Boyd Tonkin: Not so far away as the Booker goes Czech
The Week In Books
Friday 11 September 2009
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.
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