Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Gustav Meyrink: Der Kardinal Napellus

As you all know, Jorge Luis Borges, or Georgie as he was called then, spent his youth in Europe, travelling. The timing wasn’t good since the trip coincided with World War I, and the Borges decided to stay in neutral Switzerland waiting for the conflict to end. Georgie decided to make the most of his time by learning German, a hobby he attributes to reading Thomas Carlyle. Better informed readers will know the relationship between Carlyle and the German language. Anyway, in 1916, Georgie, living in Geneva, bought an English-German dictionary and tried to read Goethe, Kanta, Heine’s poetry, readings that would remain with him forever. Around that time one baroness Helene von Stummer introduced him to Gustav Meyrink’s The Golem, thanks to which he discovered the Kabala, and he was hooked on the author’s work, which so strongly appealed to his taste for wonder, mysticism and horror. “Contrary to his contemporary, the young Wells, who sought in science the possibility of the fantastic, Gustav Meyrink sought it in magic and overcoming of any and every mechanical artifice.” In 1929, back in Argentina, he translated some of his short-stories into Spanish and sent a copy to Meyrink; he wrote back a letter wherein, “perhaps because he didn’t know our language well, praised my translation.” Always humble, Georgie.

Der Kardinal Napellus is one of the volumes composing Borges’ legendary Library of Babel collection. As I state from time to time, one of my life objectives is to read every volume. The list has many virtues: first of all, if you happen to find the actual volumes, they come included with short prologues by Borges himself. But the selections also have the value of directing us to strange, interesting but time-forgotten writers, and they tell us so much about Borges’ tastes and influences. Some are extraordinary discoveries, but I’ve also tended to meet one or two disappointments; Meyrink, I fear gravitates more towards the latter.

Perhaps reading him in the 21st century is not as exciting as it was in 1916, perhaps the novelty doesn’t seem that novel anymore; for me his mixture of weirdness, mystical nonsense, suspicion of science, and raptures of insanity just tend to blend into the stuff produced by other fantasy writers of the time. His prose, to make matters worse, isn’t particularly interesting, it’s bland and straightforward in the style Borges favoured and incredibly made look so enticing. None of this would be problematic if the stories were strong, but for me they weren’t. The volume contains three short-stories, each one wackier than the other.

In the first one, which gives the volume its title, one lonely, sulky Hieronymus Radspieller spends his days on a lake working on a probe to reach its depths. The people in the region consider him an oddball and harbour stories about him. One day he meets them in an inn, excited and sad because his probe has reached the bottom of the lake, the greatest depth known to man, and now he doesn’t know what he’ll do next; his life has lost its meaning. Down-beaten, he starts telling them his past. In his youth he belonged to a religious sect, the Blue Friars, whose emblem is the aconitum napellus flower. The friars water these blue flowers with the blood from their own flagellation and also feed doses of its venom to their sectarians. Radspieller explains the many rituals and his growing fear that the flowers are vampire-like creatures sucking away his vitality, leaving him empty. The more he thinks about it, the more doubts he gets about staying with the friars, so he runs away and devotes his life to science. Then at the end something happens that turns him insane.

In another story, someone called J.H. relates a story to a young man about a religious order he belonged to with his grandfather. Meyrink loves sects and cults and religious orders. The narrator finds out this Johann Hermann who has discovered immortality; the method has to do with living in abnegation of worldly things, in order to counteract the “vipers of hope” which he also calls the “Blood Leeches.” Hope, desires, waiting, for him these are the things stopping men from attaining immortal life; they age people, sap away their life force (again the life force). If man stops wanting things, he goes on living forever, for “what we call life is just death’s waiting room. Suddenly I realized in that precise moment what time is; we ourselves are forms generated by time, bodies that seem matter, but are nothing but coagulated time.” Impressed the narrator tries to follow his austerity, but realizes he can’t be like him, immortality is out of his grasp.

In the last story, a bastard is hired by a nobleman as his gardener. But strange things are going on in the mansion. He narrates a meeting between his employer and other men; it turns out they’re members of some secret cult that is fighting to save Mankind’s soul from the 20th’s plunge into mechanization, at least that’s what I think their goal is. “In this last quarter of a century, the mechanical principle swiftly conquered a consistent supremacy, we can declare it with all tranquillity; however if things turn out as we expect, in this 20th century mankind almost won’t have time to see sunlight, it’ll be too busy cleaning, oiling, keeping intact and repairing the machines’ pieces, which don’t stop increasing.” All of this worries them because Man might have the power to conquer and civilize the cosmos, and that’s a bad idea. “How do you think the moon would look like after two weeks? In each crater there would be a race track, and, all around it, areas for draining off sewage.” And that’s not the worse part. “Would you peradventure like the planets to be telephonically connected according to the Stock’s working hours, and that the Milky Way’s double stars be forced to display official marriage certificates?” This’s like crazy talk, man! Well, the Moon Brothers, as they are called, won’t go down without a fight. Too late the gardener discovers he’s there to be used in part of a ritual, whose purpose is not very clear. Or, as the final pages imply, maybe he’s insane. Maybe he’s insane tends to neatly explain away every incoherence in Meyrink, meaning they’re not incoherences after all.

I can’t completely dislike these stories because they’re filled with unexpected insanity. Meyrink perhaps was not a great writer but his mind clearly didn’t operate on any recognizable level, I’m not even sure it belonged to this dimension. I can certainly see why Borges fawned over Meyrink, although I can’t say I share his admiration for the Austrian author. Still, there was something seriously deranged about German-language literature around this time: Meyrink, Alfred Kubin’s The Other Side, Franz Kafka. What was wrong with these people?


  1. Yeah, these are something else. A second-rate writer, but with great bursts of originality. I am amazed that Borges learned about Kabala from Meyrink, but why not, he was probably not the only reader for whom that was true.

    Carlyle originally made his reputation as a translator, of Goethe, Hoffmann, Tieck, and other German writers. His translations are excellent, still a pleasure to read.

    1. Carlyle originally made his reputation as a translator,

      Ah, that explains it.