Thursday, November 17, 2011

The Glass Room by Simon Mawer

In his novel, The Glass Room, Simon Mawer starts with a picture of privilege. Through that he explores human relationships, families, history, sexuality and change, to list just a few of the elements and themes that feature. Not only does he blend these and other penetrating ideas, he also consistently and utterly engages the reader, draws the observer in so effectively that sometimes the experience is participatory.

The Glass Room is a novel that succeeds on so many levels that it becomes hard to review. The only comment is that you should read it. So why start with a shortcoming? Well, the start is as good a place as any to record The Glass Room’s only weakness, which relates to the identity of the family that forms the book’s focus, the Landauers.

Victor has married Liesel. He is a rich man, an industrialist, an owner of a firm that makes cars. One would expect such a person to live and breathe his work rather more than he does. Consequently, he always seems less of a character than he surely ought to have been, rather aloof, something of a vehicle for the women involved. So the main criticism of a multi-themed, multi-layered book is that it could have pursued one more idea! But The Glass Room’s real focus seems to be on the lives of its women. 

There are three central female characters that form the book’s backbone. Much of the book’s success is to see events separately, from their different individual perspectives. Liesel is a German speaker, married to the car-maker, Viktor, who is Jewish and Czech. They are rich, unapologetically so, and commission a famous architect to design and build a house to be their family home near Prague. It is to be a house to end all houses. The Glass Room is the result, al ultra-modern, modernist, Bauhaus house with more light than can be imagined. Significantly, its areas of glass make it open to the world, a transparency within which a marriage grows gradually murkier towards the opaque. Hana – let’s use a shortened version of her name – is a family friend. She is rather off-beat compared to the apparently conventional Landauers. Initially we know little of her own domestic life, circumstances that become highly significant later on. Hana becomes Liesel’s confidante, her closest friend. Her economic status is not that of the Landauers, but this does not seem to create a barrier. Kata is a different kind of twentieth century heroine. She creates a life for herself with apparent pragmatism beneath the protecting umbrella of Viktor Landauer’s wealth and power. It may appear that he retains the upper hand, that he always writes the rules, but this story is more subtle than that.

When war comes the Glass Room is left behind. It changes. A deranged fascist project occupies its space. (Does that sentence contain a tautology?) A self-deceiving but damaged psychopath exploits an ideologically-driven, self-justifying search for a science of race. At least these scientists know what they are looking for. It’s a pity they must remain blind to the results. What they found they sought to enjoy, but it wasn’t knowledge. The war affects each character differently and we follow them and their fortunes across Europe and across continents. Interestingly, it’s the economically advantaged who have the best chances. As in history, the poor just disappear. And by the end we have lived the characters’ lives almost alongside them. We have sensed the joy, the terror, the suffering and, most acutely, the deception and duplicity.

The author’s footnote states that Der Glasraum does not necessarily translate to The Glass Room, since “raum” means something less defined, something more, like space or environment. The book captivates, its characters confide in us, but paradoxically the image of The Glass Room only rarely suggests transparency.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Beyond the Schoolboy Fringe - Untold Stories by Alan Bennett

Untold Stories by Alan Bennett is something of a pot pourri. It starts with an autobiographical exploration of social and family origins, and then moves on to include occasional pieces on travel, architecture and art, copious diaries from 1996 to 2004, reflections on previous and current work and essays on contemporaries, educational experience and culture. The fact that it all hangs together beautifully is a result of its author’s consummate skills, both linguistic and perceptive.

Untold Stories takes its title from the autobiographical sketch that opens the book. Alan Bennett was the physically late-developing child of a family in the Armley district of Leeds, a northern English industrial city. His father was a butcher who owned two suits, both of which smelled of raw meat. His mother was the supporting pillar of the household, but was also prone to bouts of depression. As a child, Alan Bennett seemed to dream less than most. Perhaps he is still less than able to admit the breadth of his flights of fancy.

“With a writer the life you don’t have is as ample a country as the life you do and is sometimes easier to access.” This sounds remarkably like e e cummings, a character that would not usually be linked with someone as apparently domesticated as Alan Bennett. But reading all of Untold Stories, the reader is repeatedly struck by how much of the eventual content of Alan Bennett’s perceptive, witty and perspicacious writings has its origins within the four walls of the family home. Many of the values, assumptions, attitudes and standpoints, whose apparently unquestioning adoption by his fictional characters lead the listener to question them, arose from a wider family that feverishly tried to be mundane but, like all families, never achieved that goal. The family was, after all, made up of individuals, each of which had his or her own reality alongside unresolved and often shared misgivings. 

Thus, immediately, a writer has several lifetimes of real and imagined material. Alan Bennett, perhaps by virtue of having at least potentially crossed some of the chasms of social class that so profoundly divide British society, seems able to comment, often with no more than an occasional word or phrase, on those tentative but agreed assumptions that make us what we are. “Minor writers often convey a more intense flavour of their times than those whose range is broader and concerns more profound.”

But this, despite the authenticity of his flavours, is no minor writer. Not for a moment would anyone wish this writer’s passing, but there is no doubt that Alan Bennett’s work will live on, probably grow in stature as its ability to comment on the changing Britain of the twentieth century develops a sharper focus.

Essentially Alan Bennett comes across as a conservative type. He dresses and even looks like a 1950s schoolboy, visits churches to describe architectural details of selected tombs in Betjemanesque prose, probably doesn’t indulge in fusion cooking, shuns recognition, inhabits the inner city but is perhaps never quite at home there. But then there’s the anti-establishment side, the satirist, the overt homosexuality and general anti-bigwig mentality. 

And all of this from a First at Oxford. “But taste is no help to a writer. Taste is timorous, conservative and fearful. It is a handicap. Olivier was unhampered by taste and was often vulgar. Dickens similarly. Both could fail, and failure is a sort of vulgarity, but it’s better than a timorous toeing of the line.” Untold Stories is a long read, but one which offers a simple yet sophisticated joy from beginning to end. Alan Bennett revisits topics he has written about in the past. Miss Shepherd, The Lady In The Van is here, as are his early plays and Beyond The Fringe. So are Talking Heads and The History Boys. But throughout he selects and applies language with much wit and humour to offer apparently ephemeral perspectives on everyday life, perspectives that on reflection are anything but shallow. He is a man of taste, as revealed by his regular revulsion with Classic FM, but he is also an enigma because he keeps listening to it.