A novel by Simon Mawer
I belong to a book group that meets once a month. We take turns to choose and present a book and my name came up soon after lockdown, for the May 2020 meeting. The book I chose was Simon Mawer’s ‘The Glass Room’ that I first read, and very much enjoyed, in 2019.
Normally we meet for a face to face presentation and discussion in a church hall, but since March 2020 everything has been online. To make things easier, presentations go out to the group via email about a week before the online meeting. Knowing this, as I re-read the book I made notes, not on paper but in the form of an email to myself. This formed the basis of my presentation much of which is included in this blog entry.
I chose the book because I had enjoyed reading it and because I am fascinated by the house, a real house, in Brno. The modern construction appeals to me combined with the sloping site, looking west across the city towards the Spilas fortress, with the entrance upstairs and open plan living area downstairs. Of course from the novel we don’t know the real details, just what Mawer has introduced. Where the idea for this house (the ‘Landauer house’ in the novel) came from, and who had the technological know-how to make it work, are questions that the book answers, but are they true in the context of the real house? Unlikely.
The Wikipedia entry on the house gives plenty of details and includes photos. Its history is replicated one way or another in the novel so it is hardly surprising that the family who built it, the Turgendhats, took exception to much of what was written in the novel.
It is now a museum.
The story starts with an introductory chapter set in the 1960s, then goes back to 1929 and ends in 1990.
Some of the characters:
Hana ‘That woman’, married to Oscar a Jewish lawyer. She was a perpetual, close presence, worldly wise, modern, and a survivor, obsessed with relationships and jealous too. During the German occupation she met Stahl in a cafe (1941), chatted him up and was invited to be ‘surveyed’ at the Landauer house during which she made witty/provocative and even subversive comments. Later Hana was ‘the woman from the heritage committee’. Hana’s focus was on love, but she came over as a complicated mixture.
The family – father Viktor Landauer, mother Liesel, two children, Ottilie and Martin who were brought up speaking German and Czech (and later became through and through Americans). They were not religious, but Liesel came from a Catholic family (hence her church wedding and the christening of Ottilie). Viktor was Jewish by background so he moved ownership of his company, Landauer cars, into the hands of his father in law when Jews were threatened by the German invasion of Czechoslovakia.
Lanik the chauffeur and general factotum, was devious. Once the family left, he was the caretaker still living in the house in the mid-1940s. He hoarded potentially valuable items such as food that formed the basis of a black-market business as the Soviet invasion occurred. By the late 50s/early 60s Lanik was Chairman of the district committee with responsibility to the party in the local district.
Viktor’s first meeting with Kata/Katalin Kalman, subsequently his mistress, was in Vienna, followed by visits to the flat where she lived with her daughter Marika. The coincidence of Kata being one of the small group of refugees that visited the Landauer House was not realistic nor was moving in as the nanny, but it is a story.
My main interest when I read the book was the house itself, the Glass Space, der Glausraum. It was known in the book as the Landauer house but also referred to as the Glass Dream, the Glass Tranquillity.
The windows of the open plan living area could be lowered down into the basement, ‘Viktor pressing the button to lower the windows’. But there was only one further mention of these amazing windows.
The house was described as a work of art, but traditional views were that it was ‘like an office, not like a home’ in contrast with older style towered and turreted houses, similar to the ones where the Landauers lived as the glass house was being built and in Switzerland.
There were interesting construction details – load bearing steel girders, ‘angle beams riveted back to back to make pillars with a cruciform cross-section’ like a factory; modern materials and heating from a boiler in the basement. Then there was the onyx wall ‘polished like glass’ – very expensive and with amazing light reflecting properties. This wall really exists and amazingly, given the actual history since 1938, is still intact.
Mawer also described interior fittings (tiles, white paint, ivory linoleum, fitted items) and furniture (specially designed chairs eg the Venice chair, the Landauer chair, the Liesel chair, and an extendable circular dining table). Apart from black and natural shantung curtains, woollen rugs and a sculpture of a female torso there was no decoration.
After the family left, the house was appropriated by the council, then transferred to the Third Reich to be a laboratory/biometric centre with 12 scientific staff investigating racial characteristics. It was visited, in the story, by Heydrich SS3 (who was assassinated in May 1942 – Wikipedia). The lab was closed down and machines taken to Auschwitz, then draughtsmen from Messerschmidt lived there for a year. Russians took over the house and after the war it became a gymnasium for children with physical disabilities providing recuperative physio.
The State committee for Architectural Heritage wanted to turn the house into a museum.
Mesto was the name Mawer gave to the city where the house was built, and where much of the action takes place.
There are some lovely descriptions of scenery, cities and journeys, as well as the weather (misty, raining and damp when visiting the site of the house; heat in Cuba; November fog and snow).
The flight to Switzerland involved no check in, no hanging about before boarding, just an announcement ‘will be departing in 15 minutes’ and a walk across tarmac. Then there was the noise as the aircraft took off, shaking etc.
The family lived in a villa in Zurich then, after a week or so, in Geneva. To travel/escape to Cuba they left Switzerland by train through France to Spain.
After 20 years we meet the family again, in the US, near Falmouth, Mass. (Gardiner Road, Wood’s Hole which can be found on google maps!).
Mawer gives very little detail on when events took place. However, much of the book is closely linked to real history and it is possible to pin down dates eg. Chamberlain’s 1938 speech. The family leave Mesto during the first half of 1939. The architect who designed the house visits them in Switzerland – it has to be late 1939 or 1940, inconsistent with a later reference to the fact that he apparently ‘fled to the United States in 1938’.
The only chapter with a date is ‘1990’, the last. This is when Marie Delmas, Marika, who was brought up by ‘sisters’ and lives in Paris, visited post-Soviet Czechoslovakia. Liesel tells us some dates when she is invited to Czechoslovakia and writes to Hana. The family became American citizens in 1948 and Viktor died 1958 in a boating accident.
Politics underpin the whole book. The characters are caught in the ebb and flow of different powers during the first half of the 20th century, and beyond for those remaining in Czechoslovakia. Before the Second World War the women lived in a ‘protected world’ while the outside world ‘battled with recession and political unrest’. Oscar and Viktor talk about pogroms.
The new country, Czechoslovakia formed in 1918, contained a mixture of people, Czech and German in particular leading to tensions. Kata, from Hungary, was trapped in Slovakia and ran away with no papers to Vienna, which she was forced to leave when the Nazis invaded, so she became a refugee in Mesto. In the book there was an awareness, by some of the characters, of what was going on but irritating naivety by others about the reality of potential disaster.