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Thoughts After A Second Reading of The Golem by Gustav Meyrink

March 25, 2011
Cover of "The Golem (Dedalus European Cla...

Cover of The Golem (Dedalus European Classics)

The Golem by Gustav Meyrink is a complex book and took two readings for me to try and fully comprehend it.  This by no means should frighten anyone off from the book, it is a marvelous piece of literature.  It was published in 1915 and takes place in Prague in 1890.

After both readings I was left spell bound by this book and a little perplexed.  Meyrink uses the occult and mysticism, in particular the Kabbala, in this story.  His writings are reminiscent of H.P. Lovecraft.  The story follows a dreamer who wanders into the life of a gem cutter whose hat he mistakenly took.  The book then follows a first person narrative of the life of Athanasius Pernath, the gem cutter.  Because what takes place is in a dream it  is hard to separate what is truly happening with what may be dream experiences.

The Golem is a part of the story that is interpreted in several different ways.  The story of the traditional Golem of the Kabbala is described to Pernath by his friends.

“Using long-lost formulas from the Kabbala, a rabbi is said to have made an artificial man — the so-called Golem — to help ring the bells in the Synagogue and for all kinds of other menial work.  But he hadn’t made a full man, and it was animated by a sort of vegetable half-life.  What life it had, too, so the story runs, was derived from a magic charm placed behind its teeth each day, that drew down to tiself what was known as the ‘free didreal strength of the universe.”

It is also a traditional part of the Prague Jewish ghetto.  It is described as a supernatural being that makes an appearance every few years and creates a stir among the populace.  The third interpretation of the Golem is that it is a doppelganger or the vision of one’s own soul.

“She said, too, she was quite positive that it what she had seen was her own soul divested of its body; that just for a moment it stood opposite to her, and gazed into her face with the features of a strange being.”

Though the Golem is the title of the book it doesn’t play a central role in the novel, it is primarily a background figure of some of the spiritual and supernatural encounters that Pernath has.

Pernath is described as having been in an insane asylum and had his memory of the past removed through hypnosis.  His first memory is the first scene you meet him in.  This lack of memory and the fact that the action is being experienced through a dreamer makes so much of the experiences hard to trust.

The Golem is full of subplots and you meet many characters.  Pernath encounters the supernatural, is involved in murder plots, is accused of murder, is in the middle of love triangles, helps a damsel in distress, falls in love, and finds a spiritual adviser.  He has three close friends all artists of a sort and he is involved with three women.

Meyrink had a dark but wonderful way with imagery.  The scenes of all of the supernatural and spiritual encounters were by far my favorite as they had a dreamlike and somewhat disturbing quality to them.

“A man and woman were embracing.  I saw them come from afar, and nearer and nearer came the throng.  Now I heard the singing of the frenzied troop close to me, and my eyes sought out the embracing couple.  But they had now turned into one single form, half male, half female — a hermaphrodite seated on a throne of mother-of-pearl.  Its crown terminated in a piece of red wood, on which the Worm of Destruction had gnawed mysterious runic figures.”

Meyrink was even able to take simple structures such as the houses in the ghetto and give them a life of their own.

“Often in my dreams would I witness the ghostly communing of these old houses, and in terror realise that they in very truth were the lords of the street, of its very life and essence …”

This is both a great book and a difficult book to read.  There are so many levels to it that the interpretations can be vast.  I have a feeling that I will have to reread it a third time to find new insights.  To understand the significance of the book you must understand that I rarely reread a book immediately after reading it the first time, but with this one I did.  Meyrink’s writing style is very similar to Kafka or Lovecraft, so if you enjoy either you will most likely enjoy this book.  This is a worthwhile read in that it makes you think by forcing you to question what you have read.

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