Writer Gustav Meyrink (1868-1932) was not born in Prague, nor did he die there; his residency in the city accounted for a mere third of his lifespan and most of his literary career played out elsewhere, primarily in Vienna and Munich. But Meyrink’s work and persona are inescapably bound to the Czech capital, both drawing from and augmenting the city’s dense atmosphere of dark mysticism.
The reminders, when I visited last weekend, were everywhere: a stone’s throw from my hotel in the heart of the old town, for instance, is the site of “Zum alten Ungelt”, a tavern where Meyrink would meet with other aspiring writers around the beginning of the 20th century, a location which also appears in his most famous work, The Golem. And the Jewish ghetto for which that book forms a hallucinatory Baedeker lies just a few streets away. To fully explore Gustav Meyrink’s Prague – the scenes of his life’s stages, the city as reflected in his writings – would require a far more comprehensive effort than this.
Instead, we concentrate here on just three of the writer’s residences, each associated with a turning point in the first half of his life. Together they form a transfluvial triangle across the city – a fact which would probably have appealed to Meyrink with his occult and alchemical interests. This takes us away from the Segway-furrowed tourist trail through the medieval centre and Malá Strana; much as he drew on the allure of the city’s historic core, Meyrink chose to live elsewhere. Consequently our route is almost perversely unpicturesque but, like our subject, we need to look beyond the physical plane.
Our guide here is Hartmut Binder’s weighty 2009 biography Gustav Meyrink: Ein Leben im Bann der Magie (“a life under the spell of magic”). It is testament to both the rigour of Binder’s research and the rich variety of Meyrink’s life that 250 pages have gone by before the subject has put pen to paper. Gustav Meyrink, the bronzed fakir with the cult leader stare, the author who in works such as Walpurgisnacht, The Green Face and The Angel of the West Window combined horror, fantasy and the occult like few others in the modern era, lies in the future. It is the lengthy preface, the writer’s pre-literary life, to which we turn our attention, a time when – still just Gustav Meyer – he was busy penning the Meyrink myth.
The first stop is Štěpánská (then Stephangasse), a long, narrow tributary of enormous Wenceslas Square. In 1883, a now vanished corner building became the first semi-permanent Prague address for actress Marie Meyer and her teenage son Gustav, recently arrived from Hamburg. A later rumour – most likely started by Gustav himself – had it that the boy’s father was Bavarian king Ludwig II. I think we can all agree this is unlikely. The deadbeat dad was in fact a (married) government minister of the kingdom of Württemberg, a prodigiously whiskered aristocrat more than twice Marie’s age. She had met him during an engagement in Stuttgart and the product of their illicit affair was born in Vienna. From that point mother and son travelled wherever Marie’s stage gigs took them.
“It was in Prague that I first awoke,” said Meyrink later. He described his first explorations of the “city with the secret heartbeat,” a place he always viewed with mingled dread and compulsion. Labyrinthine laneways, sunless courtyards, mist-robed bridges, umbral archways and the fanciful spires which seem to dissolve into fiction before the observer’s eyes – all of it was working its way into the future writer’s mind at a highly impressionable age. Even those of his later works not actually set in Prague carried the enigmatic charge first instilled in his early walks around the city. The duality of Prague in Meyrink’s time, when Czech-speaking locals were governed by a German-speaking Austrian imperial elite, was paralleled by the dueling dichotomies which characterised the city: of fact and fable, of magic and banality, of mortality and eternity.
Mother and son then moved to a more central location, and Gustav attended the Handelsakademie (business academy), the same institution where Franz Kafka would later study insurance. By the time we catch up with Meyrink again he has already come into his inheritance and constructed a life for himself as a pleasure-seeking lebemann, or playboy. Incongruously, his leisure pursuits encompass not just the expected carousing and womanising, but also chess and rowing. The young Meyrink lavished much of his new funds on his appearance, and he was described as “the most conceited, most methodical gigerl in Prague”, “gigerl” denoting something between a fop and a dandy in Viennese dialect. The future writer’s theatrical, self-conscious image-making was now emerging in the form of “loud ties, outlandish suits, the most hyper-modern footwear.” This provocative mode of self-presentation extended to his lodgings, as we will see on our next stop.
The building which Meyrink inhabited between 1889 and 1893 is also gone, replaced by an elegant, rounded construction which appears to date from the 1930s and which, pleasingly, now has a bookshop, although stocked exclusively with textbooks, with no place for its former inhabitant’s work. It is located on Národní třída (then Ferdinandstraße), once the site of the city walls, now a major thoroughfare forming the border between the old and new town. It would later form a dividing line between the past and future of Prague (incidentally, one meaning offered for the city’s Czech name, “Praha”, is “threshold”). This street was the birthplace of the Velvet Revolution which made the Czech national project and the dream of freedom from Soviet domination a reality. And this liminal location is an uncannily apt setting for the events of August 1891, the central component of Meyrink’s self-authored myth.
Here the young buck inhabited a ground-floor room, but despite his outward frivolity, Meyrink was at an impasse, disillusioned by a life which he found “stale, worthless and desolate”. On the evening of August 14, 1891, he decided on a radical cure for his weltschmerz, as he later related in the story “The Pilot”. Leaving a suicide note for his mother, he reached for a revolver before a noise outside alerted him to a pamphlet which had been pushed under his door by an unseen hand. It was entitled “On Life after Death”.
Shaken by this sign, Meyrink laid down the revolver and read through the night. He was convinced that his life had been saved by supernatural agency and by morning had decided that the answer to his troubled mind lay in the beyond. The pamphlet pushed across the threshold brought its recipient to the doorway of another world whose contours were still extremely difficult to discern, but which he was determined to explore. On the feast day of Mary’s Assumption, when the Virgin breached the divide between earthly and celestial existence, Meyrink first ventured into the realm of the unseen.
Theosophy, spiritualism, Martinism, yoga, astrology, freemasonry, alchemy – in the ensuing years Meyrink left few branches of hermetic knowledge unexplored (and later owned a bullfrog named for Madame Blavatsky). His lodgings reflected his new-found interests, the walls hung with black panels adorned with occult symbols while a porcelain sphinx watched over proceedings, the whole exuding a scent of “musk, cigarettes and Russia leather,” in the words of one visitor.
Parallel to this mystical odyssey, Meyrink was involved with the enterprise Meyer & Morgenstern. That second name, meaning “morning star” (a synonym for Lucifer), might suggest this was another of Meyrink’s occult undertakings. The truth was even more surprising: it was in fact a private bank. Meyrink and his partner Johann David Morgenstern set up shop a few streets away, offering financial services to the city’s moneyed middle class.
Our final stop is on the riverside Janáčkovo nábřeží (then Ferdinandsquai). The handsome block overlooking a river island where Meyrink moved with his new wife Hedwig in 1893 is the only one of our trio still standing. On my visit it was undergoing renovation. It would be nice to think that its new, green face was an hommage to Meyrink, but this is unlikely. While the tributes to Kafka extend all over Prague (I counted at least five businesses trading under the name “Metamorphosis”), Meyrink is all but forgotten.
This was a tony area, reflecting Meyrink’s status as a young entrepreneur. The wall hangings from his previous residence evidently made the transition, the idiosyncratic decor also including a room set aside for Meyrink’s orphic contemplations, its blue ceiling decorated with stars and the signs of the zodiac. An unusual decorative feature evoked the illusion that a man was disappearing into the wall. Elsewhere there was ecclesiastical furniture, morbid Catholic knick-knacks and a hollowed out tree guarded by a stuffed black cat.
In this period Meyrink parted ways with his business partner Morgenstern and pursued his banking interests alone, setting himself up on Wenceslas Square. Never shy of attention, he became the first person in Prague to drive an automobile. So taken was he with the new mode of transportation that he established an agency for the Benz concern out of his banking premises. But Meyrink’s business, which at times seemed more like a Ponzi scheme than a bank, was floundering.
The year 1900, which would prove to be the halfway point in Meyrink’s life, was pivotal, although it dawned inauspiciously. On the very first day of the new century he wrote to creditors offering partial payment of his debts, proposing a property owned by his wife as collateral. His health, too, was suffering, with a disorder of the spinal cord forcing him to use crutches.
But Meyrink the author was slowly emerging. He had already begun to write privately in the closing years of the 19th century, and started mixing with other young, aspiring litterateurs including Paul Leppin and Oskar Wiener – Bohemia’s own bohemia. In 1900, while undergoing a cure in Dresden, he met German writer Oscar A. H. Schmitz who was captivated by Meyrink’s macabre tales and encouraged him to commit them to paper. The following year, Meyrink’s last at this address, marked the end of the beginning. His first published work appeared in the influential Munich-based journal Simplicissimus, also the first time that the more exotic sounding surname “Meyrink” appeared in print.
And this is where we leave Gustav Meyrink, although his time in Prague is not quite done. The next few years bring repeated run-ins with military officers which damage his honour and reputation, false embezzlement charges, prison and bankruptcy. In 1904 he leaves the city of his difficult formative years behind, moving to Vienna where he works on a satirical journal. Although his decision to concentrate on writing is driven as much by economic necessity as inner compulsion, Meyrink is now a full-time man of letters.