I occasionally find myself writing down the impression I have of a book before reading it. This might sound rather odd, but there have been times when I find myself a hundred pages through a novel and I find myself appraising the book, not on its merits, but on how it compares with an impression I wasn’t aware I had formulated before reading the book. This impression can stem from a blurb, hearing other people talking about the book, perhaps a cover, or the title. A title such as Gormenghast for example conjures up a great deal before one has even started on the first chapter.
My expectation of the book was no doubt strongly influenced by the cover image, a still taken from Paul Wegener’s 1920 black and white silent film. An image I can recall seeing since I was very small on an earlier edition of the book. The image shows an utterly chilling, eerily inhuman face gazing out from the cover towards something beneath him. It was only on watching the film that I realised this is a still of the spirit Astaroth whom Rabbi Loew summons to help him fashion a Golem, the Golem himself appears comparatively comical in the film. For a good two decades therefore I had conceived a view of the Golem as a dark figure residing in the shadows looking down on some poor soul with infernal malevolence.
I also realise that I expected Meyrink’s novel to revolve around the Golem as an antagonist, or as some sort of Lovecraftian monster. Whereas the Golem appears very rarely in the novel and on the few occasions he does appear, he fills people with a paralysing fear, the sense that he is a harbinger of something truly awful that is to occur in the ghetto, a manifestation of unconscious fears and neurosis, and most disturbingly of all that he is in some sense a part of the person who sees him. One character who saw him face to face is described as saying: “She used to say she was firmly convinced that it could only have been her own soul that had left her body for a moment and confronted her for a brief second with the features of an alien creature. In spite of the terrible dread with which she was seized, she said she was never in the slightest doubt that the other could only be part of her inmost self.”
The novel has a very unusual and unsettling beginning. The narrator watches the moonlight shining on the foot of his bed, he is in a reverie that is not quite awake and not quite asleep. He fantasises many strange and confusing events: walking in a dried up river bed, searching at the behest of an obstinate voice for a stone like a lump of fat. On waking from his trance the narrator feels restless, even that his senses are detached from his body. As he attempts to turn his thoughts away from this sense of dislocation, he finds himself standing in a gloomy courtyard looking through an archway at a Jewish junk dealer. He becomes aware he has been living in this neighbourhood for a long time.
We learn in the course of the book that the narrator has entered into the consciousness in some way of Athanasius Pernath, and experiences the life that man led thirty years before. In a series of unsettling and hallucinatory encounters, we meet and observe the neighbours and acquaintances of Pernath in the ghetto. There is Wassertraum the junk dealer, who despite his outward show of poverty, maybe very rich, and who is rumoured to be thirsting for vengeance, his physician son having been driven to suicide; Innocence Charousek the destitute medical student who claims to have discovered Wassertraum’s son was lying to his patients about the gravity of their illnesses only the better to extort money from them; Dr Savioli, a wealthy man who uses the ghetto for secretive trysts with married women; Rosina the underage red haired prostitute; and Shemejah Hillel and his daughter Miriam, a humbly religious pair whose home is Pernath’s sole refuge in the ghetto.
The narrative is a kind of phantasmagoria, as one would expect from the unusual way narrator and protagonist come together. At times one feels the characters are real flesh and blood people, at other times they feel like the outgrowth of grotesque anti-semitic stereotypes fashioned by centuries of paranoia and subjugation, even Hillel and his daughter can feel like equally unreal cyphers of Jewish sanctity. It is a testimony to the depth of Meyrink’s writing that so many layers are at work in every scene. There is something really quite disturbing about the descriptions of the Prague ghetto, almost as though the ghetto is in a manner alive, and the nature of that life is the total of all the rotten, miserable, hateful and lost people who prey on one another there. On the few occasions the Golem does appear he feels like the spirit of the ghetto rather than it’s tormentor or protector.