Friday, July 1, 2011

The Glass Room, by Simon Mawer

If you go to the Unesco web site and read the history of the Villa Tugendhat, you'll have the plot outline for The Glass Room.  Mies van der Rohe, the architect, appears in the novel as Rainer von Abt; industrialist Fritz Tugendhat becomes car manufacturer Viktor Landauer, and the house -- which is less like the setting of the novel and more like its central character -- is the Landauer House.

I did not love this book with a passion, but the more I reflect upon it, the more I admire it.  I think I may grow to love it, either with time or with another reading. The book shares much in common with the functionalist design of the house:  controlled, minimalist, cerebral. Von Abt tells Viktor Landauer and his German wife, Liesel, "I will design you a house. But form without ornament is all I can give you."  Although they have reservations about his radical plan, both of them find themselves repeating their architect's mantra from time to time:  "Ornament is crime."  Mawer also seems to have adopted this functionalist motto.

When the story begins, Czechoslovakia is new, and Landauer feels that his house is a bold symbol of the young nation's enthusiasm and vigor.
"We" -- he meant those newly created political beings, the Czechoslovaks -- "have a new direction to take, a new world to make. We are neither German nor Slav. We can choose our history, that's the point." ...
...the Glass Space becoming the Glass Dream, a dream that went with the spirit of the brand new country in which they found themselves, a state in which being Czech or German or Jew would not matter, in which democracy would prevail and art and science would combine to bring happiness to all people. 

For a few years, at least, Viktor and Liesel enjoy the optimism of their new nation, new marriage, new house, and two new children, but not even their glass house can keep out shadows.  The National Socialists are rumbling to the west, and on a business trip to Vienna, Viktor falls for a young woman, Kata, and begins an affair.  Gradually, he knows that he feels more than lust for Kata, and his earlier comment -- "maybe everyone should live in a glass house" -- now seems naive and absurd.
Sitting in the train on the journey home Viktor Landauer, the man of quality, of qualities, attributes and gifts, feels only a deep and unfocused remorse, like the sadness that comes after coitus, an emotion for which he has a Czech word that he cannot translate into German with any exactness: litost.  Rue, regret for a whole universe of things, the irrevocable nature of one's life, the unbearable sorrow of being, the fact that things cannot be changed, that love, the focused light of passion and hunger should be centred not on the figure of his wife but on the body and soul of a half-educated, part-time tart. 

Viktor also realises that his family will not be able to stay in the glass house, or indeed, in Czechoslovakia. Although Liesel is German, he is a Jew, and their two children mischlinge.  Whilst some of their friends, Jew and Gentile alike, choose to wait and see, Viktor persuades Liesel that they must migrate to neutral Switzerland.  He is able to carry on business there, and they live in far from straitened circumstances, yet Liesel feels like a refugee, aching for her home, her glass house.

Mawer brings us back to the central character, where we find the Landauer House converted to a laboratory.  A young German scientist uses the latest equipment and techniques to measure and characterise the people of people of various races.  Surely, he hopes (as do his Nazi superiors), he will identify at least one fail-proof marker of the Jew, the degenerate race.  He learns that the glass house was the home of a Jew, and while this disgusts him, he cannot help but admire the stark power of its design.

When the Soviets invade from the east, the house hosts a group of Russian soldiers on their way to Berlin. The communist government of Czechoslovakia later seizes the house and converts it to a children's gymnasium and physical therapy centre.  The house wins the grudging respect of even the most dour Communists. Although the idea of one family having the wealth to own such a vast home is anathema, the simplicity of the design avoids bourgeois excess.

Throughout, the house is the scene of love, betrayal, hatred, violence and art, but the house -- that particular house -- saves the novel from lapsing into sloppy melodrama.  Mawer stayed centred in the house built upon that golden architectural (and literary) rule: Ornament is crime.  The emotions, like the lines and materials of the glass room, are minimalist. Which is more amazing? That the glass house in Czechoslovakia has survived the tumult of the past eight decades as well as it has, or that Simon Mawer seized upon it as the focal point of his novel?

The Glass Room was on the short-list for the 2009 Man Booker Prize; it won the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction and the Wingate Prize.

A vocabulary trinket:  uxorious (adj) having or showing an excessive or submissive fondness for one's wife, from Latin uxoriosus, from uxor, 'wife'.   Liesel, having discovered Viktor's infidelity, bitterly observes the ducks on a Swiss pond.  "Uxorious birds, she thought, content in their couples..."

8 April 2012: The Guardian reports that the Villa Tugendhat is now completely and magnificently restored:

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