Czech history through a glass darkly

Hello and welcome to Czech Books. This week we're discussing the novel The Glass Room, by Simon Mawer, one of this year's nominations for the prestigious Man Booker prize. The novel, which has already been translated into Czech and had a very positive local reception, is inspired by the functionalist masterpiece, the Tugendhat Villa in Brno, and covers over half a century of Czech history, focusing mainly on the fates of the Jewish industrialist Victor Landauer and his wife Liesel. I met with a professor of English Literature at Charles University's Education Faculty, Dr. Anna Grmelová, to discuss in particular the book's depiction of the rich and diverse cultural life of the First Czechoslovak Republic.

Hello Anna,

“Hello Bernie”

The novel covers a long period, over half a century, of Czech history - it starts at the end of the 1920s and ends shortly after the end of communism in the early nineties. What for you is the most impressive aspect of this novel?

“The novel is a rhapsody on the Glass Room of the Landauer Villa and it is also a rhapsody on the ideals of interwar Czechoslovakia, of the First Czechoslovak Republic”.

So what exactly is the Glass Room?

“The Glass Room of the Landauer house appears in every chapter of the novel, or is referred to. It’s a whole floor which does not divide dining room from sitting room from library and it has two glass walls, one of which can be completely lifted up, so that the Glass Room merges with the garden outside”

I’ll just read a very short description of the first time the Landauers, who commission the building, the whole villa, actually see this.

It had become a palace of light, light bouncing off the chrome pillars, light refulgent on the walls, light glistening on the dew in the garden, light reverberating from the glass. It was as though they stood inside a crystal of salt.

“The Glass Room is actually a metaphor, because it has no closure, no barriers, it is a metaphor of Viktor’s vision of the future and for what he believes in, for “

his desire not to be pinned down by race, or creed, his determination to speak Czech as well as German, his insistence on reading Lidové noviny

“which was the major liberal daily of the time, Karel Čapek was one of the editors of Lidové noviny. His talk is of innovation and progress. He wants his children to be citizens of the world. He never realizes he is a Jew before the rise of the Nazi party in Germany.”

The story really focuses on this industrialist Viktor Landauer, Jewish, with a Gentile wife Liesel, and at least the first half of the book focuses on their lives and the lives of some people close to them in this interwar period. Can you tell me a little about how this period is characterised in the novel?

“This is a period of a flourishing culture. And the names that crop up are mainly names connected with Moravian culture. Musicians and painters - so of course Leoš Janáček, Bohuslav Martinů and the great Czech woman composer, who unfortunately died young, Vítězslava Kaprálová, who was a child prodigy, and a pianist as well as composer. She was actually the lover of Martinů at one time and then she married Jiří Mucha, the son of Alfons Mucha. And also painters, such as Emil Filla, the Cubist, who in the novel, it’s a fabulation of course, comes to the housewarming party at the Landauers’ villa. The Landauers had an avant-garde taste in culture and it can be seen in their villa, which was conceived as a particular work of art – it was built by the fictional architect Rainer von Abt, who was a disciple of Adolf Loos, another architect who was born in Brno.”

So you feel as a Czech that he really did express this period very well?

“Yes, and Czechs will actually realise, reading this book, the freedom people had during the First Czechoslovak Republic. They could travel to Vienna, they could travel to Venice, they often travelled to Paris. Something of course unthinkable when we lived behind the Iron Curtain.”

This interwar period seemed to be exceptionally diverse and rich and in terms of culture.

“Interwar Czechoslovakia was quite exceptional if you compare it with the countries around it. It was a very liberal country. It was a country where D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover was translated; it was actually the second translation after the German, even before the French. But the German translation omits whole paragraphs, the Czech does not. So it was a very liberal country, even in terms of sexual life.”

Sex and sexuality play a very important role in the novel, not only in terms of the complex of relationships around Viktor and Liesel. Later in the novel, in the time of communism when the Glass House is used as a therapy centre, the doctor Tomáš also has a very complicated love life.

“Yes, he is actually a character I feel might have been inspired by Milan Kundera’s novels as he is a type of sceptical intellectual who, during totalitarianism, only finds freedom in the sphere of sexuality. And in his portrait sex and love are completely split, in literary criticism on Kundera this is instrumentalisation of love, which means a misuse of love.”

The house, as has been pointed out by many critics, is really the central character of this book. Could you tell me what it stands for?

“It stands for reason, it stands for light and cosmopolitanism. And this light is very important because as early as the housewarming party there can be sensed, metaphorically, some storm outside, which in fact anticipates the future darkness.”

I’ll just now read this section from the housewarming.

They crowd into the space of the Glass Room like passengers on the observation deck of a luxury liner. Some of them maybe peering out through the windows onto the pitching surface of the city but, in their muddle of Czech and German almost all are ignorant of the cold outside and the gathering storm clouds, the first sigh of the tempest that is coming. They will argue and debate about trivial things, and until it is too late they will largely ignore the storm on the horizon.

Obviously the darkness refers to the rise of Naziism and this eventually leads, in 1938, to the exile of the Landauers. The book carries on to describe the Nazi occupation and also the post-war Soviet period.

The Tugendhat Villa interior
“The part of the book connected with the Soviet occupation in 1945, liberation we should say, and occupation, is actually a very hilarious episode, strangely. And this is because the chief of the Soviet soldiers is a very powerful woman, and she forces the caretaker of the house, Mr Laník, who is not a very honourable character, to sleep with her. Which is actually a parody of what was known as a ‘normal’ situation when Russian male officers raped Czech women. So she rapes this very dishonourable man and the lower part of the house becomes a stable for the horses of the soldiers.”

In the original the location of the villa is called ‘Město’, which is the Czech for ‘town’, but in the Czech translation it’s actually called Brno.

“Yes, I understand that Simon Mawer wasn’t very happy about it, he would have preferred to have kept Město, but I think it’s perfectly reasonable from the Czech point of view and this is because it could not just be any small provincial město in Moravia. The culture of the city which is described has to be connected with a big city, such as Brno.”

I think that Simon Mawer’s book is proving as interesting to Czech readers as it did to an English audience and I’d like to thank you very much for the insights you’ve provided on it and for making time to speak to me today. Thank you, Anna.

“Thank you, goodbye”

And if anybody is interested in visiting the Tugendhat Villa they will have to be quick because finally, after years of waiting, reconstruction will start next year and so the villa is only open, for the time being at least, until the end of this year. - information about the Tugendhat Villa - site of the Kapralova Society, dedicated to the composer Vítězslava Kaprálová (1915-1940)