World War II Literature and Buildings – Simon Mawer’s ‘The Glass Room’

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Photo by Amazon: The Glass Room, Simon Mawer

Buildings are not just meticulous designs or vacuous spaces made from concrete, glass and brick. Yes, they are to a certain extent physically fixed, but they are also adaptable canvases onto which different memories are projected and embodied. Buildings both absorb and dictate history, they “gather meaning to them by their everyday function, by their presence in the townscape and by their form” (Bevan 15). I intend to show how the Second World War forced buildings to modify in form, occupancy and meaning, and how this is portrayed in literature. I also believe they signified both danger and refuge. Indeed, during the Blitz “over fifty per cent of buildings within greater London were damaged” (Mellor 1-2), signifying a huge threat to the architectural landscape of the city. At the same time, these same buildings had to be symbols of national identity, strength and in the case of the home, domestic sanctuary. These diverging associations of buildings during a period of tremendous anxiety and uncertainty resulted in some fascinating wartime and post-war depictions of this subject.

I will be exploring Simon Mawer’s illuminating and kaleidoscopic novel The Glass Room, alongside an extract from Virginia Woolf’s ‘A Writer’s Diary’ and Elizabeth Bowen’s ‘Mysterious Kor’ to illustrate my argument that buildings had complex and paradoxical associations which were particularly intensified by the wartime context. Ruthven Todd’s poem ‘These are Facts’, illustrates anger and frustration over the survival of certain buildings instead of the thousands of civilians that died during the Blitz. His argument is unquestionably fair, a view I support. However, I am very interested in the central role that architecture plays in our lives and believe it became even more significant during the Second World War.

Simon Mawer’s The Glass Room is a historical novel set during and after The Second World War, in Czechoslovakia, which was occupied by the Germans from 1938-1945. We are continually arrested with “the vision” (Mawer 2) and architectural importance of Der Glasraum, a rectilinear structure of concrete, steel and glass which is the main feature of both the house and text. “It is a work of art” (Mawer 2) in itself, with its vast windows, white ceilings, onyx wall, white floors and limited furniture. However, the Glass Room “is not merely a piece of architecture within the book; it is the architecture of the book” (Sansom “Design”). Indeed, all the characters are connected by the house which is the fundamental anchor for the entire text. Both the house and its inhabitants rely on each other as “a house without people has no dimensions. It just is. An enclosed space, a box” (Mawer 308). I also believe the characters’ lives are often determined by events that take place in the Glass Room. It is the site of love, anger, jealousy, danger and refuge.

Moreover, unlike many of the buildings destroyed in the Blitz, people come and go within Mawer’s novel, but the impervious Glass Room remains. While the building is timeless, it also adapts and evolves over time and is therefore both a fixed and transformative construction. I believe Mawer is asserting that while the building captures both love and pain during the war, we can attempt to overcome such grief by remembering what survives and triumphs through such hardship. Indeed, the building survives even though bombs “drop through the fog from nowhere without warning… trampling over the city like some cosmic child stamping on a nest of ants” (Mawer 311) and one bomb even falls towards the house itself. Moreover, Hana survives and returns to the house despite her tragic love affair with Stahl, a Nazi scientist. She even gives birth to their child, which is then taken from her in a concentration camp. The house, like its inhabitants, overcomes the hardships of war and is irreversibly transformed. Hana remarks, “everything changes, even buildings” (Mawer 394) and the unpredictability of war makes the fluctuating nature of the glass house more believable to the reader. Though the building and the people look the same by the end of the novel, their interior composition has been gradually altered over time. The glass has been replaced and the human relationships have developed and dwindled accordingly.

Memories are also attached to architecture and Mawer enforces the act of remembrance through the survival of the Glass Room. However, Adrian Forty rejects the idea that architecture is capable of embodying memories (Bevan 15) and Viktor, too, wants a house that can be “adapted to the future rather than the past” (Mawer 25). Even Liesel says that “war kills people, ruins lives and destroys countries. But now perhaps we can build a new one” (Mawer 33). At first, the Landauer’s are concerned with forgetting the past and looking to the future with the construction of the modern building. However, the Second World War causes dislocation of family, friendship and love, thus creating memories within the house over the years. Indeed, by constructing their blank architectural canvas, bitter memories of the First World War, such as the death of Liesel’s brother Benno, can perhaps be erased. Yet, they are still creating a space for new memories. Subsequently, by the end of the novel we see how “The Glass Room [was]… so modern when Rainer Von Abt designed it, yet now, as Hana Hanakova sits and weeps, [it is] so imbued with the past” (Mawer 372).

So, while I accept that memories are interior human constructions, I believe that particularly in the case of The Glass Room, due to the wartime context, the house is capable of embodying memories. For example, when Liesel, who has turned blind in her old age, returns to the house after many years, we recognise, as she clearly does, how the house embodies a whole range of emotional and physical memories for her. For, “she knew the walls around her, the rosewood panels facing her, to her left the stairs running down into the living room” (Mawer 3) and “she knew, even after all these years…[the house was] still engraved on her mind” (Mawer 1). Bevan asserts that we in part “recognise our place in the world by an interaction with the built environment” (15) and Mawer certainly places his novel within this notion by making the house the nucleus of the entire text and of the characters’ sense of identity. Indeed, by the end of the novel we come full circle, as Liesel, and her two children Ottilie and Martin are compelled to return to their house after many years abroad in exile. The lives of the Landauers and of their circle, which had seemed atomised by the war, “begin slowly to gravitate back towards the Glass Room, drawn by a force as powerful and mysterious as that of gravity: the force of memory” (Shilling “GR Review”). So while I take on board Forty’s argument, I believe The Glass Room has the unique power to evoke and possess memories.

The Landauer family are forced, in 1938, after the German takeover of the Sudetenland, to flee their home in Czechoslovakia and seek refuge in Switzerland because Viktor is Jewish. Indeed, Jews could not even find sanctuary in their own homes, let alone in buildings such as shops, schools or hospitals. Many Jewish houses, synagogues and business were destroyed by Nazis and therefore through his novel, Mawer creates a cultural record that voices the identity of a Jewish family, their struggle and the memories of their house. He successfully creates a historic space for the Jewish/Czech family, and though his novel is not based on real life experience, his active determination to commemorate these experiences through the house is exceedingly compelling and refreshing. When the Nazis destroyed German synagogues on Kristallnacht in 1938, they were denying Jews their past and their future, something which Mawer tries to capture and commemorate through The Glass Room. In fact, Czechoslovakia witnessed the most publicized example of ‘place’ annihilation in the village of Lidice (Hewitt 259). Here, German forces were encouraged by Hitler to make an ‘example’ of the community. The whole village was demolished and the site was even landscaped to subsequently disappear into the surrounding fields. All men over the age of 16 were taken out and shot and all the women, elderly and children were transported to concentration camps. Indeed, by the end of the novel we learn how “Jews are like ghosts in the country, forgotten people whose shades haunt the alleyways and streets of certain towns” (Mawer 349). Therefore, the novel rebels against lost Jewish and Czech history through chronicling the physical survival of the building and the emotional endurance of its inhabitants during such a traumatic period in history.

I would argue that the Glass Room acts as the framework and totemic canvas onto which the history of Czechoslovakia, during the Second World War, is painted. Indeed, the form, occupancy and meaning of the house transforms during and after the war. The text takes us through pre-war decadence and freedom to “the measurement of human phenotype took place not just during the war but before the war” (‘SM talks about TGR’), when a group of Nazi scientists take over the property. The house is then occupied by the Soviets before becoming a post-war physical therapy dance studio. Subsequently, the Glass Room itself projects and absorbs different parts of Second World War history. For example, we see Viktor’s openness to the design of the building which is “his vision enshrined” (Mawer 1), as representative of the aesthetics of the Modern Movement that flourished during the Czech First Republic. The architect, Rainer Von Abt wishes to “take Man out of the cave and float him in the air” (Mawer 18) in a space of clarity and openness. Therefore, the national history is embedded and projected through the familial and architectural one. The building lives through political and social changes and is the site of both love and suffering, all experiences which are intensified by the wartime context. It eventually becomes “a treasure that belongs to the city and the country and the whole world. This symbol of peace” (Mawer 391). Essentially, the house comes to symbolise universal forgiveness. Though it eventually exists as a museum, it becomes “the site for a final scene of recognition and redemption” (Sansom “Design”). Despite the death and heartbreak within the novel, by the final pages, the Glass Room “is vibrant and alive” (Mawer 403), always looking to the future, but never forgetting the past.

The Glass Room has extensive paradoxical imagery which is further intensified by the context in which the novel is set. Compared to the darkness and oppression of Czechoslovakia during the Second World War, the building portrays light and openness. It is “a palace of light, [with] light bouncing off the chrome pillars, light refulgent on the walls, light glistening on the dew in the garden, light reverberating from the glass” (Mawer 64). However, Mawer also questions the solidity of these associations.

Indeed, Viktor wants the building to be cool, balanced and modern, rather than evocative of “the secretive and stifled life of the previous centuries” (Mawer 25). Yet he is the one who deceives his wife and has a long-term affair with Kata, who becomes eventually the family nanny. Indeed, the Glass Room is supposedly “a barricade against emotion” (Mawer 173). It is home to “precision, the cool gaze of scientific objectivity” (Mawer 222) and “pure rationality” (Mawer 137), but it is also the breeding ground for the wild inconsistency of lust and love. Hana warns Zdenka “don’t be fooled by the Glass Room. It is only as rational as the people who inhabit it” (Mawer 360). Moreover, it projects freedom, “this sensation of space, of all things being possible” (Mawer 64), due to its unique physical openness and modernity, but such serenity is short lived as the storm clouds of the Second World War gather. Indeed, it has the effect of “liberating people from the strictures and conventions of the ordinary, of making them transparent” (Mawer 96). Yet it is briefly a scientific laboratory where the Nazis investigate “the systematic measurement of what defines human and subhuman, of what makes Herrenvolk and Untermenschen” (Mawer 223) This is the direct antithesis of the open, unrestricted spirit of the Glass Room. Similar to the exposed nature of the building, human emotions and relationships are exposed and intensified through the house and the turbulent wartime context. With the progression of the war, the affair between Kata and Viktor becomes obvious to all the house’s inhabitants. Furthermore, when, on trying to cross the border into Spain, she is offloaded from the train, Viktor’s love for her is brought before his whole family as he attempts to save her. Mawer even remarked in an interview that “one of the themes of the book – maybe its principal theme – is the contrast between the transparency of the architecture and the opposite, the lack of the transparency of the human lives that go on within it” (‘SM talks about TGR’).

The novel astutely plays with language to convey the blurring boundaries of transparency and opacity. Indeed, the glass room is not only a Glasraum, or “space made manifest” (Mawer 4), but it is also referred to as the Glastraum which means the glass dream. Describing the building as dreamlike lends an unreal, opaque quality to the house which is the opposite of the translucent modernity at which it aims. For Zdenka, “the Glass Room is a place of dreams, a cool box where you can project your fantasies and sit and watch them” (Mawer 346). However, this place of dreams is also about looking forward to a time and place when religion and nationality are not means for persecution. Consequently, I believe Mawer is conveying how the house has a certain multiplicity. It acts both as a clearly fixed, physical space, but also as a theatre for incomprehensible events that would have been unimaginable before the Second World War.

In contrast to The Glass Room, where we witness intense aesthetic construction, accounts from the Blitz provide vivid aesthetic destruction.  The Glass Room becomes a “refuge…that least fortress-like of constructions, bringing the consolation of reason and calm, while outside the confines of their particular lives, the world is crumbling” (Mawer 159), whereas during the Blitz, the London landscape crumbled. The Blitz was the “British name for the Luftwaffe’s sustained night attacks against their cities from August 1940 to mid-May 1941” (Price 138) and was a time of great anxiety for the British people due to such spatial and architectural dislocation. Though the Germans primarily wanted to destroy Britain’s aircraft factories, docks and means of communication, after the Battle of Britain, they began to bomb famous landmarks such as The Tate Gallery, The British Museum and Buckingham Palace. Indeed, despite the obvious military manoeuvres inherent within the bombings, the “destruction of cultural artefacts of an enemy people or nation as a means of dominating, terrorizing, dividing or eradicating it altogether” (Bevan 8), was an additional motive. Residential areas were also hit in a bid to terrorise the nation into submission and lower morale. On 7th September 1940 up to 420 Londoners were killed and around 1600 injured (Price 138) and by May 1941 “over a million private homes in the city and its suburbs had been damaged” (Towheed 125).

Short stories, diary extracts and poems written during the Blitz convey the absolute absurdity that, due to the randomness of the bombing, some buildings remained physically intact and untouched, while others were left entirely devastated.  Similar to The Glass Room, accounts of the Blitz often focus on the visual appearance or disappearance of buildings and the changing urban landscape. Virginia Woolf’s ‘A Writer’s Diary’ conveys the “pressure, danger, horror” (96) of the continual bombings. The extremely personal account shows clear anxieties over the destruction of history through the destruction of buildings. “The house about thirty yards from ours struck at one in the morning by a bomb. Completely ruined. Stood by Jane Harrison’s house. The house was still smouldering” (Woolf 97). Jane Harrison was a suffragette who died in 1928, therefore Woolf’s decision to include the destruction of her house in the diary speaks of wider, cultural loss. Indeed, “to lose all that is familiar – the destruction of one’s environment – can mean a disorientating exile from the memories they have evoked” (Bevan 13). As I have already discussed with The Glass Room, the memories that are embodied within buildings play a huge role in our lives and Woolf appears to feel the same. She also describes the unfathomable awareness that her house stands undamaged but in the one nearby, everyone is “blown to bits… some great shop is entirely destroyed, the hotel opposite like a shell…the cinema behind Madame Taussaud’s torn open… a time bomb struck the palace” (97-98). Subsequently, Woolf demonstrates the domestic and cultural invasiveness of the Blitz and how the bombings represented a threat not only to buildings of national importance but also to private homes where people have built their individual lives and memories.

Elizabeth Bowen’s ‘Mysterious Kor’ depicts the familiar landscape of London in a whole new haunting light which “drenched the city and searched it; there was not a niche left to stand in” (728). Bowen was an upper-middle class woman living and working in London during the Second World War and it is clear she both “clung to and questioned the notion of such a safe, hermetic world, whether architectural or emotional” (Miller 138). The stark moonlight “allows the buildings in ruins to be read and the whole experience to be understood” (Mellor 164), yet we are still left with a feeling of something hiding in the shadows. The imaginative space that Pepita creates in her mind fills in the spaces where buildings have been demolished of which there were over 3.5 million in London alone (Miller 138). Towheed argued that ‘Mysterious Kor’ allowed Bowen to illustrate “the imaginative and emotional investment that Londoners made in keeping the illusion of their pre-war city alive though the Blitz” (128). I agree, to a certain extent, with this assertion as Pepita is able to remain engaged with the city through its affiliation with an imaginative one. For her, fiction and reality blur into one, as London and the “ghost city” (Bowen 738) of Kor fuse too. However, the city of Kor, which originates from a sonnet by Andrew Lang, is a “completely forsaken city…white as bone, with no history” (Bowen 729) and therefore death and destruction still remain at the forefront of the story which is hardly keeping the sense of pre-war London alive as Towheed maintains.

The open domestic space of the building in The Glass Room contrasts poignantly with physical space created through the bombings of the Blitz. While the former is open due to specific, architectural planning, the latter is produced through acts of violence and destruction. Mellor asserts that the Blitz “altered the physical space of London more than any event since the Great Fire of 1666” (3). Indeed, in Bowen’s story “London looked like the moon’s capital – shallow, cratered, extinct” (728) and we get an intense feeling of architectural emptiness. However, despite the seemingly forsaken streets of London, Bowen simultaneously presents us with the cramped and overcrowded apartment of Pepita and Callie. This small domestic space is entirely different from the expansive Glass Room in Mawer’s novel. Moreover, “it is not just the flat that is too full, as Arthur explains to Callie, but available public space in London” (Towheed 128). For the two young lovers are “lucky to have a roof – London [was] full enough before the Americans came” (Bowen 731). Indeed, bombings tore open public and private buildings leading to new city space, yet actual living space was destroyed leading to claustrophobia. People were forced to sleep crowded together in the underground stations or in deemed to be safe buildings. “The buildings strained with battened-down human life, but not a beam, not a voice, not a note from a radio escaped” (Bowen 728). For, while the streets may be deserted, there were places and spaces full of people huddling together, hoping to avoid death. Yet even these places of shelter are vulnerable and “equally brittle under the moon… from the sky, presumably, you could see every slate in the roof” (Bowen 728). The stark beams of moonlight in ‘Mysterious Kor’ expose a city landscape that is both changed and unchanged, familiar and unfamiliar.

Ruthven Todd’s poem These Are Facts displays resentment over the survival of particular buildings over others. “Remember the walls of brick that forty years/ had nursed to make a near though shabby home/ the impertinence of death; ignoring tears/ that smashed the house and left untouched the Dome” (Todd ‘TAF’). He conveys how such preoccupation with the survival of landmark buildings as immoral and selective. The millions of homes that were destroyed possessed more personal history that the grand ‘Dome’. He also believes that “people are more than places” (Todd ‘TAF’) and that the survival of any building over a civilian is erroneous. He supports the notion that the famous Blitz spirit was often overplayed and mythologized, “concealing a great deal of depression and dissatisfaction” (Bevan 79). Despite Hebert Mason’s photo of St Paul’s Cathedral, ‘War’s greatest picture’, rising out of the smoking ruins, Todd’s poem paints a different story. By contrast, the photographer Lee Miller felt it was important to capture architectural beauty amid the aesthetic destruction of the buildings. Miller’s photograph ‘1 Nonconformist Chapel and 1 Bomb’ (1941) shows how “architectural value can be apparently recovered from still smoking ruins” (Mellor 125). There is a distinct transformation of the previously ugly building into a noble ruin with its now visible Corinthian columns. Therefore, we can see how Miller finds hidden beauty despite the destruction, an act instigated and intensified by the wartime context.

However, I would argue that one of the main reasons why so many people focused on the destroyed buildings during the Blitz was because “there were more damaged houses to be seen than damaged bodies” (Rawlinson 96). Indeed, images of damaged landmarks were publicised more than domestic casualties of which there were so many. Similarly, when the Twin Towers of The World Trade Centre collapsed following the terrorist attacks of 11th September 2001, it was the visual element, the spectacle of the falling buildings in New York which caused the greatest shock. Apart from the people who chose to jump from the buildings, there were not many visible human casualties. As with the Blitz, the fact that most of the civilian deaths of 9/11 were hidden made their deaths both unimaginable and less ‘real’ in comparison to the horrific footage of the destruction of the buildings themselves. Indeed, “it is doubtful if images of that day would have had quite the same impact if the Twin Towers had stood firm, even with a huge loss of life” (Bevan 61). Moreover, by targeting Buckingham Palace, St Pauls Cathedral, Westminster Abbey, The Houses of Parliament, The British Museum and both The National and The Tate Galleries, the Germans thought they could weaken the sense of national, cultural, political and religious security. Similarly, al-Qaeda chose The World Trade Centre due to it being “the primary signifier of economic power in the primary city of global capital” (Bevan 65). I find Todd’s poem extremely moving and the arguments valid, but the fact that war is often depicted, fought through or instigated by the destruction or survival of buildings, makes me believe that they are undoubtedly central to the experience of war itself.

What happens to buildings during war? Do they become more or less important as they are obliterated or taken over? I believe that during war, buildings become paradoxical sites of both danger and refuge and their function or association becomes particularly heightened by this context. Whether they are destroyed, altered or maintained, they are intrinsically and intensely linked with human society, culture and politics. The Glass Room, ‘A Writer’s Diary’, ‘Mysterious Kor’ and ‘These Are Facts’ provide us with evidence that the survival or destruction of buildings during the Second World War was a subject many writers  were and still are contemplating.

Mawer demonstrates how his complex Glass Room embodies different memories and how war forces it and subsequently its inhabitants to transform and develop. Woolf and Bowen reflect on the changing London landscape and emphasize how difficult it was to come to terms with the metamorphosing architecture and bizarre lifestyle during the Blitz, while Todd rallies against any celebration of grand architectural survival during war. There can be no doubt that “there is both a horror and a fascination at something so apparently permanent as a building, something that one expects to outlast many a human span, meeting an untimely end” (Bevan 7). Indeed, buildings provide the framework for our existence and often seem to be the steady components of our lives. Even though we see new ones constructed every day, others renovated and some demolished, we know they will always be there is some shape of form, carrying and instigating our memories.

Indeed, it is their dual function of sanctuary and vulnerability which makes them intensely complex entities which become particularly intensified during wartime. One of the reasons people feel the need to visit buildings or sites where buildings once stood is because they carry deep meaning. We feel a sense of belonging to a wider community and history through them. Anne Frank’s house, the 9/11 memorial site and the buildings of Auschwitz draw people from all corners of the globe because humans are curious about the spaces and places where intense experiences take place. Films, documentaries, books, diaries, photographs and poems help us to understand the experiences of the Second World War, but we are continually drawn to the buildings that silently witnessed this past and still embody its history.

Works Cited

Bevan, Robert. Introduction: The Enemies of Architecture and Memory. The Destruction of          Memory: Architecture at War. London: Reaction Books, 2006. 7-25. Print.

—“Terror: Morale, Messages and Propaganda”. The Destruction of Memory: Architecture at          War. London: Reaction Books, 2006. 61-94. Print.

Bowen, Elizabeth. “Mysterious Kor” The Collected Stories of Elizabeth Bowen. London:   Curtis Brown Limited, 1980. 728-741. Print.

Hewitt, Kenneth. “Place Annihilation: Area Bombing and the Fate of Urban Places”. Annals        of the Association of American Geographers. Taylor and Francis Ltd. Vol. 73, No 2,   1983. 257-284. Jstor. Web. 09/01/13

Mawer, Simon. The Glass Room. London: Little Brown, 2009. Print.

— “Simon Mawer talks about The Glass Room”. Radio Prague. 05/07/10. By David          Vaughan. 15/01/13. Interview. Web.

Mellor, Leo. Introduction. Reading the Ruins: Modernism, Bombsites and British Culture.             Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2011. 1-11. Print.

— “Surrealism and the Bombsites”. Reading the Ruins: Modernism, Bombsites and British            Culture. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2011. 85-138. Print.

— “The Haunted City”. Reading the Ruins: Modernism, Bombsites and British Culture.     Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2011. 138-166. Print.

Miller, Christine A. “Even a Shelter’s Not Safe”. The Blitz on Homes in Elizabeth Bowen’s Wartime Writing. Twentieth Century Literature. Vol. 45, No 2, 1999. 138-158. Jstor. Web. 09/01/13.

Price, Alfred. “Text”. The Oxford Companion to World War II. Ed. I.C.B Dear. Oxford:   Oxford University Press, 1995. 1-1019. Print.

Rawlinson, Mark. “What Targets For a Bomb: Spectacle, Reconstruction and the London             Blitz”. British Writing of the Second World War. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2000. 68-        119. Print.

Sansom, Ian. “Design for Living”. The Guardian Online. Guardian.co.uk. 2009. 12/01/13.            Web.

Shilling, Jane. “The Glass Room by Simon Mawer: Review”. The Telegraph Online.          Telegraph.co.uk. 2009. 15/01/13

Todd, Ruthven. “These Are Facts”. Scanning the Century: The Penguin Book of the C20th in        Poetry. Ed. Peter Forbes. London: Trafalgar Square Publishing, 2000. 78-79.

Towheed, Shafquat. “Territory, Space, Modernity: Elizabeth Bowen’s The Demon Lover and       Other Stories and wartime London”. Elizabeth Bowen: New Critical Perspectives. Ed.            Susan Osborn. Cork: Cork University Press, 2009. 113-132. Print.

Woolf, Virginia. “A Writer’s Diary”. Writers on WWII: An Anthology. Ed by Mordecai      Richler. London: Vintage, 1992. 96-99. Print

3 thoughts on “World War II Literature and Buildings – Simon Mawer’s ‘The Glass Room’

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