Reflections of modern Czech history in Simon Mawer’s ‘The Glass Room’

A Czech architectural landmark has provided the backdrop, and indeed central theme, for a book which has been creating a stir in the literary world. The Glass Room by Simon Mawer tells the story of a modernist villa in a Czech town, from conception to construction, eventually to seizure by the state. The Glass Room has been receiving a great deal of publicity ever since it was nominated for the prestigious Man Booker Prize. Over the phone from his home in Italy, author Simon Mawer voiced his bewilderment as to why his book was proving so popular in Britain at the moment:

“One of the characteristics of it is that it is completely not British. I mean, it is written in English, but the only British reference in it is Neville Chamberlain during the Munich crisis coming over on the radio. So, it is not in any way British, there is no setting in Britain, it doesn’t have immediate and obvious appeal in that sense. It is about an aspect of cultural and social life which I wouldn’t have thought was instantly appealing to the British. You know, Central Europe - the 1930s and 1940s in Central Europe are not really a sort of time that features much in British life, so it is interesting for me, that.”

I wanted to ask you how this book was born. I know that you have written a lot about the biologist Gregor Mendel, and I know that he lived in Brno – so is it the case that this book came out of the study that you did in Brno about Mendel and his life?

“Umm, yes. My initial visit, the very first time I ever visited the Czech Republic, was really as a sort of interested tourist. I knew of Mendel and I’d always been quite intrigued by his story. In my case that’s the biologist talking, because I am a biologist. And so that visit sparked an interest in him, and of course, ultimately a novel, which is, I think, actually going to be published in Czech quite shortly. That was called Mendel’s Dwarf, and having done that book, I was then commissioned by the Field Museum in Chicago who put on a Mendel exhibition - they commissioned me to write a companion volume to the exhibition.

“So that meant more visits to the area, and it was on one of those visits that I went to look at the Tugendhat House again and it was really then that I thought to myself ‘there is a story here’. My interest in things Czech had been growing over the previous decade, virtually, and the whole thing sort of came together in The Glass Room.”

Now, in the foreword to The Glass Room you say that there is in fact a real building behind this book, and a real town behind this book, but that it won’t shed too much light on your book to go looking for historical details about these places. Nonetheless, can I ask you how you researched this book, and how your research differed from, say, the work you did for Mendel’s Dwarf?

“Well, when I was doing the work for the Mendel book – in fact the two, because I’ve written this non-fiction one for the Field Museum as well, of course – I was interested there in trying to get a feel for the real man. Mendel’s Dwarf is a novel, but it has got Gregor Mendel’s life in it. But I have taken liberties. And that is actually very important to me, I am not a biographer, and I wouldn’t be happy with the restrictions that biography would place upon my writing. And of course, that meant absolutely that when I came to write The Glass Room, the Landauer family were not the Tugendhat family, and I obviously wanted the distance.

“What I wanted was to feel the house. I wanted to put myself imaginatively in the place of somebody who had had it designed and built and lived in it. But I didn’t want in any way to write a book about the Tugendhat family. Obviously, when you are writing that sort of novel, you can’t fictionalize certain events and certain dates. Obviously, both the fictional family and the real family fled the country in 1938, so there are little signposts like that. But the people themselves in The Glass Room are entirely my creation.”

Many people have commented that a number of the books shortlisted for the Booker Prize this year can be described as so-called ‘historical novels’. You in the past have said that you are not particularly happy with The Glass Room being called a historical novel. Why?

“There is a completely different set of skills required, and a completely different approach, if you are trying to write something that takes place in the 16th century. My second novel was set in the 16th century – it is a 16th century historical novel – so, I’ve done it is what I am saying, and I was very aware during the writing of that of all of the problems, all of the issues of how you make your characters sound. What do they say? What language do they use? You are trying to put yourself, and it is an almost impossible task, into the mind of people who are so distant for us that I suspect, talking rationally, you can almost say that the task is actually, realistically, impossible.

“It is a very different task to doing the same thing for the 1930s! My parents were brought up, their youth was, in the 1930s. I spent a lot of time talking to my parents about their younger days. It is much, much closer. One knows what people sounded like and what their ideas were. So it is so much closer that I really think it is a different thing from a standard historical novel.”

In both cases, in the case of your second novel, and in the case of this, The Glass Room, you’ve suggested that you spent a great deal of time listening and researching the way that people would speak to each other. And this is something I wanted to ask you about, because you have been praised repeatedly in the British media for your Czech language skills, and from a read of your book, it does sound like you have a command of Czech. Did you go out of your way to learn the Czech language in the run-up to writing this book?

The Tugendhat villa in Brno | Photo: Jana Šustová,  Radio Prague International
“I look upon language as another thing to try and research if you are going to use it in the book, in the narrative. I spent a lot of time with a Czech-English dictionary going backwards and forwards, looking up a word in English to get the Czech and then taking the Czech and going to the Czech side of the dictionary to see what other possible meanings there could be. That sort of thing - and occasionally you light on something and it’s wonderful. The example that keeps coming to my mind is the use of the word ‘pokoj’ for ‘room’, which just provides that little sort of quirky thing, because it is also ‘peace’ and ‘tranquility’. And that’s magical, because that just isn’t in the English.”