The spectacular residence pictured above is the Villa Tugendhat in Brno in the Czech Republic. Designed by Mies van der Rohe, built in 1930 and designated a UNESCO World Heritage Centre, it now adds to its distinction by being the central character in Simon Mawer’s new novel, The Glass Room. I’m not spoiling the book by including the picture — Mawer says in an Author’s Note preceding the novel that while it is “a work of fiction, the house and its setting are not fictional.” He doesn’t actually name the Villa, but drawings of various elevations precede each chapter and it took no time to figure out what the “real” house is. For more pictures and description (and they are useful to a reader), here’s a link to the Villa Tugendhat website.
The Glass Room is the latest, for me, of 2009’s “widescreen” novels, a very useful concept coined by John Self at the Asylum: “…ambitious works containing a large cast of characters, far flung geographical settings, and modern history or political issues rendered in fiction.” There is one crucial difference with this work however. As the title indicates, the geographical setting is constant — the charcters and their part in history are what is far flung.
Victor Landauer is owner and director of an assortment of Czech manufacturing enterprises, the biggest of which makes automobiles. It is 1929, he has just married Liesel and they are honeymooning in Venice. Liesel’s parents have given the couple a spectacular piece of land overlooking the town of Mĕsto on which to build a home. The First Republic of Czechoslovakia, carved from defeated empires after the Great War, is still young, but a nation of hope — the young, rich couple and their modern tastes are a reflection of that.
While in Venice, they meet Modernist architect Rainer Von Abt and are quickly introduced to his mantra: “Ornamentation is crime” (a slight adaptation of Adolf Loos’ famous essay Ornament and Crime). He begins sketching concepts and Victor and Leisel are soon on their way to building one of Europe’s most interesting modern houses. Von Abt, like most Modernists, believes that structure should be used to “create” space, not “enclose” it. That’s why two walls of the glass room are floor-to-ceiling glass and two of the very large planes can be lowered into the basement to extend the room into the outdoor slope over the village. An interior onyx wall, which is what gives the real building away as the Villa Tugendaht, captures and creates an interior “sun” at certain times of the year and day. That process of creating space — and the story of the house that results — is one of the strongest themes of the book.
Ornamentation may be crime, but as anyone who has visited a Modernist building or home can testify, the alternative has some downsides of its own — I’d characterize it as a formal, almost chilly, austerity that makes these buildings wonderful to visit, but not terribly attractive to live or work in. Where Mawer is at his best in The Glass Room is when he takes that chilly architectural austerity and transfers it to the human relationship of Victor and Liesel. Having been introduced to two characters who are interesting and likable, once their son and daughter are born, we watch their relationship develop the same kind of non-ornamented formality that their home possesses.
That kind of austerity cannot be sustained for 400 pages and the author moves onto much trickier ground when he begins to develop the warmer human relationships that are required to produce the tension that is essential to the novel. In Victor’s case, it is a relationship that starts out with a part-time tart, Kata, in Vienna, and turns into an obsessive kind of love. For Liesel, it is her continuing friendship with Hana, a very modern, bisexual, gossipy character, who would like to have a lesbian relationship with her, but friendship is also just fine.
For me, those two relationships at first seemed forced, sentimental and verging on the melodramatic. Having loved the opening portions of the book centred on the Modernist house, it was threatening to turn into a soap opera.
Mawer saves that by taking a bold risk. While the relationships continue, he returns the house to centre stage — and makes it the focus of unfolding history. Czechoslovakia is one of the first nations to be forced to kneel to the Nazis, Victor (and Hana’s husband, Oscar) are both Jews. While Victor and Liesel do escape, first to Switzerland and eventually the United States, “their” house remains.
During the war, the Germans take it over and make it into a “scientific” laboratory, a biometric centre that “measures” people in a search to validate the Nazi premise that Jews and Slavs are inferior races. A whole new cast of characters (with the exception of Hana) enters the book. When the Germans are defeated, the conquering Soviets first use it as a billet, complete with horses; after the war it becomes a physiotherapy centre for polio victims. Another cast of characters is introduced.
While The Glass Room is a historical novel, it is not a conventional one. Most (such as Kamila Shamsie’s Burnt Shadows — reviewed here) take a cast of characters through a range of geography affected by history. Mawer, on the other hand, chooses a very restricted geographical point, builds an interesting structure there and then explores how history passes by that point. I was reminded frequently while reading this book of Ivo Andric’s Nobel Prize winning The Bridge on the Drina, althought that spectacularly good book extends over centuries rather than the seven decades of this book.
That technique allows Mawer to escape one of the traps of “widescreen” novels — having so many storylines open that the final pages are the literary equivalent of watching someone carefully pack up several suitcases in preparation for a very long holiday. There is another trap that he doesn’t escape — keeping a large cast of characters together often involves inserting some very unlikely coincidences. I was willing to grant the author that licence; others might not be so forgiving.
I will be very interested in how The Glass Room fares in this year’s Man Booker judging. It is Mawer’s eighth novel (and the first I have read) and he was long-listed for Mendel’s Dwarf. On the positive side, his reader-friendly prose style make this book both literary and accessible. On the other hand, I could understand where some of the risks that he takes that I find successful others would find to be serious flaws. We shall see come July.
A final hypothesis. While I know it verges on heresy to say it, some books can be judged by their cover and I suspect this is one of them. I was looking forward to this book from the moment I saw the cover on the internet (it is detail from Roger de La Fresnaye’s The Seated Man, or The Architect) and it met my high expectations. If you don’t like the cover (“I like pictures that look like pictures”), I suspect you would find the book equally unappealing.