Tuesday, April 14, 2015
The Golem, by Gustav Meyrink
originally published as Der Golem, 1915
translated by Mike Mitchell
"The soul is not a single unity; that is what it is destined to become, and that is what we call 'immortality.' Your soul is composed of many 'selves,' just as a colony of ants is composed of many single ants."
I read The Golem with a group, which in my opinion, is a very good way to read this novel. I spent a full two weeks with this book, dragging in other books to use as a reference when I got stuck, in particular my old, raggy copy of Gershom Scholem's wonderful and classic Kabbalah which came in very handy. Kabbalah is only one element of the mystical in The Golem, though; as you start this novel you're already into Buddhism, then you get into theosophy, Hindu mysticism and whatever else Meyrink was into -- it's all here. But the mystical has a purpose -- it is all about spiritual reintegration and self awareness, and that is most definitely the subject of this novel. Then again, it's a novel of many possible interpretations, so mine may not match anyone else's.
I'm not going to go too much into plot here, but the story focuses on an unnamed narrator who is dreaming/hallucinating and whose mind makes his way into the body of a gem-cutter named Athanasius Pernath. The truth is that our narrator has lost his memory and he finds himself as Pernath after putting on a hat he had found earlier at church. Pernath's name is written on the headband in gold letters -- and the careful reader will see that this is the first instance of the power of the written word in this novel, an important theme that follows the story here. Pernath is in his apartment when he is approached by a strange man who hands him a book that needs repairing -- as it is happens, it is called the "Book of Ibbur," and it is the "I" on the front which needs to be fixed. Issuing forth from this book in a metaphorical way are all of the important components of Pernath's life that he must discover before the "I" can be repaired, but as things progress, he comes to understand that this is not something he can really do alone. The ghetto's archivist, Hillel, takes Pernath under his wing, and initiates him into the mysticism of Kabbalah (mixed with the other practices I've already mentioned). The action in this book takes place in the Prague ghetto, where it is also rumored that the Golem lives in an inaccessible room with no doors; it also known that the Golem returns every thirty-three years in times of spiritual crisis. It seems that this is one of those times; Pernath will cross paths with the Golem more than once as he attempts his spiritual journey, and along the way he will fall in love, will be tempted by forces he doesn't quite understand, and act as a friend to many in need, all the while trying to remember his past. It is also a book about memory and forgetting, and where better played out than in the streets of the Jewish Quarter of the Prague Ghetto? To me, the Jewish Quarter itself is a repository of memory that takes shape here in the physical form of Hillel the archivist, in Meyrink's descriptions of the houses and the streets, and symbolically in the Golem itself. Again, a careful reader will note the Golem as a figure in whom the city's troubled Jewish past history resides -- there are several clues within the text that this is the case.
I could go on and on and on about this novel, because frankly, I absolutely loved it, but it really is one that needs to be read and understood on an individual basis. After I read the book and let things gel in my own head, I looked at several reviews of this novel where the reader had his or her own take on things; rarely did any two agree. But I do think that it's interesting that Meyrink wrote a book about a man who, because of the influence of outside forces beyond his control, was separated from parts of his memory -- which seems to reflect the story of the upheavals in the Jewish quarter of the Prague Ghetto, and indeed reflects some of the modernist concerns of the time. Another thing -- Meyrink may come across as a bit of a woo-woo writer to some people with his intense focus on mysticism here, but considering the fact that psychoanalysis was just barely getting started at this time, it's interesting that Meyrink's focus here is on the importance of connecting with one's self/soul/identity to achieve one's own "salvation" so to speak. There's so much more I could say but well, time and all that.
The Golem is a lovely book, and I'm so very happy to have read it. I can't think of enough superlatives to describe this book, but Meyrink's writing here is absolutely beautiful, and this book has led me to others he's written that I plan to read in the very near future. One thing, though...if you're getting into this novel thinking it's going to be about a monster, or that it's a horror novel, forget it. That's just not the case here. It's a story about identity in crisis, much more than anything else.