THE GLASS ROOM by Simon Mawer
By SMW Staff
SYNOPSIS: High on a Czechoslovak hill, the Landauer House shines as a marvel of steel and glass and onyx. Built specially for newlyweds Viktor and Liesel Landauer, a Jew married to a gentile, it is one of the wonders of modernist architecture. But the radiant honesty and idealism of 1930 that the house seems to engender quickly tarnishes as the storm clouds of World War Two gather. Eventually, as Nazi troops enter the country, the family, accompanied by Viktor’s lover Kata and her child Marika, must flee.
Yet the family’s exile does not signify the end of this spectacular building. It slips from hand to hand, from Czech to Nazi to Soviet and finally back to the Czechoslovak state, the crystalline perfection of the Glass Room always exerting a gravitational pull on those who know it. It becomes a laboratory, a shelter from the storm of war, and a place where the broken and the ruined find some kind of comfort, until with the collapse of Communism, the Landauers are finally drawn back to where their story began.
EXCERPT: Chapter 1
Oh, yes, we’re here.
She knew, even after all these years. Something about the slope of the road, the way the trajectory of the car slowed and began to curve upwards, a perception of shape and motion that, despite being unused for thirty years was still engraved on her mind, was reawakened by the subtle coincidence of motion and inclination.
‘We’re here,’ she said out loud. She grabbed her daughter’s hand and squeezed. Their escort in the back of the car shifted on the shiny plastic seat, perhaps in relief at the prospect of imminent escape. She could smell him. Damp cloth (it was raining) and cheap aftershave and old sweat.
The car – a Tatra, someone had informed her – drew into the kerb and stopped. Someone opened the door. She could hear that, and sense the change in the air. Faint flecks of water on the wind and someone opening an umbrella – like the sail of a boat snapping open in the breeze. She recalled Viktor, on the Zürichsee, the little dinghy pitching out into the waves, black trees rising up from the blacker water beyond their fragile craft. ‘Like riding a bike,’ he had cried, bringing the dinghy up into the wind, deliberately letting the little craft heel over. ‘You get the sense of balance.’
‘It’s not a bit like riding a bike,’ she had replied, feeling sick.
Viktor should be here. Physically here, she meant, for in some way he was here, of course. His taste, his vision enshrined. She slid across the seat towards the blur of light that was the open door of the car. A hand gripped her arm and helped her out onto the pavement. There was a brush of rain across her face and the rattle of drops on the umbrella over her head. She straightened up, feeling the light around her, feeling the space, feeling the low mass of the house just there across the forecourt. Viktor should be here. But Ottilie was, coming to her left side.
‘It’s all right, darling. I’ll manage on my own.’
A strange hand grasped her elbow and she shook it off. ‘Do you think I don’t know my own house?’ She spoke sharply, and immediately regretted the comment for its brusqueness and its pure factual inaccuracy. It wasn’t her house, not any longer, not in any legal terms whatever Martin might say. Stolen, with all the solemnity of legal procedures, at least twice and by two different authorities. But it was her house in other, less clearly defined terms. Hers and Viktor’s. The vision. And it still bore their name, didn’t it? Any amount of juridical theft had not managed to expunge that: Das Landauer Haus. The Landauer House. Vila Landauer. Say it how you will. And Rainer’s, of course.
Tapping with her cane she walked forward across the space, across the forecourt, while footsteps fell in beside her and tactfully kept pace, like mourners at a funeral walking along with the brave widow. ‘The paving is the same,’ she said.
‘Remarkable how it has survived.’
The answering voice was that of the man from the city architect’s office. ‘But it is work of art,’ he said, as though works of art of necessity survive, whereas in fact they often don’t. A fire here, some damp infiltrating a wall there, the random falling of a bomb, pure neglect. ‘See the manner in which von Abt framed the view of the castle,’ he added, and then fell silent, embarrassed at his lack of tact.
‘I remember exactly,’ she reassured him. And it was true: she could recall exactly how it was: the space between the main house and the servants’ apartment, Lanik’s apartment, framing the hill on the far side of the city. ‘The future frames the past,’ Rainer had said. She could see it vividly in the only eye she possessed now, her mind’s eye, so much a cliché but so vividly a fact, all of it projected within the intricate jelly of her brain to give her an image that was almost as vivid as seeing: the wooded hill – the Špilas fortress – and the cathedral with its hunched shoulders and its black spires exactly, Rainer said, like hypodermic needles.
She walked forward. The bulk of the house cut out the light around her as they came nearer. There was a free-standing pillar at that point, supporting the overhanging roof. She remembered the children swinging on it, and Liba calling them to stop. She reached out with her cane and touched the pillar just to make sure, just to locate herself in the open sweep of the forecourt, just to delight in the small intake of breath from the man at her right elbow that told her how amazed he was at the way she could orientate herself. But of course she could. She knew this place like… like the inside of her own mind. She knew exactly how to walk around the curve of glassed wall and discover, tucked behind it, the front door.
‘A photograph,’ a voice called. The small procession halted. There was a shuffling and manoeuvring around her, contact with heavy, male figures. ‘Ottilie, where are you?’
‘I’m here, Maminka.’
‘Smile, please,’ said the voice and there came an instant of bright light, as though lightning had flashed briefly behind the even milk of an enveloping cloud. Then the group broke apart and hands guided her back towards the house while someone opened the front door, and invited her forward – ‘this way, this way’ – into the soft, familiar silence of the entrance hall. A quiet blanket of fog all around her, the opalescent light that was all she could ever see now, that had become her own universal vision. ‘The light,’ Rainer had said when showing her the milk white glass panes, ‘the soft light of detachment and reason. The future. Pure sensation.’ Touching her.
She was aware of others – shapes, presences – crowding in behind her. The door closed. Home. She was home. Thirty years. A generation. She knew the walls around her, the rosewood panels facing her, the stairs turning down to her left into the living room. Sounds, the mere whisper of hearing, gave her the dimensions of the space. She put out her left hand and found the balustrade that guarded the stairwell. People were talking – the architect fellow extolling and exclaiming – but she declined to listen. Unaided she made her way to the top of the stairs and walked down carefully, knowing the moves but having to lift them out of memory, like someone being able to play the piano without looking at the keyboard, recalling a tune that she had last played many years ago. Twelve steps to the curve, and then round and down nine more and the space opened out around her, visible even in the blankness. The lower level of the house. The Glass Space, der Glasraum.
‘Ah.’ A faint sigh, organic, almost sexual, came from somewhere deep within her. She could feel the volume as though it had physical substance, as though her face was immersed in it. Space made manifest. She could feel the light from the expanse of plate glass that made up the south wall, smell the Macassar wood, sense the people standing there between the glass and the onyx wall, beneath the plain white ceiling and the ivory white floor, people she knew and people she didn’t know. The children of course, running across the carpets towards her, Viktor looking up from the chair were he sat reading the newspaper, her brother there, although he had never known the place, her friends, her parents, all of them there.
‘Are you feeling all right, Frau Landauer?’
‘Quite all right, thank you. Just the…’ she cast around for the right word ‘…pictures.’
‘Pictures, Frau Landauer?’
There were no pictures. Never had been, not in this room. She knew that. ‘In my mind.’
‘Of course, of course. There must be many.’
Many. For example, when it was dark and Viktor left the curtains open so that the windows became mirrors casting the whole room in duplicate, the chairs, the table, the onyx wall, reflected out there into the night. And his mirrored image walking back and forth, back and forth, suspended over the lawn that had itself become ghostly and insubstantial in the reflection. Refraction of the daytime become reflection of the night. That was how Rainer himself put it. He had even used the English words, for the euphony. Euphony was a quality he loved : der Wohlklang.
Snow. Why did she think of snow? That peculiar bath of light, the sky light reflected upwards from the blanched lawn to light the ceiling as brightly as the clouded sun lit the floor. Light become substance, soft, transparent milk. Birds picking hopefully at the ice, and Viktor pressing the button to lower the windows, like fading memories, down into the basement.
‘Don’t be silly.’
The slow slide of the pane downwards as though to remove the barrier that exists between reality and fiction, the fabricated world of the living room and the hard fact of snow and vegetation. There is a pause during which the two airs stand fragile and separate, the warmth within shivering like a jelly against the wall of cold outside. And then this temporary equilibrium collapses so that winter, with a cold sigh, intrudes, and, presumably, their carefully constructed, carefully warmed interior air is dispersed into the outside world.
Someone was coming towards her. She could sense the form as much as see it, perceive the nucleus of shadow against the light. She knew. What was it? A sense of motion, that particular movement, the sway of her hips as she walked? Perhaps even the perception of her scent. Or the sound of her breathing. Somehow, she knew. She said the name before anyone spoke, said it as a statement more than a question:
‘Liesi! God, you recognised me. How the hell did you do that?’
‘You don’t forget things,’ she said. ‘You store them up.’ She felt arms around her, a smooth cheek against hers. Tears? Perhaps there were tears.
About the Author: Simon Mawer is author of eight novels and two non fiction books. His latest novel, The Glass Room, published by Little, Brown in January 2009, was on the Man Booker shortlist.