Wednesday, 4 December 2013

The Dedalus Meyrink Reader

Gustav Meyrink is one of the most important and interesting authors of early 20th-century German Literature. To establish his reputation in the English-speaking world Dedalus has translated his five novels plus a collection of his short stories and published the first ever English-language biography of Meyrink. Now is the time to produce an overview of Meyrink in a single volume. The Dedalus Meyrink Reader has excerpts from all the translated books and a whole section of hitherto untranslated material, including the stories from the collection Flederm use and autobiographical articles. This volume is perfect companion for both the Meyrink scholar and the first-time Meyrink reader, containing as it does the whole gamut of Meyrink's writing from his love of the bizarre, the grotesque and the macabre to the spine-chilling occult tales and his quest to know what is on the Other Side of the Mirror. Novelist, satirist, translator of Charles Dickens, dandy, man-about-time, fencer, rower, banker and mystic seer, there are many, sometimes contradictory aspects to Gustav Meyrink, who must also be the only novelist to have challenged a whole army regiment to a duel. He has left behind a unique body of work, which can be sampled and enjoyed in The Dedalus Meyrink Reader.
Goodreads description

Gustav Meyrink has suffered from being overshadowed by his fellow Prague resident Kafka. The publisher Dedalus have set out to reinstate Meyrink and his reputation. This collection includes samples of his novels, including the best known The Golem, and as tasters some work better than others. Also included are some fascinating short stories and articles, which shed a different light on Meyrink's writing.

The first question is how does Meyrink's writings relate to magic realism. This is a man who had an extraordinary life, where the real bordered on the magical - when he was accused of fraud in the running of his bank it was said he used spiritualism in the fraud. He was a man fascinated by the occult and esoteric and so the content of his writings are very much based on his beliefs. This means that "magic" is a part of the world he portrays.  In the Cardinal Napellus short story he gives the main character the following words: Some subtle spiritual instinct tells me that every act we perform has a double, magic meaning. We cannot do anything which is not magic. 

He produced a wide range of fiction. This includes psychological suspense, as in The Golem, where the Golem appears almost as a projection of the fears of Prague's Jewish population. It is never clear in the book what is real, especially as the leading character is said to have been mentally ill prior to the events portrayed. Meyrink also tried his hand at historical fiction, as in the Angel at the West Window, an account of the lives of English alchemists John Dee and Edward Kelley. As I have said elsewhere in this blog, magic realism has a role to play in portraying lives of people in the past where magic was seen as reality. 

Meyrink's short stories reveal an unexpected lighter side to his character. I particularly enjoyed The Ring of Saturn, which starts darkly and you expect it to be one of his horror stories but it twists unexpectedly. In this story a soul which has been captured escapes into the firmament and the magician, from whom it has escaped, has to recapture it and in so doing must sacrifice himself. However as he dies he tells his followers what horror the soul had been in the process of committing and why. The why is because the soul is that of a vicar's wife, being the only type of human that is truly useless and the horror was she was crocheting a ring for Saturn.

Written in 1903 the story Petroleum, Petroleum is horribly prescient. It tells of an oil magnate who deliberately releases oil into the ocean in the Gulf of Mexico. The oil flowing from huge reserves soon covers the whole of the ocean, but humanity is unable to react in a concerted way to counter the problem. 

There are also some fascinating non-fiction pieces in the book. One deals with a point in Meyrink's life where in despair he was about to shoot himself, but is stopped by a leaflet being pushed under the door. The leaflet's title was "On Life After Death." Since then I have never believed in coincidence, I believe in the Pilot.  Another is an essay on Prague, The City with the Secret Heartbeat. Prague appears almost like a leading character in much of Meyrink's writings. In this essay Meyrink says that it is indeed a character, a city that lives, but in a ghostly form: If however, I summon up Prague, it appears more clearly than anything else, so clearly, in fact, that it no longer seems real, but ghostly. Every person I knew there turns into a ghost, an inhabitant of a realm that does not know death.  As someone who spends time in the Czech Republic and knows Prague well, I have to say I know exactly what he is talking about.  As a writer myself, I cannot help but feel the magical other realism that is that great city.

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