VIVO: The Life of Gustav Meyrink

Prague German Writers – Gustav Meyrink

He was twenty-three years old and living alone in Prague. A wounded heart caused him to look at his life up to that point as shallow and empty. Gustav Meyrink had just put a farewell letter to his mother in an envelope and reached for his revolver, when he was distracted by the noise of a pamphlet being slid under his door. “On Life after Death” was its title, and so instead of committing suicide he spent the night reading the pamphlet, and though knowing full well that it was his bookseller’s assistant who must have put it there at such a propitious moment he insisted that it had nothing to do with coincidence.

“I took the revolver, for the moment redundant, and locked it in the drawer; I still have it today. It has died of rust, the cylinder won’t revolve any more, never will revolve again.”

According to Meyrink’s account, this was the moment that his interest in spiritualism came into being, an interest that would lead to him to undergo years of occult investigations, join multiple spiritualist societies, sit through innumerable séances and come into contact with figures ranging from the inspiring and eccentric to outright frauds. Today, Meyrink’s spiritualist obsessions are relevant above all for the role they play in his singular literary output.

In VIVO: The Life of Gustav Meyrink, Mike Mitchell insists that Meyrink’s critical faculties remained intact and that he was well aware of the false paths he followed, not to mention all the devious opportunists he saw spiritualism as the way to make some money. “Any visionary, prophet or fool on the loose in Bohemia attracted me as an electrostatic rod attracts scraps of paper,” Meyrink said. Yet in spite of going through séance after séance without results Meyrink plods on, unwilling to give up on the spiritual world he knows must be there. Is that blind stubbornness or perseverance?

Occult son of Prague

Meyrink, born Gustav Meyer, the illegitimate son of itinerant German actress Marie Meyer and Baron Freidrich Karl Gottlieb Varnbüler, is typically cited as an Austrian author, much like his younger Central European contemporary Franz Kafka is categorized as Czech. Mitchell shows that just as in Kafka’s case, it’s not so simple; in fact, it’s wrong. Though born in Vienna, Meyrink was registered in Munich and so was German.

When it comes to his writing and his interest in the occult it is clear that the years Meyrink spent in Prague – from 1883 to 1904, from when he was fifteen to thirty-six years old – make the city by far the most significant place in his development and place him squarely within the group of Prague German writers.

The connection isn’t only literary. Though Meyrink was a banker of some sort in Prague (Mitchell writes: “This area of his life is as mystifying as anything else in it.”) he spent a considerable amount of energy and money to maintain a lifestyle that had no resemblance to that of a straitlaced banker’s, attracting a group of young writers and artists that included Max Brod, Paul Leppin and Hugo Steiner-Prag, the last of which would go on to illustrate The Golem.

Mitchell recounts some of the anecdotes about Meyrink’s eccentricity as well pointing out how this aloof, mysterious figure was the model for a character not only in Leppin’s novel Severin’s Journey into the Dark but in Thomas Mann’s Tonio Kröger. Reading about Meyrink’s provocations and eccentricities you begin to get the feeling that his banking career couldn’t possibly last long.

That feeling turns out to be accurate. Meyrink’s departure from Prague was not his own choice, but came as the result of what appears to have been a manufactured scandal that cost him his health, his business and forced him to spend time behind bars. What was a personal disaster though might have been the catalyst that made him a writer though, as Meyrink’s need for money and a new career dovetailed with his growing dissatisfaction with his former life.

The idea that someone could leave banking and look to make a living writing short stories sounds as fantastical today as anything in Meyrink’s occult stories yet this is what happened, with the writer obtaining a salary from the legendary German satirical magazine Simplicissimus.

Leaving Prague though was undoubtedly a trauma for Meyrink. He would return to it in his work for the settings of his novels The Golem (1914), Walpurgisnacht (1917) and his last novel The Angel of the West Window (1927) but Mitchell indicates how the city was much more than the picturesque backdrop for the occult goings-on he wrote about, that for Meyrink Prague “partook of the occult itself.”

Meyrink wrote about Prague’s hold on him in “The City with the Secret Heartbeat,” of which the following is just a segment of the extract reproduced in VIVO:

“ … I lived in Prague, the city with the secret heartbeat. It has never entirely left me, even today it comes over me when I think back to Prague or dream of it at night. Everything I ever experienced I can call up in my mind’s eye as if it were there before me, bursting with life. 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 know there turns into a ghost, an inhabitant of a realm that does not know death.”

Beyond the magical

To the extent that Meyrink is known as a writer in the English-speaking world it is largely due to The Golem, and beyond that perhaps by association with the fantastic elements in his popular novels and the now clichéd idea of “Magic Prague.” Yet Mitchell places a strong emphasis on the satirical, anti-establishment side of Meyrink’s early writing, whose anti-militarism and anti-nationalism in particular led to major problems for the writer in both Germany and Austria during the war.

In a chapter section headed The anti-Meyrink campaign Mitchell tells the fascinating story of how Meyrink’s parodies led to frothing-at-the-mouth reactions from German nationalists already at a fever pitch as the war had begun to turn against the Triple Alliance. Meyrink was attacked for a lack of patriotism for stories that had been published between nine and sixteen years previously. Then as now, right-wing extremists showed a slim grasp of logic and dredged up the fact that Meyrink’s name was originally Meyer to be able to add anti-Semitism to their arsenal. That Meyer is a common German name among Christians and that Meyrink wasn’t Jewish was only topped by the irony that the attack against the supposedly Jewish-sounding Meyer was launched by a writer named Zimmermann (maybe he later changed his name to Dylan, just to avoid the same charge).


To find the opposite of the spiritual world look in your bank account, though for many writers, both places have an ethereal, phantom-like emptiness. Having gone through his inheritance and lost his business Meyrink would struggle with his finances for the rest of his life. Even when he had a big house he was oppressed by mortgages and compelled to write for daily papers and sport magazines. Mitchell does a nice job of showing what this means for his work.

One path it led him down was work as a translator, and besides translating various occult books from French and English, Meyrink went on to translate 16 volumes of Dickens. Assessments of his translations seem to vary, with criticisms of the massive cuts he made balanced by praise for the freshness of the language. Meyrink’s translations continue to be republished. Most interestingly, Mitchell indicates the connection between Dickens’ phantasmic London and the evocative, haunting Prague that Meyrink would create in his 1914 breakthrough novel The Golem. Financial reasons were another factor in Meyrink’s turn from short stories to the novel form, and though he had reportedly talked about writing a novel for many years he was approaching fifty when he finally came through on his goal.

Mitchell gives 1925 sales figures for Meyrink’s novels, illustrating his quick rise and fall: The Golem 220,000; The Green Face 150,000; Walpurgisnacht 120,000; The White Dominican 60,000. Meyrink’s final novel The Angel of the West Wing (1927) had sold only 2,860 copies by 1931, a year before his death.

Life after Death

Mitchell forms three different categories of judgments on Meyrink’s literary reputation today. First, there are those who consider him an important part of early 20th century German literature. Then come those who value his work for its spiritual message. The third category contains those who dismiss his work as popular fiction with a sensationalist streak. Mitchell thinks that for a majority of readers the judgment will be a combination of the three categories.

In an interview with the author Mitchell explained that VIVO was not intended as a work of original research, but rather to accompany the Dedalus publications of Meyrink’s writing for the English-reading public who otherwise don’t have much available information about the writer. In fact, the latest Meyrink biography – Hartmut Binder: Gustav Meyrink: Ein Leben in Bann der Magie, Vitalis, 2009 – came out just after Mitchell finished writing his book and would have provided him with more information to include.

VIVO nevertheless contains more than enough biographical material, amusing anecdotes, cultural context and an amount of analysis that is pertinent but never burdensome. As an introduction to Meyrink’s novels and short stories, and to learn more about the magical world he came out of it is an excellent place to start.

For an article on the exhibition “The Cabinet of Prague German Writers” at Readux.

Coming next: “Magic Prague,” Leo Perutz, Gustav Meyrink and more from an interview with Mike Mitchell.

Photos – 1) The Golem by Hugo Steiner-Prag, 1915, 2) Gustav Meyrink, 3) Walpurgisnacht by Stefan Eggeler, 1922, 4) Portrait of Gustav Meyrink by Carl Alexander Wittek, 1919, 5) The Golem by Hugo Steiner-Prag

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Categories: Book Reviews


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