The Other Frankenstein

Reading & Writing

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Gustav Meyer’s photograph shows a fresh, innocent face above a tightly buttoned coat with the world’s smallest lapels; he looks about 23, which would have placed him in Prague and made the year 1889.

Meyer was the bastard son of Baron Karl von Varnbüler und zu Hemmingen (try saying that while eating a chocolate biscuit), and at the age of 24 he decided to shoot himself in the head. He was interrupted in this endeavor by somebody slipping a pamphlet about the afterlife under his door, so he started studying the occult, along with Eastern mysticism, various esoteric philosophies and yoga. And banking. He founded his own bank and became a member of the Golden Dawn – not, apparently, as mutually exclusive as you’d think.

In 1902 he was done for fraud; specifically, for using the dark arts in banking practices, clearly ahead of his time. He could have worked for Barclays. Eleven years later he began his most enduring piece, ‘The Golem’. He’d written satirical short stories, but this was something different. Although it was based on a traditional Talmudic story about a rabbi who makes a creature from clay, that is not the plot of the novel. It was first published in serial form and remains the most accessible work by Meyer (now changed to ‘Meyrink’).

Even so, the novel is bloody hard to follow. It’s ostensibly about a mentally unstable jeweler called Athanasius Pernath, his hallucinations and his continual altering identity. He seemingly becomes someone else after swapping hats with him, and the Golem appears as a coalescence of Jewish suffering, a physical manifestation of the ghetto.

However, Meyer wasn’t Jewish and this is not, as is commonly assumed, a Jewish book. It’s a supernatural urban fantasy, the kind that might have vanished quickly after publication. Instead, ‘The Golem’ proved timely and touched a nerve. It became a huge success and was reprinted many times over. German nationalists were horrified and were quick to denounce the text. Meyer was a Buddhist who opposed the church and the military, and the nationalists, fearing he would corrupt all who read him, sought a ban. Later his books were prohibited during the Nazi rise to power.

Other volumes of an even more esoteric mien followed. ‘The Angel of the West Window’ is about the reincarnation of Dr John Dee. It’s exhausting, peculiar and utterly confusing. Meyer’s son Fortunat was crippled in a skiing accident and killed himself. The Golem, fully revived, lived on as the spirit of Jewish repression. The Golem is sometimes thought of as the other Frankenstein – but a man assembled not in defiance of God and nature, rather as an embodiment of faith.

The most famous film incarnation, ‘Der Golem, wie er in die Welt kam’, was produced in 1920. An innovative stage version of ‘The Golem’ is currently running in London.

7 comments on “The Other Frankenstein”

  1. J. Folgard says:

    I read ‘the Golem’ when I was stil a teenager -tons of things completely flew over my head, but I enjoyed it nonetheless, it was so strange (and well written).

  2. Vivienne says:

    Yes, I’ve read this and agree it’s not easy to follow, but nevertheless haunting. The atmosphere does stay with you. Also saw the film and was interested to find that Jews in the – was it the Polish ghetto? Were obliged to wear yellow stars, which I had believed to be a Nazi innovation.

  3. snowy says:

    Ms V, just for you .

    The marking out of Non-Christians goes back to the 12-13th Century, invented by the Catholic Church, faded out in about the 18th Century. Brought back into use in various occupied countries post the invasion of Poland, not all at once but over a period of years.

  4. Roger says:

    “In 1902 he was done for fraud; specifically, for using the dark arts in banking practices, clearly ahead of his time. He could have worked for Barclays”
    … or the Banco Espírito Santo in Portugal.

  5. Alan Morgan says:

    Astonished I’ve not read it. I will. January always needs things-to-do. Ta 🙂

  6. Anne Fernie says:

    Interesting as I spent years on a PhD thesis (sadly jettisoned) about Gustav Meyrink. He was a fascinating character (who translated the works of Dickens into German amongst other things) who made his name writing satirical pieces for the magazine Simplicissimus. He is interesting for anyone studying the turn of the century and rise of occult movements. He tried virtually all of them but had a critical view and left if he perceived that they were insubstantial or bogus. He smoked haschisch, fasted, practised yoga and was also a member of the Bavarian Illuminatus movement as well as corresponding regularly by letter with English leading lights of the occult scene at the time. One letter warns him strictly not to ‘take the left hand path’ presumably that of practictioners such as Crowley. It took him 7 years to write the Golem, his first novel. Fellow writers such as Rilke, Hesse and Kurt Tucholsky were critical of Meyrink’s novels citing that they had lost the sharpness found in his satires. It seems that his preoccupation with investigating the occult had adversely affected the ‘tightness’ of his writing but fellow occultists found them a useful guide in their spiritual quest. The Golem although leading directly to two classic German silent films (1915 & 1920) is quite an obscure read if you don’t have any insight into the Jewish Talmud, alchemy etc. and anyone wanting to read Meyrink might be better reading his satirical stories (the anti German content of ‘The German Philistine’s Horn’ collection of short stories was banned in Austria at the start of WW1) or his 1927 novel about John Dee ‘The Angel at the West Window’ (available in English). Anyone who wants to find his original letters, occult society membership documents etc. can find them in the Bavarian State Library in Munich.

  7. Anne Fernie says:

    ps. the concept of the Golem is actually quite interesting in that the ‘sin’ is not so much the hubris of creating a being out of clay but the fact of giving it the power of speech. This relates back to the idea of ‘in the beginning was the word’ and that it is language that is what makes us truly human. There are many versions of the Golem legend but this is the one I like the best…….

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