Monday, 25 April 2011

Doppelgangers, Golems and Hermaphrodites

The first thing to say about Gustav Meyrink’s novel, The Golem, is that it’s not really what you would expect. It is surprisingly light on directly golem-related material. Fortunately, this is still a delightfully dark gothic novel.

If you’re unfamiliar with the concept, a golem is a human-like figure which is magically created and animated. Meyrink explores the Hebrew tradition of the golem, which is given life by inscribing the Hebrew word emet (‘truth’) on its forehead, and returned to its inanimate state by removing the first letter of the inscription, leaving met, meaning ‘death’. Meyrink’s golem manifests itself once every thirty-three years, in a room with no doors and one tiny, barred window.
The Golem - Gustav Meyrink

The setting is the Jewish ghetto in Prague, towards the end of the nineteenth century. This is a richly atmospheric environment which Meyrink fully exploits, giving us all the claustrophobic sights, sounds and smells of the city. The narrow houses, for instance, subsist by exhaling humans each morning and drawing them back every evening to leech out their life as they sleep.

Such colourful descriptions suggest just how much Meyrink drew on his own experiences while writing The Golem. The main character, the splendidly named Athanasius Pernath, endures insanity and imprisonment just as the author did. Descriptions of both, and of the city in which they took place, are consequently very powerful.

Pernath is an engraver of gems whose frequent bouts of insanity mean that the plot of the novel plays second fiddle to Meyrink’s darkly colourful imagination. This imagination draws on the hermaphroditic cults of ancient Egypt just as readily as it does on Hebrew mythology and the kaballah, making for a rocky ride. When the plot does surface, it seems that our protagonist must save the woman he loves from a blackmailing junk-dealer, whilst simultaneously trying to piece together fragmented memories of his troubled past.

So far then, no golem. But during Pernath’s lapses into unconsciousness and insanity it gradually becomes clear that he is inextricably linked with the creature. Neighbours who see the golem rushing through the streets swear that it looks just like him. During his somnambulations beneath the streets of Prague, Pernath emerges into a room with no doors and just one window, with a pack of tarot cards strewn across the floor.

It’s all very confusing, and it is sometimes hard to tell whether this is intentional or not. The first half of the novel is fairly humdrum and revolves around the petty activities of the ghetto-dwellers. The second half snowballs rapidly, becoming ever harder to follow as Pernath’s condition deteriorates in prison.

Eventually, when the fog clears, Meyrink hits you with a plot twist so unexpected (and so unsubtle) that you have to stop and think for a few moments. The ending of the novel is beautiful, despite its appearance out of the blue: Pernath’s hallucinations coalesce and elevate him to some vague, semi-divine state. A stranger arrives. He and Pernath mistakenly swapped hats at a recent gathering. The stranger hopes that his hat has not given Herr Pernath a headache.

Throughout the novel identities are manipulated by the author and episodes of madness  are strategically deployed to make it a remarkably confusing read. Although it is engrossing and well worth reading, The Golem ultimately leaves you feeling much like the unsuspecting victim of some stranger's weighty headgear.

Sunday, 3 April 2011

A Very British Whodunnit...

If you ever feel the need for an utterly whimsical detective story, you might like to try Edmund Crispin. His gentleman sleuth, Gervase Fen, is a professor of literature at Oxford, giving the author plenty of opportunities to display his erudition. Think Inspector Morse, but half a century earlier. This particular novel, Buried for Pleasure, was first published in 1948.

Surprisingly, it has aged very well indeed. Crispin’s style probably wasn’t cutting edge even then, but now it seems beautifully dated. I hate the word ‘quaint’ because it’s so patronising, but I’m struggling to come up with anything better. Fortunately, Crispin is aware of the kitsch-ness of his story and he pokes enough ironic holes in it to make it all incredibly funny.

This is a murder mystery with a political subplot, as, for no particular reason, Fen attempts to become the MP for the obscure country hamlet of Sanford Morvel. Sometimes this subplot seems poorly thought out and unnecessary, apparently existing only as an excuse for Fen’s presence in the village and a chance for Crispin to air his political views. Whence this gem: ‘...the Civil Service is a body whose mistakes are made so thoroughly and definitively, that they can only be rectified by a procedure equally searching and elaborate.’ Mind you, any threadbare excuse can justify that kind of statement.

As we follow Fen’s nascent political career, it becomes alarmingly clear that although he doesn’t really care for the electorate or for politics – and is spending much of his time investigating various sinister happenings – there is a real danger that he might get elected. Fen’s final speech, in which he desperately tries not to get elected, is a real barnstormer. ‘I am bound to conclude,’ he tells a hushed village hall, ‘that this proven obtuseness is not unrepresentative of the British people as a whole, since their predilection for putting brainless megalomaniacs into positions of power stems, in the last analysis, from an identical vacuity of the intellect.’ Not only can you tell that Crispin doesn’t care much for politics (is it me, or does this all seem remarkably resonant?) but you can also tell that he was a schoolteacher who unashamedly enjoyed the aesthetics of words. This is what made Buried for Pleasure so enjoyable for me. Anyone who can casually drop the adjective ‘Rhadamanthine’ into a sentence certainly gets my vote.

So, what about the murders? Well, I can’t say much, but there are enough of them to keep the story interesting. Although there was one plot twist I could see coming, there were a couple of others I missed. Since Crispin clearly isn’t trying to write a ‘serious’ detective story (if there is such a thing) I think he does pretty well.

The fabulously eccentric cast-list also helps. There is an escaped lunatic with a periodic conviction that he is Woodrow Wilson, a Rector who conspiratorially shelters his resident poltergeist, a crime-writer who likes to test his plots first-hand, and buxom wenches aplenty (‘She’m a rare un for mollocking, is Olive.’) And there is Fen himself, of course, with his absurd rhetoric and his uniquely civilised ability to consume five pints of bitter before lunch.

Overall, this is a very funny book that can be breezed through in an afternoon, although you might find yourself reaching for the dictionary from time to time. And beneath all the wordplay and the witticisms, Crispin has a genuine knack for expressing himself with some beautifully crafted sentences which are a pleasure to chew over.