BPH in the Press
Chotverdori aschublivDecember 17, 2012
Erik van den Berg
© De Volkskrant (translation of an article which appeared on 23 January 2009)
Profile: Gustav Meyrink
The novels The Golem and The Green Face made Gustav Meyrink famous. Eventually his readers and critics lost interest in the author. An exhibition throws light on his esoteric side.
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 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 or all of an occultist – when someone like Meyrink 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, his health is shot and his position in the beau monde has become untenable. That the entire affair is very probably due to a false complaint reported by officers who felt slighted by Meyer, does nothing to relieve his misery.
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 a steady round of satirical stories with only one apparent objective: to affront as many men in high places as possible. The military machine, the clergy, judges, lawyers, but also the wives of ministers, speculators, Heimat fanatics and ‘Saxon bedsloggers’ – anything that reeks of the barracks, capital and petty bourgeoisie is the butt of his virtuously phrased scorn.
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, but keeps picking the wrong crib. After a few stylistic blunders (‘This bridge for the people…’ ‘And may you, bell, continue to chime out’), 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 (‘out of thousands of throats’) the entire nation, led by the bovine general Edler von Feldrind, plunges into a completely incomprehensible Balkan war.
Not surprisingly, Meyrink became the target of a nationalistic smear campaign once the 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.
But Meyrink had more than one string to his bow. Apart from anti-nationalistic satires, he also produced compelling horror stories in the vein of Edgar Allan Poe, stories which in their wealth of detail imply a sound familiarity with kabbalah and spiritism. At the same time an ironical twist mocks the infatuation with ‘things higher than us’. 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’.
Frans Smit, who published a biography on Meyrink in 1986, remarked about these two sides to his character: ‘What was paradoxical about him was the clear proof of an immense inner struggle. A storm had arisen within him in Prague. Two sides must have competed to gain the upper hand: the search for what is behind the veil of things, and his hostile attitude to anyone who was aware of his weak spots, or had risen to his challenge’.
Meyrink’s finest hour came in the second half of the 1910s, when the satire disappeared from his work and the phantastical and spiritual began to dominate. One hundred thousand copies were sold of his first great novel, The Golem, when it appeared in 1915, while his second novel, The Green Face, published in 1916, was also a major success. 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. Meyrink divested the story of its anecdotal character and turned it into a metaphysical ghost story, in which 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 Golem is Meyrink’s masterpiece. 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. The satire in the novel does not bring any relief, but only serves to heighten the grotesque tension, for instance in the passages where Meyrink clearly drew on his own memories of the Prague penitentiary system.
In terms of style and composition, The Green Face is far less tightly knit than The Golem, though it holds a bonus for Dutch readers: the story is set in an alternately comical and disquieting Amsterdam, which in the imminent future (that is to say 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: ‘Even though Mammon was still ensconced on his throne, his countenance was now far less self-assured: the pile of grimy ragged papers which he had collected around him offended his sense of beauty.’
The crisis mood ends in religious mass hysteria, and while the streets are filled with self-flaggelating penitential preachers and the heavenly Jerusalem appears above the Beursplein in a fata morgana, Meyrink allows the city to vanish in an apocalyptic hurricane:
‘the tall factory chimneys towering over the south-west part of the docks were snapped off at the roots and transformed into thin spears of white dust which the hurricane carried off at lightning speed. They were followed by one church tower after another: for a second they would appear as black shapes, whirled up in a vortex, the next they were lines on the horizon, then dots, then – nothing’.
Meyrink contrasts this almost voluptuous vision of ruin and destruction with the inner growth of the protagonist, who after a long struggle finally achieves liberation in his ‘invisible self’. The ponderous reflections on his spiritual progress read like religious tracts wedged bluntly into the story, and there is every sense that Meyrink thought it was fine this way.
In later books like The White Dominican, the spiritual message is 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.
‘There is no literary genre able to corrupt talent more than the so-called phantastical’, Simon Vestdijk argued in the periodical Forum in 1933. ‘The work of the late Gustav Meyrink displays every degenerative symptom arising from special-occultist inbreeding. From the famous Golem on, his novels have become increasingly unreadable for those who are not, like him, obsessed by the staple fare of occult symbolism’.
It is this latter, esoteric side of Gustav Meyrink’s authorship which is highlighted in the exhibition devoted to Meyrink in the Bibliotheca Philosophica Hermetica in Amsterdam. A beautifully designed catalogue in German accompanies the exhibition.
The works shown mainly hail from the vast Meyrink collection brought together by Joost Ritman, the founder of the Bibliotheca Philosophica Hermetica. Fascinated by Meyrink since 1957, he has carried his identification to the extreme of identifying himself as his spiritual ‘doppelgänger’ in the preface to the catalogue: ‘With the arrival in Amsterdam of Gustav Meyrink’s legacy, his wish from the other side has been fulfilled’.
On show are first editions, manuscripts, letters, photographs and other testimonies to Meyrink’s literary efforts, each of them deserving closer scrutiny. One example is a marbled notebook dating from around 1915, used by Meyrink to make notes in pencil for The Green Face.
Whether he ever visited Amsterdam is unclear, though the notes prove that he took down the Dutch words for his novel from an oral source. This at least is what the draft spelling of ‘Calverstraat’ (Kalverstraat), ‘verreck’ (verrek; blast), ‘stick’ (stik; damn), ‘chotverdori’ (godverdorie; goddarned) and ‘aschubliv’ (alstublieft; here you are) tells us.
How little he professed to care for literary criticism is evident from a note about his authorship from 1926: ‘His attitude towards poetry and literature: none. He feels his work has almost nothing to do with these. Says that what he writes is “magic”’.
The exhibition shows Meyrink primarily as a restless seeker, briefly engaging in literature and corresponding with authors like Stefan Zweig and Alfred Kubin, but above all searching for spiritual liberation. To achieve this, he experimented with spiritism, hashish, yoga, theosophy, kabbalah, Tibetan meditational techniques and the rest of the esoteric gamut available at the beginning of the twentieth century.
In the end he hit upon an unshakable certainty within himself, independent of any religious or academic institution, as he would repeatedly state in unflinching prose: ‘Even the finest philosophical nose and the ability to brood one’s way around a logical worldview will founder as in a sandpit when there is no magical experience and the awakening in the eternal I-consciousness – the union with the Divine, the Creative; a blow on the head with an axe, a shot in the heart: and all the fruits of thought have come to dust’.
The finest item in the exposition reads like a post scriptum to that latter assertion. It is a card with a ‘date of postmark’ stamped on it. The author had the following message printed: ‘Mr Gustav Meyrink has left on a long trip. Letters etc. cannot be forwarded.’
Meyrink is gone. What a treat to rediscover him in his work.