The Glass Room by Simon Mawer


I’ve never read a novel before that was set in the city where I lived, and whose main character is a building I also visited, a building only about 20 minutes’ walk from my place. So this time the expression “being immersed in a novel” gained a whole new – very concrete – meaning for me.

It’s been unique for me to read this novel and to know exactly what the oft-praised, enchanting, majestic view from the famous, light-infused living room of the Villa Tugendhat (here: Landauer) looks like; to know the hotel where two of the novel’s characters sometimes rent a room for brief amorous encounters; and to know, with almost millimeter precision, the place in the city where someone tells the bothersome German officer when he’s not willing to let the family pass through a road block erected due to an important military event in the city center: “We’re not going that way, we’ll turn left right before the railway station, towards the airport.”

It’s all been fantastically vivid for me – partly because I know the concrete reality of the novel, and partly because Simon Mawer can depict this reality. It’s not that I could only imagine the places of this novel (and by the way: places, closed places, and space and light barely contained within walls – these are the most important elements in this novel) because I know them – it’s more that I kept mentally comparing the places and reality described by Mawer with the things I know, and my conclusion was always: yes, this is exactly like this. Concretely, and in its atmosphere too. (I came across only one notable exception: the street leading from the main station towards the center is not sloping down but rising – but it might have been sloping down during World War II.)

Anyway, all this eerie realness made me think while I was reading: Could all this be true? Or is none of it true? Where do we draw the line? Are these characters fictitious? Can they be fictitious if their lives are so strongly tied to the definitely real Villa Tugendhat, and if they themselves so strongly resemble the one-time (real) inhabitants of the villa? I kept worrying about these questions throughout the novel – partly with a theoretical interest, and partly seriously.

Why worry? Consider what this novel is about: it’s about the Villa Tugendhat, about the history of its construction, and about all the things that happened to it (and the people who lived there or used it) ever since the construction was completed in 1930.

The story starts at the end of the 1920s, with Viktor and Liesel Landauer getting married. Together with the best, most modern architect of the era, they dream up their future home – the masterpiece of functionalist architecture, the Villa Tugendhat (Landauer). The villa gets built, the family moves in, and they start to enjoy both their new home and the vibrant cultural life of the city – but their happiness doesn’t last long. World War II is already looming on the horizon, and because Viktor is Jewish, the family decides to pack up and leave their home to its fate.

This is a more or less historical novel then – in the sense that it follows the historical events as they occurred. And these events are often heartbreaking – the characters and the villa itself all go through a lot, and I often feel just as sorry for the villa as for its owners. (Brutality and barbarity unhinge me, and when I read about some men in uniforms talking about how it might just be the best to demolish the villa as it’s only a modern, useless and worthless piece of junk – then I feel like crying.)

What bothers me, though – even if blurring the line between reality and fiction is hugely exciting for my mind –: this novel is too real. More precisely: too intimately real. Even more precisely: it’s supposed to be about fictitious characters, but these fictitious characters cannot easily be told apart from their real-life counterparts.

Mawer claims that he tried to cover up the real setting of the novel a little bit (a tiny little bit), but seriously – calling Brno Město, and calling Špilberk Špilas is not exactly high-quality camouflage. Of course Mawer himself admits to this. However, he also claims that the characters of his novel are all entirely fictitious – and this is something I don’t believe. Mawer’s supposedly fictitious Landauer family resembles the real Tugendhat family too much (as much as I know about the real family), and I understand why some members of the Tugendhat family voiced their discontent about this novel. And really: while I’m reading about the family matters, extramarital affairs and other dirty little secrets of the Landauers, I cannot help but wonder how all this could have been in the life of the Tugendhat family. And I cannot help but mix the real and the fictitious family up – how could I not if the novel is so specific? Case in point, while I was reading this novel and talked about the real Tugendhats with someone, I kept referring to the events of this novel as if they had really happened.

Theoretically, with my literary mind, this is awesome and exciting. If I think about it, though, I wouldn’t like it, either, if someone found my less than unique apartment so intriguing that he wrote a novel about it, and accidentally gave the real apartment a supposedly fictitious tenant who did various things in the apartment – a fictitious tenant who bore an uncanny resemblance to me, and who tended to do the same kinds of things I do. I would definitely be displeased – let my reality be my own. And I wish the same for the Tugendhat family – let their reality be their own. And sometimes I feel that Mawer violates the Tugendhats’ privacy by prying too deep into their reality.

Anyway – if I forget about all this – this is quite a good novel.