Little, Brown £17.99 (404pp) £16.29 (free p&p) from the Independent Bookshop: 0870 079 8897
The Glass Room, By Simon Mawer
Friday 13 February 2009
As someone who stood outside the famous functionalist Tugendhat house in Brno a quarter of a century ago, delivering a silent tribute to its power to inspire freedom in what was then a closed world, I couldn't resist the thrilling and satisfying conceit Simon Mawer has woven around his fictional "Landauer house". In this novel, Viktor Landauer, a rich motor manufacturer, and his wife Liesel employ a visionary German architect, Reiner von Abt, to build the house in the optimistic decade after the First World War.
He belongs to the Viennese school of Adolf Loos which declared that all ornamentation was a crime. There are practical worries about the capacity of flat roofs to leak, and the cost of an entire interior wall of onyx, but what comes to stand on a hill overlooking the Moravian capital is fabulous: a meditation in concrete and plate glass on the humanising power of the straight line. With the Glass Room that forms the open-plan living area, the building will always be controversial. Mawer has it tell a story of the 20th century.
The house rises as Liesel's first child, Ottilie, is gestating, a metaphor for the new invention of Czechoslovakia. It's a creation out of the ruins of the Habsburg Empire, and stands for reason, cosmopolitanism and openness.
Mawer's many characters are all distinctive. Liesel's bisexual friend Hana is just how one pictures a sophisticated, restless woman of the era. Viktor's mistress Kata has a fine relationship with her fatherless child. The sly chauffeur Lanik is vulgar and grudging, though redeemed by his sister's insistence that he should curb his tongue and be a bit kinder. These varied people, and equally realistic children, end up leading lives in the glass room. Transparency is Mawer's controlling metaphor; but even the glass room has its hidden areas and locked doors.
Mawer enjoys exploding the myth that modernist architecture is somehow cold. As von Abt says, the vertical line is male, the horizontal female; where they meet, the male penetrates the female. Many love scenes, through generations and changing circumstances, happen in that space one might carelessly call magical – except that the theme of this compelling novel requires a rational vocabulary. There was a 20th-century dream of reason - sexually generous, international, optimistic - and it's a fine thing to be reminded of it.
The book has the feeling of being the author's tribute to the history of a country, and people, to whose First Republic Hitler put paid barely after 20 years of astonishing flourishing. But it's not a history lesson. The text is convincingly studded with a mixture of German and Czech that was the lingua franca of families like the Landauers. The Jewish fates of Viktor, Kata and others are lightly handled, which seems just right in this optimistic, joyful but never facile vision of human achievement. Mawer's perfect pacing clinches a wholly enjoyable and moving read.
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