One of the most acclaimed books to be published in the last couple of years is the Man Booker Prize shortlisted novel, The Glass Room, by the British writer, Simon Mawer. It is a book with more than a passing relevance to the Czech Republic, as the hero is a building that stands to this day on the edge of the city of Brno.
The Villa Tugendhat, designed in the late 1920s by Mies van der Rohe, is a celebration of steel, glass and space, an enduring reminder that modern materials can make for exquisitely sculptural architecture. In Simon Mawer’s novel, the villa takes on a fictional identity. He creates two hugely likeable characters in the couple who commission the villa, Liesel Landauer and her husband Viktor, a thriving Jewish industrialist. As the Nazi occupation looms, they are forced to leave the house of their dreams and the villa becomes an SS-run clinic, a small part in the mosaic of the Holocaust. After the war, its slide into obscurity continues, although the villa and in particular its amazing “Glass Room” remain closely tied to the fate of the people who come and go in the decades that follow. Their lives intertwine, reflected through the fate of a single building.
Simon Mawer was in Prague recently and I took the opportunity to talk to him about his book. I began by asking him how difficult it was to write about a building – capturing a sense of light, space, texture and movement in words.
“It is the problem of being a novelist, but also one of the delights. Part of the trickery of writing novels is that you’ve got to write about things that are not necessarily cerebral. You’ve got to be able to write about the visual.”
And the way that we talk about architecture, the ideas behind architecture, inspire the way we see it…
“Yes, it has to be seen in context. Just nearby here on Wenceslas Square, you can see some buildings, the Baťa building, for example, which many a tourist would walk past and dismiss, thinking it’s a piece of 1960s, typical office block type architecture, whereas in fact it’s a classic, built at about the time that the Tugendhat House was built, which was the model for the Landauer House in The Glass Room. And it is important to see these things in context – particularly with this style of architecture, which can be so brilliant, and is possibly too easy to design, because it did lead throughout the 60s and 70s to some very poor imitations.”
I find the scene very interesting when Liesel, one of the central characters in the book, comes back to the house after many years; she’s blind, so she is actually experiencing the building through how she feels the space, through her senses.
“Yes, this is true. And that probably was the first passage that I wrote, and for no real reason at the time I had this idea of Liesel not being able to see it any longer, which of course, as you imply, forced her to apprehend it through other means – memory of course, but also the other senses.”
The building, the Landauer Villa, makes no attempt not to be the Tugendhat Villa, which really does stand in Brno, designed by Mies van der Rohe. You even put Mies van der Rohe’s words into the mouth of the architect in the novel, Rainer von Abt, when he talks about being a poet of space and light. I find it fascinating that we have this building, which survives through this very traumatic period of Czech history over seventy years, while people and go and horrendous things happen. Yet the building, the work of art, remains there from beginning to end.
“Yes, I think almost the last words of the book refer to the fact that it is just a building…”
And all around them is the Glass Room, a place of balance and reason, an ageless place held in a rectilinear frame that handles light like a substance and volume like a tangible material and denies the very existence of time.
And in a sense this is a building which embodies the spirit of internationalism, of openness.
“Yes, one of the themes of the book – maybe it’s the principle theme – is the contrast between the transparency of the architecture and the opposite, the lack of transparency of the human lives that go on within it. We can aspire to transparency, and politicians do all the time, but in fact it’s something that we don’t achieve.”
And this book, The Glass Room, is not your first book set in Brno. You also wrote Mendel’s Dwarf, a novel about Gregor Mendel, the father of genetic science, who lived in a monastery in the 19th century in Brno. Tell me about your interest in this country.
“Well, that was the start of it, really, the interest in Gregor Mendel. I’m a biologist by training and the first time I ever came to the Czech Republic, which is now, I think, 16 years ago, the first place we went to was Brno. At that stage I didn’t even know that the Tugendhat House was there. I knew about it, but I didn’t know that it was actually in Brno. But I did know about Mendel, and that’s what I went to see. I went to see the Augustinian convent in Staré Brno, and from that grew Mendel’s Dwarf, the novel. Incidentally, the translation into Czech has just finished and is going to be published this autumn.”
And that led you on to The Glass Room…
“Yes, I have to admit that when I got to Brno and started looking around, I was fascinated by it as a city. It’s a city which it is possible to understand, possibly partly because of its size, quite quickly. It’s a city with an awful lot of interest to it. It’s structurally interesting, it’s historically interesting. It’s a city which always feels put down by Prague, I think, and previously, of course, put down by Vienna, which is far closer, and I think it’s a city with great character. It’s also produced a remarkable number of people of importance…”
Some of whom drift in and out of The Glass Room – people who visit the Tugendhat Villa, or Landauer Villa, as it is in the novel.
“Yes, there was obviously a lively cultural life to the city between the wars, and there are a number of names that I’ve put in for amusement, one of them being Milan Kundera’s father, who is just mentioned in passing. He was a musician and a pupil of Janáček. Another one is another musician who deserves a lot more attention, Kapralová…”
…Vítězslava Kapralová, who died at a very early age, but had already produced some fantastic music…
“Yes, a quite extraordinary character, with an extraordinary story, which has been written about in what I believe is called The Novel by Jiří Mucha, her husband. But it’s only available in Czech, which is annoying!”
You mention Milan Kundera’s father. Comparisons have been made by critics between one of the characters in the novel, Tomáš, and Tomáš in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, who in a sense is a similar character, living in communist Czechoslovakia and looking for his own identity through his affairs with women.
“That was a completely conscious echo of Kundera, because what I wanted to do at that stage was to change the tone of the novel. I didn’t really set out to write parody or pastiche; I did want to change the tone of the writing though, when it came to the post-war period compared with the 1920s and 1930s. I had in the back of my mind during the part in the ‘20s and ‘30s writers like Robert Musil, another native of Brno, and then, shifting to the post-war period, I wanted to get some flavour of the writing of the time, thinking of Kundera, not necessarily The Unbearable Lightness of Being, although the name, Tomáš, is there. Actually I used Tomáš, because I rather like it as a name. Yes, he has his philosophy, a personal one, which he uses for trying to deal with the situation, which is essentially oppressive and appalling, and his idea is that he will ignore the past and will ignore the future and the present is all that matters.”
It is interesting that Tomáš is a doctor. There are several doctors who appear in the course of the book. There is also Hauptsturmführer Stahl, who is a horrific character from the time of the occupation, who is carrying out experiments in eugenics, in human genetics. In your writing and also as a biologist I know that you are interested in the relationship between science and art, and between science and morality.
“I think this is enormously important and interesting. I’m not a geneticist as such, but it is the aspect of biology which interests me the most. And it is extraordinarily important – though it is also easy to overemphasize its importance. I don’t have any doubt whatever about the fact that there is an awful lot more to human machinery merely than the blueprint, but I have no doubt that the blueprint is there.”
After we have seen a lot of passion and warmth in the earlier part of the book – and the wonderful descriptions of the onyx wall that the architect persuades Liesel and Viktor to commission him to include in the house, then there is a sudden turn. They have to leave the building and it becomes a place where genetic experiments are being carried out during the German occupation. Hauptsturmführer Stahl, whose name actually means “steel” in German, is carrying out these experiments. Here is an extract that puts the building into this different, and horrific context.
Precision, the cool gaze of scientific objectivity. The measurement is as perfect as the dimensions of the Glass Room itself.
“Now we will just take some photographs, and then everything is done. Please take off your gown and hand it to the assistant. This is a scientific examination. We are all scientists here. And the records are entirely confidential.”
And, of course, we all know what these experiments were part of. They were part of the machinery of genocide. Was it very hard writing about the Holocaust? It is a subject that so many people have written about and it is very difficult for us, people who were born after the Second World War, to be able to approach it in a way that is meaningful or honest.
“Well, I think the important thing is that I don’t write about the Holocaust. It’s all there by implication. You use the word experiments, but strictly speaking I am not writing about experiments. They are genetic measurements, measurements of phenotype, which is very different from experimentation. The experimentation that was carried out in the name of genetics and race, which took place in Auschwitz under Mengele, was absolutely horrific and barbaric, and everybody knows about that. What I’ve shown happening in The Glass Room is the measurement of human phenotype that took place not just during the war, but before the war, which was a perfectly standard part of genetics, biometrics – it started off in Britain, actually, under Galton, a cousin of Charles Darwin, and became very important, particularly in German science, and all the people who were concerned with it, people like Stahl, actually continued after the war and remained in positions of great importance in genetic institutes throughout Germany. So it was very much the academic side of things, and we know that there was the awful dark side that was going on, that’s implied but never described in the novel. Also, of course, this less dark side we now understand was complete nonsense from the scientific point of view. But it was very much believed then, that you could do things like measure people’s features and derive various indices which would enable you to talk about the Slav race, the Aryan race, the Jewish race, things like that. It was all standard academic stuff then.”
And in today’s science, with advances in the study of DNA etc, is there a danger of that coming back, because there are all sorts of scientific measurements that can be made about where a person’s origins are, that seem to us today far more scientific, or more objective – for want of a better word – but could potentially be abused.
“Yes, I think they could, and from our perspective they certainly will be abused. One of the obvious things – and Mendel’s Dwarf deals with this – is the fact that we will gain control over our genetics and we will be able to choose qualities that we would wish to see in our children. We’ll only be able to do it in a relatively limited way for an awfully long time, I suspect, because the thing about human genetics is that it is very complex, and we will take an awfully long time to understand how that works, but we will be able to choose individual genetic traits. Whether we do or not is an issue which, of course, remains to be dealt with. But we will be able to. My great fear is that what will happen is that, instead of having state genetics, as the Nazis wanted, we’ll end up with a sort of free market genetics, where the rich will be able to choose the qualities they want for their children, and, because they’ll be lacking in imagination, judging by the way human taste goes, they’ll all want their children to look like Ken and Barbie.”
It’s quite a scary thought. Another thing that I find quite disturbing in The Glass Room is that there seems to be a great deal of fatalism in it. People aren’t really able to influence their fates. I read one of your essays, in which you ask the question, “What if God were to play dice?” There is a sense of us being in a world where nasty things happen to us that we have precious little chance to influence – which seems to be the case of most of the characters in The Glass Room.
“I suppose I am in a sense a fatalist. I’m certainly a pessimist. I think that’s a sensible and logical attitude to take. It’s also the best attitude to take if you want to be happy, because, if you’re a real pessimist, then you can only ever be pleasantly surprised by what happens, whereas, if you’re an optimist, you always have your optimistic ideas dashed by reality.”
The Glass Room has recently been translated into Czech, and your earlier novel also set in Brno, Mendel’s Dwarf, is about to appear in Czech. You’ve been travelling around the Czech Republic over the last few days – what have been your impressions of how people have received these books?
And you were in Brno as well, where the book is set. In fact the town “Město” is translated in the Czech version of the book as “Brno”. So there’s no doubt where we are. Did you have the impression that in Brno your book was particularly welcomed?
“Indeed I did, yes. We were guests of the city. For me it was a mixture of fun and also a very emotional experience, actually, because I’ve only ever been to Brno before as an ordinary person, whom the city doesn’t take any notice of, and suddenly I seemed to matter. And I took that as a great honour and privilege.”
I’d like to ask you about your next book, which has the working title “Trapeze”. Can you tell us a little about what it is about?
“I can tell you a little about it. I’m actually quite advanced with it. I’ve written over three quarters of it. I think my publisher is intending to publish it next year. I’m not going to say too much, except that it’s a period piece again, set in the 1940s. It doesn’t concern the Czech Republic or Czechoslovakia though. It’s set in France and in Britain in the 1940s. And of course there were fairly major events going on at that time.”
It’s interesting that you’ve come back to the subject of the Second World War on several occasions in your books. And also you tie this in a lot with the theme of memory…
“Yes, both those things. Part of it is my age and circumstance. I was born immediately after the Second World War, and therefore my parents’ experiences – a lot of them – were during the Second World War. My father was a pilot in the Royal Air Force. So that has some effect. The other thing is, of course, that the Second World War remains an extraordinarily defining moment in world culture, or certainly European culture, with all the after-effects of it.”
You’ve managed to have a career as a novelist in parallel with a career as a schoolteacher of biology. It astonishes me that you’ve managed to combine the commitment required to be a teacher with the energy to write novels as well.
“But the sort of teaching I do has not been too tiring and demanding. It depends, I suspect, where you teach and how you teach. There are long holidays. I chose teaching in order to have long holidays so that I could write. And I must admit that for the last 32 years I’ve been involved with a school in Italy, which is where I live – it’s an international school and the demands of teaching in an international school are probably different from the average demands to teaching in a British school.”
Do you think that the children are more motivated and that there aren’t the social problems that you might encounter in a more typical school?
“I think that very much, yes. The pupils are also extremely interesting, and they have introduced me to something which does interest me and which comes into The Glass Room, which is the bilingual or multilingual culture, which I find extremely interesting. And, of course, Město in The Glass Room was a bilingual city.”
And you actually play with the very name of the room, the Glass Room, which in German is “Glasraum” – the word “Raum” has all sorts of other associations in German about space. And in Czech it’s “pokoj”, which means “peace” or “tranquility” in Czech as well as “room”. You enjoy these puns, don’t you?
“Yes, I love them, and when I discovered ‘pokoj’, I was delighted. I thought – the Czech language has just delivered me a gem here.”
In a sense the whole book strikes me as being something of a gem. It’s beautifully crafted. Have any critics said that maybe it’s too beautifully crafted, that it’s too perfect?
“I don’t think anybody’s suggested that it’s overdone. What is interesting is that I don’t structure books consciously. The structure comes out of the writing, and the rewriting, and the rewriting – and this record is not stuck – and the rewriting… One works over the book all the time, and for me that’s where the structure emerges.”
I’d like to end with an extract from the book, with a description of the Glass Room itself. There are several descriptions of the room in the course of the book and they create wonderfully vividly the sense of space. This passage comes from roughly the middle of the book, when Viktor and Liesel have just left:
The Glass Room is almost empty. The piano stands where it has always stood, in the space behind the onyx wall, but except for that and a couple of chairs, all the rest has gone. In some ways this has returned the room to its moment of birth, when the builders and the decorators left it and the furniture had yet to arrive. Just the space, the light, the white. Just the gleaming chrome pillars. Just the onyx wall and the curved partition of Macassar wood. The cool, calm rationality of the place undisturbed by any of the irrationality that human beings would impose upon it. They pause for a moment and look.