Thursday, January 07, 2010

Most uncold

"It all seems rather cold."

"Cold?" For once von Abt appeared lost for words. "Cold! All my work, all my art is based on this." He took a pencil from an inner pocket and leaned forward to draw a line as sharp as a razor cut on the nearest sheet of paper. "This is the first work of art: the woman who lies down." He looked from Viktor to Liesel, holding her gaze for moment longer than seemed polite. Then he went back to the sheet of paper and drew another line, a vertical cutting at right angles through the horizontal. "And this. This is the man who penetrates her. The result is the rectangular cross that underpins all my art. What could be warmer than that?"

Liesel took a cigarette and lit it, hoping it would distract her from von Abt's look, hoping she would not blush beneath his gaze. "Yes, Herr von Abt seems a most uncold person. Don't you agree, Viktor?"

The art in question is architecture. And Rainer von Abt is to design the titular space of Simon Mawer's novel, The Glass Room, for Liesel and Viktor, German Czechs, Viktor being Jewish by heritage but neither of them religious, a thorougly modern couple, free thinkers. Their children, Viktor later explains, are to be raised to be citizens of the world. They are throwing off the past, but life in 1930s Czechoslovakia presents other burdens. The house serves as a stage.

This novel was shortlisted for the 2009 Man Booker Prize, so I'd heard a little bit about it in that context. (Interview with Mawer. Audio excerpt.)

I tend to shy away from feel-good overcoming-the-adversity-of-wartime stories, and stories about Nazis, both novels and films, because: 1. They're depressing, and the feel-good pay-off isn't big enough, or if it is, than the story must be unrealistic and contrived. 2. They tend toward sentimentalism, often fomulaically manipulating your heartstrings. 3. They've got nothing on reality, when I think of all my own parents and their families have been through. Tragedy abounds; it takes a special story indeed to declare itself uncommon and elicit any sympathy from me.

Anyway, the idea of this thoroughly modern house figuring as a central character won me over and I accepted a review copy. I'm very, very glad I didn't let this book pass me by.

John Self remarked that "as an account of Jewish suffering in Europe under the Nazis, it seemed particularly weak." I don't think it was Mawer's intent to supply one, and thank goodness for that, I say, as that story's already been told a million times. This novel is about a different kind of suffering, I think; the way your domestic life suffers when there's a war going on on your doorstep, the way your idea of the future suffers, and of the past. It also offers a spare but real glimpse of stressed relations between Jews and non-Jews in the context of marital strain from a gap in understanding.

I took The Glass Room away with me on my Christmas break, not really expecting to get much reading done, but it turned out to be so compelling, I turned to it as often as I could for a moment's peace away from family and general seasonal ado. It was terrific company, once the kid finally fell asleep, on the 6-hour train ride home.

At the house-warming party, Viktor quotes from André Breton's new novel, Nadja:

I shall live in my glass house where you can always see who comes to call, where everything hanging from the ceiling and on the walls stays where it is as if by magic, where I sleep nights in a glass bed, under glass sheets, where the words who I am will sooner or later appear etched by a diamond.

So, you know, love, life, another woman, another woman, blah, blah, blah, but then here's this house that's all about openness, there's all this light and space, as if their lives will be plain to everyone, yet somehow, and this is the magic of its design, it supplies private niches. The house's residents, open to inspection, become more secretive. Where the house has no walls, people build figurative ones.

Somehow, while "the whole essence of the Glass Room is reason," messy, emotional humanity seeps in. Deception in the Glass Room is a new experience for Viktor, who once thought we should all live in glass houses. Hana called him a spoilsport for it: "Everyone loves deceit. Without deceit there would be no art."

I think that's a lot of what this book is about: Pretending toward an ideal, whether it be in art, architecture, politics, or daily life. The incompatability of the ideal with the actual. The gap between function and form.

The Landauer family flees as Nazi troops enter, to Switezerland, then further west.

Over time, the house is space made manifest, beauty made manifest, and hatred made manifest. A house, a work of art, a purity of form. (Maybe it needs — or we need — some level of deceit to function properly?)

Can a building be pure in a way a human being can't? I mean (this is me thinking out loud), how is purity of form/function different from purity of race? Does this building in some way remain pure? No, its purpose is continually distorted. It's as degenerate as most of us humans.

As we are often reminded, it just is. It's just a backdrop, or a stage, for humanity. Can the same be said for humans? We just are? We are just vessels for a bigger (inter)play of larger forces?

The Glass Room is the story of the house, but once the Landauers leave, the house loses something of its heart, even while something of the Landauers remains in it. (I should say "of Liesel" — I believe it was her house more than anybody's, built for her, an extension of her — it's she who, like the house, is open yet betrayed.) The house is a Nazi-run Biometric Centre, a laboratory, humans under examination. Then the Russians move in. Later it is an annex of the state-run children's hospital.

All the house's stories of its later years pale in comparison to its Landauer years of hope. The love triangle involving the physiotherapist, the doctor, and the journalist was a little predictably contrived to parallel the Landauers' situation, and I don't think you should be allowed to write a Czech doctor named Tomáš after The Unbearable Lightness of Being. But the story moves quickly through the house's twilight, sparing us the details.

Ultimately, the city takes ownership and restores the heritage building. Open to the public. Humans are not restored so readily.

A note on the language
The language is gorgeous. There are some striking images:

The view of "the cathedral with its hunched shoulders and its black spires exactly, Rainer said, like hypodermic needles."

"It was as though they stood within a crystal of salt."

"Her legs too are sheathed in black, as slick and lucid as oil."

Poetry. Every breath of it is loaded with erotic potential. I can't put my finger on how Mawer does this. A few faintly sexy images are repeated. Twice the mouth as arabesque — first Liesel's, than Kata's. Twice the sound of the slop of water like lapping cats. (Kata the cat.) Twice the reminder of the sadness that comes after coitus.

The narrative shifts between past and present tense. I couldn't quite figure out the logic for the shifts, but the alternation confronts you with a stark immediacy, then bathes the scene in a romantic haze. An adjustment of the lens.

A note on the house
The author notes that the house and its setting are not fictional, though they have been somewhat disguised. A little Internet research reveals that it was based on Villa Tugendhat, in Brno. (Although, until moments ago, I had little doubt that it was the Müller Villa. I'd felt a glimmer of recognition, something I might've seen in my meanderings through Prague.)

The house should be like by all. Unlike a work of art, which does not require anyone to like it. The work of art is the private affair of the artist. The house is not. The work of art is sent out into the world, without anyone needing it. The house fulfils certain requirements. The work of art is not answerable to anyone, the house to everyone. A work of art seeks to draw people out of their comfort. The house should serve comfort. The work of art is revolutionary, the house conservative. The work of art shows humanity new paths and thinks of the future; the house thinks of the present. Man loves everything that serves his comfort. He hates all that seeks to draw him from his customary and secure state, and all that constricts him. And thus I love the house and hate art.

Adolf Loos, Architektura ("Architecture"), 1910.

Mawer assigns the house a fictional architect, though Loos is referred to throughout the novel, and its design clearly followed Loos' edict that ornament is crime. The architect of Villa Tugendhat was Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.

Photo essay.

A note on the packaging
I love French flaps. And I love the cover art for the hardcover. But they don't come together. The black-and-white (or is it faintly sepia-tone?) photo on my trade paperback evokes a vague sense of the era but in this way it is indistinct from conventional overcoming-the-adversity-of-wartime stories and does the novel a disservice (that is, while it may prove successful from a marketing perspective, I think it serves a lie).

The artwork on the hardcover dust jacket, a futuristic portrait — hell, it looks like a man encased in a glass room! — is much truer to the spirit of the book. As the paperback stands, I wouldn't give it the time it deserves if I were browsing in a bookstore. But your mileage may vary.



Anonymous said...

I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don't know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.

Steph said...

Thank you for such a thorough review! When everyone was reading their way through the 2009 Booker shortlist last year (well, except for me), this is the one book that kept getting praised and that appealed most to me. Your review has reignited my desire to read this one! And I agree, I like the hardcover art better (though the paperback version isn't ugly either).

Stefanie said...

This sounds like a fantastic book especially because it is different than your run of the mill Holocaust novel. Great review! I'll keep my eyes open for it.