital force, and suck it back in again at will, lending it to the inhabitants during the day to demand it back at extortionate interest as night returns.

And when I review in my mind all the strange people who live in them, like phantoms, like people not born of woman who, in all their being and doing, seems to have been put together haphazardly, out of odds and ends, then I am more than ever inclined to believe that such dreams carry within them dark truths which, when I am awake, glimmer faintly in the depths of my soul like the after-images of brightly coloured fairy-tales (41-42)

It is the houses that control us, not the other way round…we built them but they have taken lives of their own, darkly connected to our own which they give and then take away. It is another play, another layer amongst many layers, on reality and on life. On the golem created of mud, the golem dead and the inert become living, the golem held within walls where sits no door but yet not contained. A thing of the past invented and created and now perhaps gone, but that still stays with us, still has power. Like the ghetto, like memory, like everything we build as communities and as peoples.

These things all, ultimately originate from us. From our thoughts and our imaginings far more powerful than anything physical:

He believes the unknown figure that haunts the district must be the phantasm that the rabbi in the Middle Ages had first to create in his mind, before he could clothe it in physical form. (61)

And Meyrink plays with all those dreams of fantasy and superstition, our tendency to find meaning in everything and make sense of the world through images.

And just as there are natural phenomena which suggest that lightening is about to strike, so there are certain eerie portents which presage the 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… (59-60)

The main characters eat at the Old Toll House tavern behind the Tyn Church, this beautiful centre of Old Prague now a heaving mass of tourists pouring across the St Charles Bridge in such numbers that they fill the narrow streets and every square and drive you along at their crawl. This pictures puts off everything but the tops of their heads so I could remember this place without them, remember it as it had once been experienced but may perhaps almost never be again.

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There is pathos added, too, by the loneliness, some of the same helplessness of Kafka…but it seems to me that Meyrink at least knows what it is that his character is needing:

The strange atmosphere of reverent solemnity, in which I had been enveloped since last night, was dissipated in a trice, blown away by the fresh breeze of a new day with its earthly tasks. A new-born destiny, wreathed in auspicious smiles, a veritable child of spring, was coming towards me. A human soul had turned to me for help! To me! What a change it brought about in my room! The worm-eaten cupboard suddenly had a smile on its carved features and the four chairs looked like four old folk sitting round the table, chuckling happily over a game of cards. (89)

And for all the gothic awesomeness, the dark opaqueness of this novel, there are still shafts of light that make their way through. The answer lies within us, to be found by us, it does not lie in our creations nor in our conditions nor in a single static meaning given us by our god.

Each questioner is given the answer best suited to his needs; otherwise humanity would not follow the path of their longings. Do you think there is no rhyme or reason why our Jewish books are written in consonants alone? Each reader has to find for himself the secret vowels that go with them and which reveal a meaning that is for him alone; the living word should not wither into dead dogma. (119)

There is lots to write about golems, about the story itself, its twistings and turnings, its layers and opaque meanings and uncertain events and endings. Lots to write about its serial form (erased through collection into a book). I think when I read it again I will find very new things in it, and write again and think more deeply about it. I recognised the room from which the golem of Kavalier and Clay emerged, the Prague of Kafka and Karels Capek and Zeman and so many others, the Prague that lives in my mind’s eye.

And oh, some of the language:

Mute and motionless, we stared into each other’s eyes, the one a hideous mirror-image of the other. Can he see the moonbeam too, as it sucks its way across the floor as sluggishly as a snail, and crawls up the infinite spaces of the wall like the hand of some invisible clock, growing paler and paler as it rises?

Step by step I wrestled with him for my life…He grew smaller and smaller, and as the day broke he crept back into the playing card. (111)

And how Meyrink battles against his city and his fate like Jacob wrestled the Angel. I do not know who won, nor do I know what it means that these houses are no longer there and can no longer confer in the night.

 

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