Gustav Meyrink's 1915 novel 'The Golem' is a classic of fantastic and expressionist fiction. Imagine Kafka (a friend of Meyrink's) writing 'Frankenstein' (published only a few years later), and you get some idea of the book's intense, haunting atmosphere. But Meyrink's novel is much more ambitious, weaving elements from Jewish mysticism and mythology to create a complex and highly symbolic story that reads like a dark hallucination.
In Jewish mythology, a Golem is an artificial being created out of mud, a sort of homunculus, part servant, part monster. (The Talmud describes Adam as initially being a Golem, when he was "kneaded into a shapeless hunk" by God.) According to legend, the 16th century Rabbi Loew of Prague created a Golem using Kabbalistic incantations to help defend the Jewish Ghetto against invaders. However, the Golem ran amok and started killing people, forcing Loew to destroy it. Since then, its remains are supposedly kept in a coffin in the Altneuschule, to be summoned again in need.
Loosely adapting this Golem legend, Meyrink brings it to life in late 19th century Prague. Besides being an elusive ghost figure terrorizing the streets of Prague once every generation, Meyrink's Golem also represents the collective psyche of the Jewish Ghetto.
Just as, in thundery weather, the electric tension in the atmosphere will increase to a point past endurance, and eventually give birth to the lightning, may it not be that the whole mass of stagnant thought infecting the air of the Ghetto needs clearing from time to time by some kind of mysterious explosion, something potent in its workings. Something forces the dreams of the subconscious up into the light of day -- like a lightning stroke -- giving rise to an object that, could we but read its riddle, symbolises, both in ways and appearance, the mass-soul, could we but understand and interpret the secret language of forms?
The story itself, framed fittingly within a dream story, is rather hard to summarize. It centers around the search for self-knowledge of one Athanasius Pernath, a gem cutter in the Ghetto, who has no memory whatsoever of his past, apparently after being cured of insanity by a lasting hypnosis.
That reluctance I had to think of the past... the strange recurring dream of being in a house with a series of rooms sealed off from me... the painful inability of my memory to function where associations of my youth were concerned... all these problems had suddenly achieved their terrible solution: I had been mad, and treated by hypnosis. They had, in short, locked up a room which communicated with certain chambers in my brain; they had made me into an exile in the midst of the life that surrounded me.
Pernath's spiritual imprisonment increasingly becomes identified with that of the Golem, who according to legend lives on in the Ghetto in a room without doors. Pernath's first meeting of the Golem coincides with his receiving an old metal-bound book for restoration; it is the book 'Ibbur, or the Fecundation of the Soul', of which the elaborate capital 'I' needs repair. (Just a small example of the density of symbolism going on!)
Pernath gets tangled up in a complicated plot involving a host of strange characters. All are drawn in vivid detail by Meyrink, from the evil junkshop dealer Aaron Wassertrum and the medical student Charousek, who is consumed by a terrible hatred, to Angelina, a damsel in distress whom Pernath falls in love with. On his quest Pernath receives spiritual guidance from the wise Schemajah Hillel and his saintly daughter Miriam, who becomes a kind of guardian angel when he finally ends up in prison for a murder he didn't commit.
It should be said that the fragmentary and meandering narrative is at times difficult to follow. Apparently, Meyrink originally had a much larger story in mind, with almost twice as many characters, but never succeeded in incorporating all his ideas. This may account for some of the loose ends in the story, and makes 'The Golem' essentially a series of spellbinding scenes, alternating between supernatural horrors and mystic visions.
At the same time, the hermetic quality of the story adds to the underlying spiritual mystery, of which the ambiguous Golem figure is only a manifestation. If Pernath often seems a puppet in some larger story, searching for answers but finding only fragmentary hints, perhaps that is the point precisely. As Hillel explains to Pernath:
"Men tread not a path at all, neither that of life nor death. They drive like chaff before the wind. In the Talmud it is written: 'Before God made the world, he held a mirror to his creatures, that in it they might behold the sufferings of the spirit and the achievement that ensue therefrom. Some of them took up the burden of suffering. But others refused, and those God struck out of the Book of Life.' But you tread a path you have chosen of your own free will, even though you know it not. You are self-elected. Do not torture yourself. As knowledge comes, so comes also recollection. Knowledge and recollection are one and the same thing."
As a final note, be sure to get an edition of 'The Golem' that contains the awesome gothic illustrations by Hugo Steiner-Prag (none of which, unfortunately, can be found online).
Update: Here's one of Steiner-Prag's gothic lithographs of the Golem...