The Other Frankenstein
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.