Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)
Meyrink, Gustav

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(1868-1932) Austrian writer, born Gustav Meyer, from 1889 mostly resident in Prague, where he worked as a banker until a financial scandal (he was innocent) and the Fin-de-Siècle decadence of his lifestyle (which he proclaimed) ended that career. He published his first story, "Die heisse Soldat" ["The Ardent Soldier"], in the satirical weekly magazine Simplicissimus in 1901. It led off Der heisse Soldat und andere Geschichten ["The Ardent Soldier and Other Stories"] (coll 1903), which was later assembled – along with Orchideen: Sonderbare Geschichten ["Orchids: Strange Stories"] (coll 1904), Das Wachsfigurenkabinett: Sonderbare Geschichten ["The Wax Museum: Strange Stories"] (coll 1907) and some additional stories – as Des deutschen Spiessers Wunderhorn ["The German Philistine's Magic Horn"] (omni 1913); selections from this omnibus were published as The Opal (and Other Stories) (coll trans Maurice Raraty 1994 UK). Further stories were assembled as Fledermause ["Bats"] (coll 1916) and Goldmachergeschichten ["Tales of Alchemists"] (coll 1925). Those stories published before its outbreak seemed to prefigure the watershed disaster of World War I through their apocalyptic savagery, their mockeries of the dying era conveyed in an Expressionist idiom reminiscent of that of E T A Hoffmann.

GM's first novel, Der Golem (1913-1914 Die wessen Blatter; 1915; cut trans Madge Pemberton as The Golem 1928 UK; full trans 1977 US; new trans Mike Mitchell 1995 UK), also prefigures that disastrous climax to a century of growth and change. The phantasmagorical, threatened Prague of this novel – its Wainscots haunted by a Golem who is more like a psychic fog than an actual entity, and the false Polder of its ghetto withering under the baleful light of a new century – makes The Golem into a pure Urban Fantasy: a tale whose setting, like some vast subterranean Edifice, seems literally alive, organic, all-encompassing, Gothic. It is, however, like most 20th-century urban fantasies distinguished from its Gothic ancestors (see Gothic Fantasy) through a sense that the fall of the city will be a bad omen for its inhabitants, not a release. At the same time, the pending destruction of Prague (and of Europe itself) is treated by GM with a deep ambivalence, and his next novels all tend to present the Apocalypse as an occult cleansing of the material world so that higher unions of the spirit can be achieved.

This opposition is very clearly evident in Das grüne Gesicht (1916; trans Mike Mitchell as The Green Face 1992 UK), an Instauration Fantasy set after the end of WWI in an Amsterdam whose inhabitants – including the Wandering Jew – engage in a virtual Dance of Death as a great wind scours Europe clean of its past. From the protection of a literal polder, those destined to survive into the new world gaze calmly upon the devastation. GM's second WWI novel, Walpurgisnacht (1917; trans Mike Mitchell 1993 UK), offers its cast no similar sanctuary as the precarious and corrupt world of Prague collapses into Carnival under the influence of a strange, comical figure capable of becoming a literal Mirror of the other main characters, taking on their physiques and their natures, and whose skin serves as a human drum to call the lower classes into revelry and rebellion.

The post-WWI novels are quieter. Der weisse Dominikaner (1921; trans Mike Mitchell as The White Dominican 1994 UK) is set entirely in a small town which serves as polder and focus for the protagonist's eventual transcendence of the deluding, corporeal world. The contemporary protagonist of Der Engel Vom Westlichen Fenster (1927; trans Mike Mitchell as The Angel of the West Window 1991 UK), perhaps GM's most complex work, discovers he is a partial Avatar of John Dee; as Dee he becomes profoundly embroiled in the toils of this world (represented, as often in GM's work, through the maleficent allure of a Femme Fatale, in this case a goddess) and must tussle to achieve the higher one.

A sense of struggle marks GM's work from beginning to end, and the fantastic elements permeating it are most profitably understood as the insignia of that struggle, for the golems and witches and goddesses and apocalyptic scourings are presented with some casualness. The consequent muffling of effects, and elusive narrative sequences, make GM a sidebar figure to modern fantasy; but the cultural resonances of his best novels merit continued attention. [JC]

Gustav Meyrink


This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.