To tell the story of a house over 60 years enables you to write a number of stories, as connected or disconnected as you wish. And to create that satisfying feeling the reader has of knowing some connection, or some recognition as the various strands cross each other, or don’t …
The Glass Room by Simon Mawer does just that. It was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2009 and I can see why. It is a remarkable novel, and I’m most grateful to my American friends who recommended it to me. It contains some beautiful writing. Set mostly in Czechoslovakia, the story takes us through the optimistic days of that country’s First Republic between the wars, the German occupation in WW2, the Communist era around the time of the Russian invasion of 1968, and briefly out again into freedom after the Velvet Revolution of 1989.
The house is the Landauer House, inspired during a chance meeting in Venice of a wealthy honeymooning couple (Viktor and Liesel Landauer) and a brilliant cutting-edge architect (Rainer von Abt). He designs and builds for them the latest in 1930 living – a house utterly devoid of ornament, with no curves anywhere, a flat roof, using expensive and daring materials, the main living area largely encased in glass, affording a stunning view of the nearby city. And in this Glass Room is an onyx wall, which produces breathtaking lighting and colour effects as the light changes.
The Landauer House is in fact based on the actual Villa Tugendhat, designed by no less than Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and built in 1929–1930. It is near Brno (Město in the novel) in what is today the Czech Republic, and is on the list of UNESCO World Cultural Heritage sites. It too has a Glass Room and an onyx wall. You can visit it but you must book at least two months in advance (see http://www.tugendhat.eu/en/).
The Villa Tugendhat
We read of the inspiration, design and building of the Villa, alongside the lives of the Landauers. Viktor is Jewish, and the proprietor of a car-making company. Leisel brings up their family, and has a close friend Hana, who leads a less conventional life. On business trips to Vienna Viktor comes to regularly visit Kata, who prostitutes herself to raise money to feed her child Marika.
Due to an extraordinary coincidence (which I forgive, because it enables the story to intensify and progress dramatically) these families are thrown together by the Nazi annexation of Austria in 1938 and the subsequent absorption by Germany of part and then all of the Czech lands.
I won’t spoil things by saying any more about what happens to the Landauers. Suffice it to say that their being wealthy and Viktor’s being Jewish tell against them and the house is confiscated and is used by the Nazi occupiers and subsequently the Communist state. This enables us to get the other stories. For a time during the German occupation it is a eugenics laboratory, where people are measured en masse, in a bid to find physiological identifiers that would enable someone to be immediately racially classified (especially if you were Jewish). This section is largely seen from the point of view of Hauptsturmführer Stahl, who’s in charge of this operation. He has an unexpected sexual awakening in the Glass Room.
We read too of the Villa’s liberation by the Red Army (a liberated occasion, one might say), and then its use in the Communist period as a gym for children at a physiotherapy clinic. Here we read of another love story, of Zdenka (who runs the gym) and the doctor Tomáš.
Ever-present in all these stories are the elegant and unconventional Hana, and the dodgy Laník, the Landauers’ chauffeur who becomes the Villa’s caretaker when they leave. (How he is paid all this time is not explained.) There is a moving coda to the book.
Examples of the writing:
“In the Glass Room they mounted the onyx wall. The slabs had veins of amber and honey, like the contours of some distant, prehistoric landscape. They were polished to a mirror-like gloss, and once in place, the stone seemed to take hold of the light, blocking it, reflecting it, warming it with a soft, feminine hand and then, when the sun set over the Špilas fortress and shone straight at the stone, glowing fiery red.
The onyx wall
‘Who would have imagined,’ Hana said when she first saw the phenomenon, ‘that such passion could lie inside inert rock?’
Finally they laid the linoleum, linoleum the colour of ivory, as lucid as spilled milk. During the day the light from the windows flooded over it and rendered it almost translucent, as though a shallow pool lay between the entrance and the glass; during the evening the ceiling lights – petalled blooms of frosted glass – threw reflections down into the depths. On the upper floor there were rooms, zimmer, boxes with walls and doors; but down here there was room, raum, space.”
“Something remarkable is happening to the onyx wall: slanting through the great windows, the light from the setting sun is gathering in the depths of the stone, seething inside it like a fire, filling it with red and gold. This concurrence of sun and stone seems elemental, like an eclipse or the appearance of a comet, some kind of portent. Or hell. The fires of hell.”
Published by Abacus.