The Glass Room
By Simon Mawer
Little, Brown, 2009, £ 16.99
‘Light and space…that is everything you need’. So declares a visitor to the spectacular Landauer House, the architectural apotheosis of modernity erected in the days before the black nightmare of World War II. There would be something almost too neat about this perfect construction, this paean to rationality and progress, emerging just at the point the forces of barbarism are about to descend on Europe, were it not of course essentially true. (The story of the Landauer House, the Glass Room, is based in large part upon the modernist Villa Tugendhat in Brno.) The bright dawn of innovation, of creativity and expectation, slips into twilight even as the Glass Room’s final fittings are being made, without ever seeing the expected day of its promise fulfilled. It is an anachronism almost from the moment of its completion.
Insatiable as our appetite seems to be for the full bloody history of the collapse of ‘rational’, ‘progressive’ Europe into insanity and savagery, we are fascinated also by those moments just preceding it, as if, were we to look in the right place, we would somehow discover the point of return, the stone that, placed just right, might alter the flow of history. Mawer himself seems similarly fascinated by the years and months leading up to the invasion of Czechoslovakia, with the first half of the novel reconstructing the early days of the spectacular Landauer House, of its creation by the brilliant architect Rainer von Abt and inhabitation by the Jewish automobile tycoon Viktor Landauer and his non-Jewish wife Liesel.
Yet it remains nigh on impossible to read a novel such as this without an overwhelming sense of fatalism, of all roads leading only to one place — and for the most part Mawer does not attempt to force us to abandon this oppressive sense of inevitability. (Viktor Landauer feels ‘the tremors of uncertainty’ in Czechoslovakia, while his wife Liesel is struck by the image of herself and her husband as ‘evanescent creatures within the transparent walls of glass, like summer mayflies with their gossamer wings and delicate tails and ephemeral lives’). He is interested in all the contradictions — personal and political — inherent in the erection of this impressive, rational building just at the moment it becomes clear that it cannot be built to last, that if it survives at all it will be through sheer luck. What, and where, are the shadows cast by this palace of light?
Beyond the Glass House, the shadow of Nazism and genocide naturally looms large. Within it is drawn Viktor’s working class lover, Kata, a Hungarian-Slovak Jew he meets in Vienna, whose figure casts a shadow of its own over the Landauers’ marriage. Viktor’s discovery ‘that love, the focused, thermic lance 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’ is a shock to him, and to his wife when she discovers that, for all his championing of transparency, he is drawn to the ‘shabby opaque world’ he shares with Kata. And Liesel herself has her own shadowy secrets — the love Hana, her closest friend, has confessed she has for her, and her conflicted, uncertain response to this revelation. The Room ‘is only as rational as the people who inhabit it’, Hana claims: it cannot bestow rationality, only reveal the complex patterns of desire and deceit formed by those beneath its roof.
The subsequent history of the house suffers by contrast, as if, once the original inhabitants have been forced to flee for their own safety, Mawer knows it is necessary to bring us up to speed in time for the eventual reunion (the novel opens with Liesel’s return years later), but is nowhere near as careful about getting there as he was in building up to the moment of the Landauers’ exile. Though the later characters are linked to the Landauers both by theme — of art, of music, of questions of faith and faithlessness in love — and through Hana, the links have a tenuousness about them. Hana’s declaration of love to Zdenka, who works in the house in its later years under Communist rule, is so similar to her prior declaration to Liesel years earlier that it’s hard to think of it as anything other than Hana’s pursuit of the shadow of her lost love, rather than a true expression of feeling.
Perhaps this is because, for all its promise of the future, the Glass Room has been unavoidably claimed by the past. That it was created to be the herald of a new dawn just at the moment darkness descended ties it irrevocably to the past it sought to be free of. Von Abt’s great project was ‘to take Man out of the cave and float him in the air’, away from the shadows and into the light. But to float forever is to exist beyond history, outside the unpredictabilities of human behaviour, an impossibility. Any space that Man inhabits can only bring the shadows rushing back.