This title is mentioned in John Clute’s “World War One” entry in the Encyclopedia of Fantasy.
Given its mystical and occult preoccupations, I expected not to like this novel. A family member once described me as the “most unspiritual person I know”. An accurate description. While conspiracy theories and theologies sometimes interest me, mysticism does not though I appreciate its important effects in the world and history.
Meyrink’s work was compelling though. Perhaps that was because he was, as German literature scholar Franz Rottensteiner says in this edition’s afterword, a methodical skeptic. He may have belonged to several occult societies, but he also satirized elements of the occult. He particularly didn’t like astrology or mediums.
On the other hand, rumor has it that he was involved in the occult enough for accusations to stick that he used occult methods in his banking practices, and he ultimately was forced out of the profession.
Afterwards, he supported himself translating English language works including Charles Dickens, Lafcaido Hearn, and Rudyard Kipling. However, he doesn’t seem to have been aware of the supernatural writings of contemporaries like Arthur Machen or Algernon Blackwood.
The occult wasn’t the only thing he mocked. His satires on the Austro-Hungary army — some fantastic, some not — got him into trouble in 1917 when the German government launched a press campaign against Austrian Meyrink.
The Green Face was not his first novel. That was the very popular The Golem (seemingly not the inspiration for the early silent film). Still, it sold 90,000 copies.
While I will return to the novel as part of my World War One in Fantastic Fiction, I’m not exactly sure if this novel has any historical connection to that war. Specifically, was the refugee-crammed Amsterdam of this novel and the apocalyptic conclusion some kind of reaction or extrapolation of the war? Or something he wanted to write even before the war?
I call what follows a review, but it’s like a “raw feed” entry in that it’s lightly edited notes.
And you’ll definitely get a plot synopsis, a long synopsis.
Bottom line is that it’s a surprisingly enjoyable novel from a century ago.
Review: The Green Face, Gustav Meyrink, trans. Mike Mitchell, 1916, 2004.
The story starts out in (with a bit of typography recreating the sign) Chidher Green’s Hall of Riddles with protagonist (though the novel has multiple viewpoint characters) Fortunatus Hauberisser, an Austrian engineer. He is amused by the magic tricks on offer and the old books, detailing medical fads or Victorian porn, sometimes hidden behind things like a title purporting to be on the history of cod liver oil. (“Really, isn’t that just the twentieth century in a nutshell: all scientific mumbo-jumbo on the outside and inside: money and sex”, he mutters to himself.)
He also meets the bizarre looking Usibepu, allegedly a Zulu medical man studying with a Professor Arpád Zitter, Professor of Pneumatism. Hauberisser comes across a merchant he vaguely recognizes perusing the porn and who makes an embarrassed and quick exit. Hauberisser suddenly feels a bit sick and, perhaps alluding to the war that has ended, thinks: “It must be some kind of illness – museumitis – unknown to medical science. Or could it be the air of death surrounding all things man-made, whether beautiful or ugly?”
Hauberisser reflects on his friend who expresses a longing for a new world and a weariness over civilization and its wars:
Because I am fed up with playing my part in the old game of civilisation: first peace to prepare for war and then war to win back peace etc., etc.; because I want to see a fresh, unknown world, I want a new sense of wonder such as must strike an infant if he were to become a grown man overnight; night; because I want to be a full-stop rather than eternally a comma in the punctuation of time.
Hauberisser has the almost mystic, dreaming insight that it is difficult to master the eternal smile we will have to master before we can look on the world with new eyes, more difficult than finding “the skull that one bore on one’s neck in a previous existence from among the millions of graves on earth”.
Just then, as if telepathically eavesdropping on his thoughts, the owner of the shop, an old Jew (the story is, in fact, a version of the Wandering Jew legend) chides Hauberisser’s plan to retreat to the desert to find that skull when he is foolish enough to pay for magic tricks and that “books of life” have deceitful covers.
It is the Jew’s complexion that the novel’s title derives from. Hauberisser buys a papier-mâché skull that dispenses cryptic sayings.
The second chapter opens with an explicit extrapolation that the war will lead to an Amsterdam crammed with refugees and there won’t be much employment for the intelligentsia:
Even in the far-off days of the horrors of peace, the income of a master chimney-sweeper or a pork-butcher had far outstripped stripped that of a university professor. Now, however, European society had reached that glorious stage where the old curse, ‘In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread’ was to be understood stood literally and not just metaphorically. Those whose sweat appeared behind, rather than on their brows fell into penury and starved to death.
War orphans are mentioned when Hauberisser’s friend, Baron Pfeill, is solicited for donations. (Though Pfeill, while making a public display of denying charity, has been giving money to an old shoemaker and his daughter.) Pfeill gives a dissertation on the legend of the Wandering Jew, including a painting he once saw of the character with a green face.
Hauberisser asks Pfeill if he’s an anti-Semite. (Meyrink was Jewish.) He replies:
“Wouldn’t dream of it. For one thing, because I have no very high opinion of Christians. The Jews are accused of having no ideals. If that is true, then the Christians have only false ones. The Jews take everything to extremes: obeying laws and breaking laws, piety and impiety, working and idling; the only things they don’t take to extremes are mountain climbing and rowing, what they call ‘Goyim naches’ – and bombast, they’re not very keen on that. Christians, on the other hand, overdo the bombast and underdo just about everything else. As far as religion is concerned, the Jews study their sacred books too closely, the Christians not closely enough.”
Pfeill ruminates on coincidence, that particular types of things may be bound by their own law. He even thinks people with similar physiognomies have similar destinies.
Hauberisser, at a café, meets Polish Count Ciechnoski (his lands in Poland devastated on the war) who talks of various business opportunities to be exploited, that Japan is paying for spies, King Solomon’s gold, and brothels in various cities. Hauberisser thinks him a con man and thinks people like him are making life unbearable and he also notes the “mountains of empty shells everywhere”.
At the same café, Hauberisser meets Zitter for the first time. Zitter thinks religious mania is breaking out everywhere: Rasputins and a “Black Elijah” among the Zulus. Zitter mentions a Zulu he knew with real magical powers who is, in fact, Usibepu. Hauberisser begins to think he is suffering the influence of this global religious mania, that it drove him from his comfortable Austrian home to Amsterdam.
Peace has not, as expected brought peace to the hearts of men, quite the opposite.
Spectres, monstrous yet without form and only discernible through the devastation they wrought, had been called up by faceless and power-hungry bureaucrats in their secret seances and had devoured millions of innocent victims before returning to the sleep from which they had been roused. But there was another phantom, still more horrible, that had long since caught the foul stench of a decaying civilisation in its gaping nostrils and now raised its snake-wreathed countenance from the abyss where it had lain, to mock humanity with the realisation that the juggernaut they had driven for the last four years in the belief it would clear the world for a new generation of free men was a treadmill in which they were trapped for all time.
(Remarkably Meyrink got the length of World War One about right.)
Hauberisser goes to a club filled by haughty aristocrats who are not, he muses, hollow creatures of a thin veneer, no different than others. They have lost their souls and their haughtiness and arrogance are deep and sincere: “… they are aristocrats who would rather die than crawl to anyone”.
Here a scene reminded me of Edward Whittemore’s Quinn’s Shanghai Circus when an “anatomical freak” (deformed genitalia? Double penises?) masturbates on-stage. (Perhaps there is a sort of literary precognition in the sort of attractions that would be found by these “ghosts” in the Weimar Republic of Meyrink’s future. Hauberisser takes it as a sign that the temple of civilization has collapsed, a mask taken off the world when the great and the good behave this way.
But, walking the streets of Amsterdam, one of Meyrink’s mystical analogies occurs: the “fantastic tangle” of rooms in Chider’s Green resembles the mysteries “behind the dark masonry of the forehead”. Like the historical information in starlight, he thinks there might be a possibility of bringing the past back. When he returns to his room, he discovers a hidden compartment and a manuscript.
The viewpoint than shifts to Pfeill who meets Sephardi and his beautiful ward, Juffrouw van Druysen. (Meyrink has an aside about the arrogance and grotesque looks of Hispanic Jews as compared to “Ashkenazim”.) She is near suicide, feeling oppressed by the post-war world but not at the war’s horrors:
“The War split mankind into two, and neither half can understand stand the other. Some have seen Hell open up before them and will bear the image within them for the rest of their lives; for the others it was just so much newsprint. I belong to the latter. I have examined my soul and recognised with horror – I openly admit it – that the suffering of all those millions has made no impression on me whatsoever.”
Juffrouw and Sephardi have been an “awakening of the soul” at the house of the local Swammerdam – who turns out to be an entomologist Pfeill knew as a boy, a man with a mystical ability to find insects. Swammerdam and others (all having mystical names) hold meetings, seeking eternal life which they think is achieved by drawing on their hidden powers to transform their body little by little. (Though this “rebirth” can feel as painful as a crucifixion. Indeed, Swammerdam describes the process as inducing an hysteria of clarity and “mental balance”.)
Meeting Eva aka Juffrouw, Hauberisser is instantly attracted to her. There is discussions of the occult and the Cabala and the usual occult practice of proclaiming correspondences between the ethereal/spiritual/mystical and the real world of science/history/culture. For instance, ideologies and ideals are proclaimed to be like magical spirits that possess humans.
Sephardi discusses the prophecy of the wise human who will be a bridge to life, a state where men can accomplish much by thought, and he believes this man will come out of a marriage between Eva and Hauberisser.
Meyrink does a nice job describing the embarrassment and unease Eva and Hauberisser feel. Eva is world weary and longs for death, but she is intrigued by Hauberisser, and he is smitten with her. Yet, they resent the possible evolution of their relationship may be deformed by Sephardi’s suggestion – though Hauberisser still proposes a “calculated marriage” since life is short, and he hopes real and mutual affection will break out.
Then the plot introduces the disappearance of a cobbler Pfeill extravagantly donated money to, the murder of his daughter, and Egyolk who confesses to the killing. (In the end, it is revealed that the Zulu witch doctor – and “vodoun practioner” – did it.) Eva says she longs for Hauberisser as she longs for death – but she won’t marry him. Hauberisser feels the presence of the angel of death at this moment, the “strange, rapturous ecstasy of dying”. She feels the “very earth gave off a dark malevolence” before she is carried off by the Zulu witch doctor.
Hauberisser is to meet Eva and then finds out she has been kidnapped after he visits Swammerdam – who also tells her she is not dead and discusses the idea that people must call up a spirit to guide them and that no brave person can be truly bad for the true sign that someone carries immortality is their contemptuousness of death. (He describes the sailors Hauberisser hires to search for Eva as wild and unguided but brave.)
Swammerdam also imparts the lesson, through the analogy of a horse he once had, that sometimes we can only be trained to do great deeds, to progress, through pain and we should not see pain as punishment but instruction to overcome a hurdle. Swammerdam links the spirit of the age with Hauberisser plans for Eva:
“Did you not tell me that Eva was afraid of marriage? And it is because destiny tiny wants to keep you from that that it brought you together and tore you apart within such a short time. In any other age than the present, when almost the whole of humanity faces an immense void, what has happened to you could have been merely one of life’s grimaces, but today that seems out of the question.”
Sephardi goes to meet the jailed Egyolk who reveals his past – his family killed in a pogrom in Odessa, his study of the Merkabh, the admission he is not the real killer but he has no desire for the real one to be found, his fearlessness at physical harm or death. While the search is on for Eva, Hauberisser goes back to reading the manuscript he found. Its voice reminds him, at times, of other characters’: Swammerdam, Pfeill, and Sephardi.
It promises an apocalypse – “Soon the world’s clock will strike twelve; the number on its dial is red, is dipped in blood, and by that you will recognise it.” – before a “new dawn”. It urges wakefulness as the key against the “armoury of Death”, “sleep, dream, and stupor” (in that category fall poets and visionaries and those busy with practical affairs). At its end, it tells him that the Wandering Jew (one of many names for the entity who has uniquely “transformed his body into spirit”) is Chider Green.
Hauberisser enters a clear-headed (as opposed to the confusion of mystics) state where he calls Eva to him. Usibepu the Zulu shows up, cataleptic, with Eva. She says she is now ready to marry him but then seemingly falls dead. On the day of Eva’s burial, Swammerdam says (perhaps an indication of what Meyrink felt about the ongoing war when the novel was published): “I know that a time of terrible devastation is at hand that will be ushered in by a storm, the like of which the world has never known.”
There is a mystical scene where Usibepu, presenting a necklace of the vertebrae of the wives he has strangled, is present at the Egyptian style judgement of Eva where her heart is weighed and not found wanting.
The book’s final chapter has Hauberisser in seclusion outside of Amsterdam, seemingly mourning Eva, but really living a second, secret life where he is writing his own, anonymous manuscript of occult wisdom. Hauberisser describes visions of himself seeing himself in a coffin, that he has not crossed a threshold of death but is slowly fading into it. Again, the dawning of a new age is mentioned when men will cast ‘radiant shadows” on the earth.
Hauberisser, living outside of Amsterdam, goes into town to see something reminiscent of the millennial rapture in medieval Munster:
Hordes of believers from the Salvation Army were milling about in the squares, praying out loud or bellowing the psalm, “Mere is a river, the streams whereof shall make glad the city of God”; in a frenzy of religious mania, both men and women were tearing the clothes from each others’ bodies; foaming at the mouth, they sank to their knees, directing a mixture of obscenities and hallelujahs at the heavens above; amid horrible fits of hysterical laughter, fanatical monks scourged their bare backs until the blood ran; here and there epileptics collapsed with shrill screams and rolled twitching over the cobblestones; others, followers of some insane creed, `humbled themselves before the Lord’ by squatting down in the midst of the mesmerized crowd and hopping around like frogs as they croaked, “Jesu, Lover of my soul, Let me to thy bosom fly.”
Sephardi, inspired by a prophecy of Chider Green, has gone to Brazil to found a Jewish state. A New Jerusalem appears in the sky. “Countless hordes of mice” appear around Amsterdam. The water turns brown, craters appear in its surface.
The “Conclusion” of the novel has Hauberisser returning to his house and a huge tornado striking. It leaves only a single apple tree (because it’s associated with the Knowledge of Good and Evil) outside his home untouched. Amsterdam is destroyed. Indeed, he wonders how many cities have survived, if there is “nothing left of a rotten civilisation but a scatter of rubbish.”
Hauberissser has a vision of an Egyptian temple with Eva/Isis, pregnant, with child. Has he died? Has Eva been resurrected? It would seem that the world itself is to be reborn since Hauberisser “could see both the earthly world and the world beyond at the same time. … He was a living man. Both here and beyond.”
It’s a truly apocalyptic, yet hopeful, work for being writ in war and imagines way more than just a new political order coming out of the war but a new spiritual order too.