Boyd Tonkin: Not so far away as the Booker goes Czech

The Week In Books

I don't know whether the heir to the throne takes any interest in the Man Booker shortlist, but someone should send him a copy of Simon Mawer's The Glass Room. Inspired by the real – and still-standing – Villa Tugendhat in Brno, the novel not only follows the rise and fall of liberal, creative inter-war Czechoslovakia via the fortunes of the Landauer family. It challenges the Charles Windsor doctrine that modernism in the arts – and architecture above all – coldly scorned human needs and natures. As Lesley Chamberlain's review for The Independent put it, "There was a 20th-century dream of reason - sexually generous, international, optimistic - and it's a fine thing to be reminded of it". Or, in the prince's case, perhaps to learn that it existed in the first place.

There are good reasons to hail Mawer's shortlisting beyond his book's defiance of prejudice in palaces. An eighth novel, The Glass Room shows that unhyped authors with a substantial backlist of finely-crafted fiction can still catch the judges' eye. Every sign that long-haul quality can compete helps - at a time when publishers seek any excuse to cast out from their stables mid-career novelists who have failed to trouble the bestseller lists.

With luck, Mawer's novel might also ignite a deeper curiosity about the culture and nation it salutes. Czechoslovakia, remember, was the land whose dismemberment Neville Chamberlain agreed with Hitler at Munich in September 1938, after a radio broadcast in which the PM scoffed at "a quarrel in a far-away country between people of whom we know nothing". Notwithstanding cheap flights and boozy weekends, we don't know that much more these days about the Czech and Slovak republics – even though the wittiest of Czech-born post-modernists has been around since, after the Nazi invasion of March 1939, Zlin-born Tomas Straussler began the long journey that turned him into Sir Tom Stoppard OM .

In the 20 years since the "Velvet Revolution" rang down the curtain on a hated Communist state, many Czechs and Slovaks have reclaimed a local legacy of progress and experiment that The Glass Room explores. Vaclav Havel himself, dissident jester turned long-serving president, hailed from a family of liberal builders and developers.

After 1989, this home-grown history of innovation offered a chance to move beyond Habsburg revivalist kitsch. All credit to Mawer for showing British readers that Czech culture of the not-so-distant past means more than the sub-Kafka Gothic theme-park all too visible in tourist Prague today.

Satisfied readers of The Glass Room may also fancy a further dip into recent fiction from the twin republics. The lasting lustre of the big names connected with the Soviet-bloc era and its ending – Havel himself, Milan Kundera, Ivan Klima, Arnost Lustig, Josef Skvorecky – still overshadows their younger heirs. A couple of years ago, I attended the Prague book fair and discovered a contemporary scene that deserves to be much more widely known abroad. At present, only one novel by Jachym Topol – the Martin Amis-cum-Irvine Welsh of the post-1989 transition – exists in English, although Portobello plans to publish his Gargling Tar next year. Emil Hakl's beguiling take on Czech history via a Prague pub crawl, Of Kids and Parents, is available from Twisted Spoon Press. Its offbeat comedy should lead fans back to the spring that feeds this very Czech brew: the great ironist Bohumil Hrabal.

Meanwhile, I would love to see a translation of Hana Andronikova's acclaimed historical novel, The Sound of the Sundial. Like Stoppard, Andronikova comes from Zlin. Her book, a Czech bestseller, touches on family histories that parallel the playwright's, as migrants from the Bata shoe-factory town travel to India and America in the shadow of the Nazi takeover and the looming Holocaust. If The Glass Room can shine in Britain, so should Andronikova. But who will dare open the door?

P.S.As a publisher with Faber & Faber, TS Eliot (left) acted not just as an advocate for cutting-edge prose and poetry but a briskly modernising executive. A British Library exhibition that opens on Monday, "In a Bloomsbury Square", confirms that the poet was more of a new broom than an Old Possum when it came to the business of books. The champion of daring voices, from James Joyce to Ted Hughes, wrote first-rate blurbs as well. In its 80th birthday year, his company has been raising its online and e-book profile in a way the former director would applaud. This week saw the creation of Faber Digital as a separate division to promote what CEO Stephen Page calls an "extraordinary bank of copyrights" across the new-media landscape. Tom would cheer - but he might also like to have a definitive edition of the poems of TS Eliot. That does not yet exist.

b.tonkin@independent.co.uk

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules

film
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'

film
Arts and Entertainment
<p><strong>2008</strong></p>
<p>Troubled actor Robert Downey Jr cements his comeback from drug problems by bagging the lead role in Iron Man. Two further films follow</p>

film
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book

books
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Panic! In The Disco's Brendon Urie performs on stage

music
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Radio 4's Today programme host Evan Davis has been announced as the new face of Newsnight

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams performing on the Main Stage at the Wireless Festival in Finsbury Park, north London

music
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Mathison returns to the field in the fourth season of Showtime's Homeland

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Crowds soak up the atmosphere at Latitude Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Meyne Wyatt and Caren Pistorus arrive for the AACTA Aawrds in Sydney, Australia

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rick Astley's original music video for 'Never Gonna Give You Up' has been removed from YouTube

music
Arts and Entertainment
Quentin Blake's 'Artists on the beach'

Artists unveils new exhibition inspired by Hastings beach

art
Arts and Entertainment
MusicFans were left disappointed after technical issues
Arts and Entertainment
'Girl with a Pearl Earring' by Johannes Vermeer, c. 1665
artWhat is it about the period that so enthrals novelists?
Arts and Entertainment
Into the woods: The Merry Wives of Windsor at Petersfield
theatreOpen-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
Arts and Entertainment
James singer Tim Booth
latitude 2014
Arts and Entertainment
Lee says: 'I never, ever set out to offend, but it can be an accidental by-product'
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
tvThe judges were wowed by the actress' individual cooking style
Arts and Entertainment
Nicholas says that he still feels lucky to be able to do what he loves, but that there is much about being in a band he hates
musicThere is much about being in a band that he hates, but his debut album is suffused with regret
Arts and Entertainment
The singer, who herself is openly bisexual, praised the 19-year-old sportsman before launching into a tirade about the upcoming Winter Olympics

books
Arts and Entertainment
music
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

    Screwing your way to the top?

    Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
    Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

    Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

    Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

    The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

    Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
    US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

    Meet the US Army's shooting star

    Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform
    Climate change threatens to make the antarctic fur seal extinct

    Take a good look while you can

    How climate change could wipe out this seal
    Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier for the terminally ill?

    Farewell, my lovely

    Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier?
    Man Booker Prize 2014 longlist: Crowdfunded novel nominated for first time

    Crowdfunded novel nominated for Booker Prize

    Paul Kingsnorth's 'The Wake' is in contention for the prestigious award
    Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster to ensure his meals aren't poisoned

    Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster

    John Walsh salutes those brave souls who have, throughout history, put their knives on the line
    Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

    Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

    A $25m thriller starring Sam Worthington to be made in God's Own Country
    Will The Minerva Project - the first 'elite' American university to be launched in a century - change the face of higher learning?

    Will The Minerva Project change the face of higher learning?

    The university has no lecture halls, no debating societies, no sports teams and no fraternities. Instead, the 33 students who have made the cut at Minerva, will travel the world and change the face of higher learning
    The 10 best pedicure products

    Feet treat: 10 best pedicure products

    Bags packed and all prepped for holidays, but feet in a state? Get them flip-flop-ready with our pick of the items for a DIY treatment
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games

    Commonwealth Games 2014

    Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games
    Jack Pitt-Brooke: Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism

    Jack Pitt-Brooke

    Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism
    How Terry Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

    How Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

    Over a hundred rugby league players have contacted clinic to deal with mental challenges of game