I read a Leo Perutz novel or two about 10-15 years ago (it was Little Apple, and perhaps also The Marquis of Bolibar), but I’d forgotten all about it, and since no one else mentioned Leo Perutz in the interim (forgive me if I have overlooked the many reviews of his books on your blogs), I thought perhaps I might have imagined him. But no, he was indeed a Prague-based novelist of Jewish extraction writing in German in the first half of the c20th (although this book actually scrapes into the second). And it’s a pity he’s been so overlooked, because I enjoyed this novel a lot more than a certain more famous novel by a certain more famous Prague-based novelist of Jewish extraction writing in German in the first half of the c20th, which I happen also to be reading at the moment.
By Night Under the Stone Bridge is, in fact, barely a novel. It is more a collection of interlocked short stories, which are pitched somewhere between what I am going to call the Yiddish tradition (even though much of it may not have been written in Yiddish) and the tradition of the Arabian Nights. So yes, we’re very much in the story-telling mode of the short story – that particular story-telling mode which appears timeless, and might as easily have been told, perhaps in exactly the same manner, three hundred years before.
For it is in the late c16th / early c17th century that these tales are set, a point in time when Bohemia became the focus of world (or at least European (or at least German)) attention, as it endeavoured, through its passion for religious controversy, to spark off the Thirty Years War. The book is replete with historical characters, who are characters also out of Jewish legend: Rudolf II, Rabbi Loew, Mordechai Meisl, the young nobleman Wallenstein, and the revered astrologer Johannes Kepler, about all of whom, of course, we’ve read many other stories. The basic plot – if plot there be – is that Mordechai Meisl, a Jewish merchant, possessed of the gift of endless wealth, secretly bankrolls the profligate empire of Rudolf II (an idea which is very similar, in kind and treatment, to Feuchtwanger’s Jew Suss), whilst in his dreams Rudolf II sleeps with his wife Esther (whose morphic treachery brings some sort of plague upon Prague etc. etc.). But aside from the rich historical tapestry, it is the tales which dazzle (there’s one idea for a story in here I intend to steal for myself, it’s so good – a classic Arabian Nights type idea – in which Mordechi Meisl, missing his wife who died a few years previous and seeing how painters are able to bring characters from the Old Testament back before us, commissions all the artists in the world to paint his wife for him, offering a great reward for the one who succeeds – something which, much to his frustration, they all fail in, having no idea what his wife looked like … It will be an easy theft, since a) no one read Perutz; and b) some instinct tells me it might not have been Perutz’s idea either).
So there you are, and not a single Golem in sight!!