Book Review: The Golem by Gustav Meyrink (Trans by Mike Mitchell)

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Labyrinthine expressionist horror novel.

A contemporary of Kafka, Gustav Meyrink was the illegitimate son of a minister of state and a Bavarian actress. Before the publication of his best-known work, he spent 20 years as the director of the Meyer and Morgenstern Bank in Prague. Clinically depressed he suffered a nervous breakdown and attempted suicide. In 1891 Meyrink stood in his apartment with a revolver in his hand fully prepared to end his life when he was distracted by a scratching sound. Crossing the room he noticed that someone has slipped a pamphlet under his door. The leaflet saved him from attempting suicide again. Promoting an occultist group the pamphlet inspired an interest in mystical teachings that would become a recurrent theme in his writings.

Meyrink’s best-known work was originally published as a serial. German director Paul Wegener helmed three cinematic adaptations. The first two of Wegener’s trilogy are now considered to be lost. Wegener’s 1920 film The Golem: How He Came into the World is a classic example of German expressionism. A restored version was released in 2011 featuring a new score by alt.rock band Pixies frontman Black Francis.

An omnibus edition of The Golem was published after the release of the first film in Wegener’s trilogy. Its initial print run is reported to have sold 200,000 copies.

Frequently compared to Frankenstein, Meyrink’s novel was inspired by Jewish literature and Prague legends of a mythical creature said to have been created in the seventeenth century by Rabbi Judah Loew. A disturbing and occasionally bewildering work which at times reads like the outpourings of a troubled mind seeking acceptance and understanding. Meyrink’s obsessions and life experiences are written into the unsettling narrative of a strange creature who visits Prague’s Jewish ghetto every 33 years and strikes terror into the hearts of its inhabitants.

Meyrink’s reputation was destroyed and career left in tatters when he was accused of financial impropriety. Maintaining his innocence he was sent to prison. His time in custody is dramatised in the novel.

Robert Irwin’s introduction draws the reader’s attention to similarities with Kafka’s work. Both authors wrote about trials, castles and Prague and were acquainted with Max Brod. Meyrink’s writing is infused with Cabalistic mysticism and is more explicitly horrific than Kafka’s work.

Meshing classic horror themes with Jewish mythology and offering a nightmarish vision of the now vanished ghetto, The Golem is a classic novel from the author regarded as Czechoslovakia’s Edgar Allan Poe.

The Golem is published by Daedalus Books.

Book Review: Moonstone by Sjón (Trans. by Victoria Cribb)

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Bjork collaborator’s potent novella is a celebration of silent cinema and elegy to the undocumented history of Iceland’s queer culture.

Born in Reykjavik, Sjón is considered to be one of Iceland’s most significant contemporary writers. Initially known to English-speaking audiences for his collaborations with Bjork which began with indie pop pioneers The Sugarcubes and continued through to her 2011 album Biophilia. More recently he contributed to the Museum of Modern Art’s Bjork retrospective. The creative partnership was rewarded with an Oscar nomination for the song I’ve Seen It All from the soundtrack to Lars von Trier’s feature film Dancer in the Dark.

Inspired by modernist poetry and the work of David Bowie he published his first collection of poetry at the age of sixteen. A high profile figure on Reykjavik’s cultural scene, in addition being an award-winning novelist, poet, playwright, and librettist Sjón was a founding member of the neo-surrealist performance art group Medusa.

Translated into twenty-nine languages, Sjón’s novels combine realism and surrealism, His best-known work internationally is the Nordic Council Literature Prize winning novel The Blue Fox.

Transporting readers to 1918, Sjón’s latest book is a mature work confirming his status as the most significant Icelandic author since Halldór Laxness. A moving and deeply affecting portrait of tumultuous times, Sjón’s complex novella rewards repeated reading. Underpinning a richly veined account of a nation confronting and being transformed by external threats is an absorbing chronicle of the nation’s largely undocumented gay culture in the early twentieth century.

Death is an ever-present presence over the course of three months that decimated Iceland’s population. Hopes are high when news breaks that World War One has ended. Officially neutral throughout the conflict’s duration, Iceland’s increased isolation precipitated a marked downturn in its citizens’ standards of living. The reopening of trade routes following the cessation of hostilities was greeted with optimism. Hopes about an upswing are soon dampened following an outbreak of Spanish Influenza.

Rapidly spreading throughout the country, the virus is thought to have wiped out 50 percent of Reykjavik’s population. Sjon’s lyrical prose recreates the horrors of the pandemic’s transmission with journalistic precision.

This chilling moment in Icelandic history is seen through the eyes of 16-year old Máni Steinn Karlsson. An anti-Peter Pan, instead of the “The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up” Sjón uses “The Boy Who Never Was” to tell a deeply-charged story filled with loss and transformation.

Drawing attention to the fictional nature of his lead character while ensuring the historical background is meticulously researched allows the author to draw the reader’s attention to tell a group of people that have until relatively recently been underrepresented in Icelandic literature and historical narratives.

An outsider, Máni Steinn Karlsson reflects the era and represents a challenge to its orthodoxy. Orphaned at an early age and living with his grandmother, he is obsessed about a local girl, Sóla G, and entranced by the power of silent cinema. Identifying with the lead character of classic serial Les Vampires he recognizes and embraces his status as someone who lives on society’s fringes.

A cinephile long before the term existed, he sees every film that arrives on Icelandic shores, frequently remoulding the plots within his mind as he blurs fiction and reality.

Máni is a sex-worker in an age when homosexuality was illegal and is despised by the very people who regularly pay for his services.

Dedicated to Sjón’s uncle who died of AIDs-related complications in 1993, Moonstone is a significant work from one of the most exciting writers of Nordic literary fiction. Dreamlike, unsettling, and moving. A truly unforgettable novella.

Moonstone is published by Sceptre

Book Review: Pedigree by Georges Simenon (Trans by Robert Baldick)

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Joycean novel recreates Simenon’s childhood.

Intended as the first volume of a trilogy, Pedigree stands apart from the rest of Simenon’s output. Borne out of a long-standing ambition to write an extraordinary novel and a response to a personal crisis, the prolific author’s magnum opus is a fictive redrafting of a memoir that has yet to be translated into English.

After an accident chopping wood Simenon experienced acute chest pains. Fearful that he might have broken a rib Simenon visited a radiologist in Fontenay-le-Comte. Misreading an X-ray the radiologist told Simenon that because his heart was enlarged he would be dead within two years.

For decades this misdiagnosis and the subsequent decision to write a memoir so that his son would about his lineage was an accepted part of Simenon’s mythology. Pierre Assouline’s biography claims that the spectre of death was lifted two weeks later when Simenon consulted several doctors who advised that the initial prognosis may have been due to wrongly positioned photographic equipment.

This reminder of mortality occurred during a period of renewed literary activity.

After an abortive attempt to retire Inspector Maigret Simenon sought to cement his literary reputation with a series of ‘roman durs’ (hard novels). Determined to transcend the confines of genre fiction the books written immediately after the publication of Maigret Returns were bleak studies of deviancy without the prospect of redemption.

Declining sales for the ‘roman durs’ forced Simenon to revive his most famous character. In the early days of World War II as the conflict spread to Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands he completed work on Maigret and the Spinster before being appointed “High Commissioner for Belgian refugees for the Département of Charente-Inférieure.”

Before the war Simenon had mentioned in correspondence his ambition to write a different form of novel. Contractually committed to writing three Maigret novels, he had to wait until the manuscripts had been delivered before commencing work on what was intended as his signature work. The recent misdiagnosis and France’s occupation may have preyed heavily on Simenon’s mind as he sat down to create a historical account of his family. Dedicated to his son Marc, the finished text was eventually published as Je me souviens. It remains one of the few Simenon books not translated into English.

After reading Je me souviens prior to publication André Gide advised Simenon to abandon the book and redraft all material as fiction. The revised text was published in 1948 and is an essential read to understand the biographical significance of themes prevalent throughout the ‘roman durs’ and Maigret novels.

Chronicling a family in the Belgian city of Liege during the years 1903 to 1918, Pedigree’s length, time taken to write, subject matter, and narrative structure marks it out as an atypical entry in the Simenon canon.

Simenon typically wrote in novel in seven to ten days. The writing of Pedigree represented an exorcism, possibly a painful one. In a break from his ritualised routine, it took him two years to finish the novel. A further five years would pass before it was published.

Confronting his feelings about people and a city that he had left behind in 1922 Simenon may have intended to finally purge himself from the influence of a life which continuously manifested itself through his novels.

In a repeat of the furore that greeted the publication of Je me souviens, Simenon was hit by several lawsuits from people who felt they had been libelled. Pedigree’s second edition removed offending passages and left blank spaces. The available version is sans the visibly noticeable blank spaces but has not restored the offending passages.

Simultaneously bildungsroman and a roman-fleuve, Pedigree largely corresponds with what is known about Simenon’s early life. The chronology of certain events have been rearranged while others are purely fictitious. While some characters remain relatively unchanged from their real-life counterparts others are composites, or inventions.

The absence of Simenon’s brother has provided scope for analysis by numerous biographers. Representations of Christian Simenon appear in several Maigret novels, most notably Pietr the Latvian. His exclusion is either revisionism as wish fulfillment, an acknowledgement of irreconcilable differences, or an attempt to avoid controversy concerning allegations that Christian collaborated with occupying forces during the war.

Demonstrating that Liege’s inhabitants, weather, and topography would appear repeatedly in transposed form throughout the Maigret novels Pedigree is also a portrait of influences and obsessions that remained with Simenon for the rest of his life.

Pedigree is published by NYRB.