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The Golem (Dedalus European Classics) by Gustav Meyrink review – ‘grotesque, opulent detail’ in a Prague ‘viscerally evoked’

There are some cities that are entirely transformed by the writers who reproduce them. Dickensian London is a unique entity entirely distinct and yet strangely akin to the real city that spawned it. Dostoevsky’s St Petersburg is a dark mirror of its more tangible yet no less monumental counterpart, filled with strange characters that channel the warped, often fantastical spirit of their surroundings. James Joyce’s Dublin is made up of multiple, unique voices and their own experiences of the city, a tapestry of individual spaces.

The Golem (Dedalus European Classics) by Gustav Meyrink book cover

These real cities have been transformed by the hands of those that lived within them, reborn in the shadow of their authors that in the minds of many readers, have come to possess, even command, the metropolises that dominated their own lives.

Missing from this list is Meyrink’s Prague, a city so viscerally evoked in the pages of The Golem that it seems to be as much a character as our narrator, with “hidden, vital arteries” and structures that live in “spectral communion” with one another. This is the same place that Meyrink would later describe as “the city with the secret heartbeat”, and where the Austrian author lived for twenty years from 1883. The alluring prose, vividly translated by Mike Mitchell, goes a significant way towards intensifying the details of a narrative that can often feel difficult to grasp and casts Prague as a mysterious, sometimes malevolent entity that is no less seductive for being either. 

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It’s difficult to give a plot summary or even the basic premise of The Golem. Instead, this book is best introduced through its esoteric, dreamlike visions of Prague and the fluid spaces it creates within. From the start, our narrator is conscious of location and the spaces he occupies, be it the “gloomy courtyard” of the Jewish ghetto or the eerie, baroque cathedral in the Old Town Square. As the whispered legend of the Golem, that pervasive figure of Jewish folklore, infiltrates the narrative – seemingly emerging through the very walls of the city – the sanity of our protagonist Athanasius Pernath appears to repeatedly disintegrate and reassert itself as he begins to realise that the golem is his own doppelganger. As we follow Pernath’s attempts to weave together the multitude of disparate mysteries that surround him, we are introduced to several strange and sinister characters ranging from the unstable, self-destructive Charousek to the ethereal, eccentric Miriam. And as his dreams and nightmares become indistinguishable from real events, there is nonetheless a sense of Prague’s living walls closing in, taking the form of mystic visions and the tyrannical reach of the law.

Although the golem itself makes only vague, sporadic appearances throughout the novel, the horror is no less potent in spite of it. Pernath’s visions of the arcane are as chilling as they are indecipherable. The way the city’s iconography is incorporated into these delusions has the effect of making each location seem haunted, with its own consciousness that operates independently from those of its inhabitants. In the Old Town Cathedral, a monk’s statue becomes animated, fixating on Pernath, much to his own horror. The carved head of a puppet lying in a gutter becomes a medium through which Pernath briefly observes the world around him, and as Pernath channels his fascination with Miriam into his gem-carving it seems as if he is reshaping her soul according to his intermittent visions. Despite the novel’s numerous and frequently perplexing abstractions, this sense of life and movement within inanimate objects makes the supernatural horrors feel all the more inescapable, shaping both Pernath’s and the reader’s reality and allowing us to inhabit a multitude of terrifying perspectives. The feeling of disorientation only adds to this, placing the reader in sympathy with Pernath and merging his terror with our own.

Although the novel’s beginnings arose prior to 1910, it is difficult not to read Pernath’s troubled navigations of the Jewish ghetto through its historical lens. Both the bureaucratic arm of the law and the paranormal events that dog our protagonist’s footsteps remain inscrutable to us and Pernath. It makes it all the more unsettling to feel that there are forces operating beyond the reach of the narrative, controlling and manipulating it in ways that many of the characters are exempt from understanding or predicting. In the context of events that began just before The Golem’s final chapters appeared (in German periodical Die Weißen Blätter), it lends an especially insidious angle to Pernath’s persecution and a poignant horror to the presence of the golem. 

For readers after simple, straightforward scares, The Golem may be too cumbersome, too indirect and meandering to incite the tension they may be looking for. However, its atmosphere, built up through its grotesque, opulent detail and other-worldly, unpredictable characters, evokes an exquisite sense of dread when given the opportunity to evolve. Readers of fantasy and weird fiction, in particular, will delight in this strange genre precursor, and in unravelling the enigma not just of the novel, but of the author who brought it into being. 

The Golem (Dedalus European Classics) by Gustav Meyrink, translated by Mike Mitchell, is published by Dedalus Books.

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