Invisible ink no 253: Gustav Meyer


Christopher Fowler
Saturday 06 December 2014 13:00

His 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.

Gustav Meyer was the bastard son of Baron Karl von Varnbüler und zu Hemmingen, and at the age of 24 he decided to shoot himself in the head. He was interrupted in this endeavour 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 occult organisation– not, apparently, as mutually exclusive as you’d think.

In 1902, Meyer was done for fraud; specifically, for using the dark arts in banking practices, clearly ahead of his time. Eleven years later, he began his most enduring work, 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 using the pseudo-nym Meyrink).

Even so, the novel is hard to follow. It’s ostensibly about a mentally unstable jeweller called Athanasius Pernath, his hallucinations, and his continually 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 even more esoteric mien followed. The Angel of the West Window is about the reincarnation of Dr John Dee. It’s exhausting, peculiar, and 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.

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