Letting in the light

2 November 2010
Only in en
British author Simon Mawer has used the history of Brno and the personalities connected with the city in two of his novels. His latest, The Glass Room, loosely based on the story of Mies van der Rohe's famous Villa Tugendhat, was recently published in Czech to a very favourable reception. It would, however, be a mistake to connect Simon Mawer with only one book and one theme. Marek Seckar talks with the writer about real and literary buildings, Brno, and about art, science and uncertainty.

Marek Seckar: You published your first book quite late, at the age of 40. Now, some people say that when you start to write so late, you really should know why, you need a really strong reason. What exactly was your reason?

Simon Mawer: The age when I started is sort of accidental. It had always been my intention to write novels. I always wanted to be a novelist, possibly from when I was 11. It’s just that for various reasons – laziness, incompetence? – I wasn’t able to finish a piece of fiction, a novel, which I was happy with until I was about 38. Maybe I should have submitted a work earlier, but I didn’t, I had a family and there were other things, but it isn’t that at that age I suddenly started to write.

MS: Of course, there are always discouraging factors, but the usual way is that they only get stronger with age.

SM: Probably I got to the stage where I thought if you intend to write, then you actually have to do it. It would be a bit stupid to get to middle age without producing anything. So I simply did it.

MS: Was there any important topic you wanted to get across for instance?

SM: No. My aim while writing novels is always to write a story, nothing else.

MS: Simple storytelling?

SM: Yes. That’s where it comes from, what all novels ought to be. Of course how you tell the story becomes a part of the book, but the story itself is crucial.

MS: You mean you don’t really have a story or theme that you identify with and deal with, in this or that way, in any of your books?

SM: Absolutely not. I’ve written only one novel which is sort of biographical, Swimming to Ithaca. And it wasn’t particularly successful. Usually I’m very suspicious about autobiographical novels – very often first novels – that people write about themselves. They are very often poor and there’s often nothing left to write: the writer has no other themes. My idea was to look at something else, some other stories outside of me, and try to get in it.

MS: Let’s get back to this autobiographical novel. As a child you spent a couple of years in Greece.

SM: That was a very significant moment in my life.

MS: In fact, it seems that the Mediterranean plays an important role in English literature. Possibly we can even speak of a Mediterranean stream in English fiction. Do you feel a part of this or a follower of this tradition?

SM: Not really. You are probably speaking about authors like John Fowles or Lawrence Durrell. These are authors I used to read and they surely influenced me. I can see the appeal of classical Greece or ancient Rome and I understand that. When I went to Cyprus I was 10 years old. I remember I was struck by it, the Mediterranean: the smell, the smell of the plants, the smell of the towns, the heat and also the archaeology. As a little child I was very keen on going around archaeological sites, finding things. I have written one or two books which are Mediterranean-based, but I’m not really obsessed with the Mediterranean.

MS: But you live in Italy don’t you?

SM: I understand what you are driving at. But for me Italy is a modern country and a place of living, nothing else.

MS: Would you call your living abroad, out of England, a sort of voluntary exile? Is it something you need just in order to think, to write?

SM: I think it is something I’ve got regardless of whether I need it. It’s me now; I’ve lived outside for over 30 years. So I’m very different from most British people, but in the past there had been many British people living outside for a long time. I didn’t go abroad in search of sunshine and cheap wine. I went there because I found a job in Italy. I liked the idea of living in Italy at that time and I was happy to distance myself from Britain because I found something a bit depressive about Britain. Now I enjoy going back to Britain because I come as a sort of foreigner. The people who meet me tell me that I’m not fully British but I look at the place from an outsider’s point of view, definitely, and that interests me. I think people say that my writing is not typically British, that there’s something European about it.

MS: When writing, do you think about your readers? Do you imagine them in any way? I mean your language is English so I assume you write mostly for English or British people. Do you think you are still connected to them?

SM: Possibly not. I actually write for myself.

MS: But you have just said your main concern is story telling. That always requires some interaction.

SM: Well yes. But I don’t sit down like this and think I’m writing for a particular market segment. Nothing like that. No, I sit down and think I want to write a story for myself. And I hope the story works, but I’m not writing consciously for a particular group of people. For instance, I guess I’ve had more success in the US than in Britain, but I don’t write for the American audience. And my last book, which seems to have gone quite well in the Czech Republic, I didn’t write for the Czech audience. I’m trying to write what interests me, which sounds a bit remote and cut-off, but it seems to work.

Setting the scene and finding the people

MS: Your last novel The Glass Room deals with the story of a house which is loosely based on the Villa Tugendhat in Brno. In most novels, however, the story evolves around certain characters, or sometimes around an event. You chose a different approach: you centred your attention on a house, a place. How does this approach work? What kind of difficulties did you have to deal with?

SM: Certainly the initial idea was to follow the story of the house. And that really means considerable structural difficulties in the process of writing, which maybe I didn’t entirely resolve in the actual thing. The ideal would be a novel in which one only records the events which take place in the house itself. In a way, I had that ideal but I saw quite early that it wouldn’t work, that I would create a novel that is actually quite off-putting. So maybe I did think of an audience in this case. It would be difficult, the people would come into the house and you wouldn’t know who they were. Then events would occur and they would leave and you would think what are they doing, where are they going? So automatically I had to follow the people. And really the story is as much of the people as it is of the house. For example I followed the Landauer family to Switzerland. I wanted to follow them to the US, too, but in this case the novel would have needed three volumes and I wanted to keep it down to the house as much as possible, without making the narrative unreadable. It did pose problems.

MS: So in the end the house served as an inspiration, as a first stimulus, which then evolved into something you hadn’t had in mind at first?

SM: Certainly it was an inspiration. And also in the narrative it’s the focus. In a way all the events circle around the centre, which is, I suppose, the Glass Room. But yes, then it became something else. That’s what happens to all my books. I write without any real plan. I just start and see how things develop. I go back and forth; it’s a long and tedious quest.

MS: So writing as a spontaneous process. Still, many reviewers have praised the book for “clarity”, “symmetry”, “logic”, “structure” as if they were assessing it as a real piece of architecture rather than as a book.

SM: I like the fact that they saw that. But they never saw the way I was writing it. In the end I hope it looks well structured, well balanced, well organized. But the process of writing was never like that, it never is. There is always a lot of going up blind alleys, finding dead ends, turning around, coming back.

MS: How do you see the novel now, after this complicated process was completed? What’s the key element of the story in your opinion?

SM: You are now asking me to look at it almost as if I didn’t write it. Because looking back on it as a sort of reflexive exercise is something very different from writing it. But what seems to me to be the key feature of the book is that there is a tension, or a balance, between the idealism that lies behind the building of the house and the reality that is imposed on the house by circumstances, by the frailties of the people who inhabit the house and also by the external events of the world. I do think that the modernist programme, which grew up in the 1920s, was a very noble one, a programme of progress, the idea of equality, universality, internationalism. The fact that you create a style of art, architecture, which doesn’t stem from a particular society, from a particular culture, is amazing in itself. And that’s what created the Landauer house, and other houses all over the world, houses in France, houses in the US. And then, of course, you get the other side which is the human condition and the disasters that human culture, human society impose on the people who created the house, who lived in the house; the fact that humans are not transparent, that humans are not logical, rational, that you can design something like this room that we are in, which is modernist, and you are trying to let in the light, and you didn’t succeed, and of course the twentieth century shows that the darkness was at least as strong as the light. I wanted to get that idea in the book.

MS: What can the outcome of this relationship, of this tension, be in your opinion?

SM: I see it as a continuous process. A never-ending battle. Possibly it’s the conflict between the romantic and the classical, the classical in terms of the nineteenth century, but also of ancient Greece and, later, of ancient Rome. Even now when you are in Rome you can go to the Pantheon and you can see this extraordinary space which is the high point of classical rationalism, a temple built not to one god, but to all the gods. And this building is sitting in the middle of ancient Rome which was a ghastly city of 1 million people, where emperors were usually losing power by being killed. It was a grim and irrational world. The tension between rationality and irrationality is always there, it’s always part of human existence.

MS: Do you think that literature can be inspired by architecture in a direct way, not just in this loose way you used? Can architectural principles really work in books? There is a book in Czech literature, also based on a building in Brno, the Hotel Avion. I’m speaking about the Czech writer Jiri Kratochvil and his novel Avion in which he tried to translate the building as a form into a literary text. Do you think this can work and have you ever considered anything similar?

SM: No I haven’t. I think the problem in doing something like that is that the structure becomes dominant. You might actually lose the enjoyment of the novel. I have always been suspicious of experimental writing because it seems to be self-indulgent, and also alienating from the reader. I said, of course, I was writing for myself but I hope that while writing for myself I do it more or less for the common reader. This reminds me of the novel Life: A user’s manual by Georges Perec where the author uses the structure of the house, but actually only tells stories about the people who live in it.

MS: Do you think Perec’s book doesn’t work?

SM: It does, but not thanks to his method; it’s because he is a good storyteller and the stories he tells are quite good and funny.

The magical mysteries of art and science

MS:What exactly do you find interesting about the central European cultural space? It is often considered rather marginal from the western point of view, yet it has become the main subject matter of some of your books besides The Glass Room – of the novel Mendel’s Dwarf the Czech edition of which is now underway.

SM: I don’t think it is marginal, I think it is absolutely central. This is what occurred to me when I came here first. I was traveling simply as a tourist and Brno was the first place in the Czech Republic I saw because I was coming from Vienna. At that time I knew about Brno for two reasons. One was Gregor Mendel. I’m a biologist and I knew that Mendel used to live in Brno. The other reason was that Brno gave the first two letters to the BREN light machine gun, used by British troops during World War II. The other two letters – EN – come from Enfield, a part of London and the seat of the English producer. It was designed in an armament factory in Brno and the design was exported just before the war to Enfield where they produced BREN guns in hundreds of thousands throughout the war.

Anyway, I came to see and learn more about Mendel because it interested me, and it was on that visit that I thought that the story of Mendel might produce a novel. I couldn’t see exactly how, but I knew it wouldn’t just be a novelized version of Mendel’s life. Of course, Mendel is a type that I know because I worked in a school run by an order of the Catholic Church and I could imagine what Mendel’s was like very well. It was a lively place, a place that was important in its time, in the nineteenth century, very open to the changes that were going on in the outside world. They were progressive, they were very actively concerned with the 1848 revolution, but I thought that although it was all an interesting story, it was something completely different, not what I wanted to write.

That’s when I introduced the narrator of the book, who is the Dwarf, a modern biologist, a modern geneticist. In his research work, he tries to find the mutation that led to his dwarfism. So you see genetics then, science then, and society then, and genetics now and society now through the eyes of Ben Lambert. That is the novel. So that was my interest then and of course I began to find out more about central Europe, to see what environment Mendel lived in. On one of these visits I also discovered the Tugendhat house, which is the inspiration for the Landauer house. From there, subsequently, came the idea of The Glass Room. So my intention is not really to write novels about central Europe, it is rather discovering central Europe and this country, and finding it very interesting and inspiring.

MS: It is striking how perfect your knowledge of central European history is and how well you describe the atmosphere of inter-war Brno. Where exactly did you get your information?

SM: I obviously did a lot of reading. Not great historical tomes, I was just trying to get events and facts right. And I had a spy in Brno who helped me with checking local history and the language, which was very important: Iva Hradilkova, the press speaker of the Ombudsman’s office. She was tremendous. Thanks to her interest in the language and her knowledge she was a great help, my immediate and real source. And I had other sources as well: for example, when I was in Brno a few years ago, in one of the bookshops there I discovered huge volumes of old postcards of Brno. Area by area. I bought them all. I got a stack of books with historic postcards. They would actually have been very useful when I was writing Mendel’s Dwarf. I used lots of different sources of information while trying to get the feel for it, but the important thing is to go there. I think Brno is a city that one can understand; you can understand the development of it quite well as you walk around and look. And I sort of felt it. I could imagine what it was like in the nineteenth century, what it was like with the Czech-German contrast, the problems of the 1920s, 1930s. Imagination is very important.

MS: What do you think about the reception of the book in this country? You said you didn’t write for a particular audience, but still the reception might be different here.

SM: It is, yes. When it was translated into Czech I was delighted, for me it was a sort of proof that I got it right because no Czech publisher would decide to translate it into Czech if it hadn’t convinced him. And the reception I’ve had has been superb. I’ve been in many places doing readings and they’ve been excellent, the people have been very interested. It is lovely to have that sort of contact.

MS: What about the villa’s recent history, the division of the country [Czechoslovakia ed.] which was decided there and the quarrels over ownership? Were you interested in that too? Did you consider including this part of its history into the book?

SM: Unfortunately I couldn’t do that. And the reason is that my house is not actually the Tugendhat house. The design is. But I wanted to maintain a fictional distance from the real place. I would love to have that in the book, but that would have said: this is the Tugendhat house. This is something I didn’t want.

MS: In the English edition of the book you adhere to this idea. You even decided not to call the city Brno and you gave it a rather neutral name – “Mesto”. Why did you let the Czech version speak specifically about Brno?

SM: It was the translator’s decision and I can’t say I’m very happy about that. He said he thought it was so obviously Brno that it should come out. But I disagree; I wanted to keep that formal distance.

MS:The translator might have been right: while your distance possibly works abroad where nobody knows Brno, here the cover-up would be considered superfluous because completely transparent.

SM: Of course, everybody here is going to see through “Mesto”, but still, I would like to have it this way – as a sort of statement from my part.

MS: Have you seen the Villa Tugendhat since the reconstruction work started?

SM: Last Tuesday when I was in Brno I had a guided tour around the villa. It was an extraordinary experience. Even now, when it is closed. We even went to the basement where I had never been before. We saw all the machinery – the heating system, the pumps – all working. You can see the skeleton of the house. They have taken out all the floors, down to the concrete. Concrete that Mies Van Der Rohe had touched. The onyx wall is now covered up, of course. Down in the basement they have been digging through into the ground to assess how the foundations are preserved. And the foundations are good. Nothing is shifting apparently. The outside stairs have shifted away, they had to be pushed back and sealed, but that is just the stairs, not the foundations of the building. Fundamentally the building is very sound. And it was fascinating to see it. It is interesting to see the contrast: before, during and hopefully after 18 months when it is finished. And we will see it as it was in 1930 because they are going to put replicas of the original fittings, for example the bathroom equipment which was torn out in the 1980s and replaced by modern bathroom fittings.

Literature, science and uncertainty

MS: Many of your texts evidence your interest in the relationship between science and literature. How do you see this relationship? Are you exploring it intentionally in your books or are you planning to explore it more in future?

SM: Not consciously at the moment. And really it only comes out of the books. In general I think science and literature seem separate at the moment and we should bring them together. I hate the separation of the arts and the sciences; I think it is a false separation and a very recent one. I’ve spent my lifetime teaching biology and I’ve always seen the scientific process very closely allied to the artistic process. The use of imagination, speculation, for instance. Writing a novel is an experiment. Any novel with any sort of originality is an experiment: you are trying a new idea. It’s speculative, and I like speculation, it’s imaginative, and I like imagination. Science is speculative and imaginative.

MS: To an extent. Then you need some exact figures.

SM: I think you need exactness in the arts as well. And I think we also need to be braver in the arts about saying: “This experiment has failed.” Because there’s an awful lot of art that gets through and is shown in galleries which shouldn’t be there.

MS: But in science you can see clearly that the experiment has failed, while in the arts you never know for sure.

SM: I agree. And of course you have to be very careful, because if you are not careful you start rejecting art that does have value. The value in art is much more intangible than the value in science, I agree. But then there are also extraordinary things and something that interests me enormously, at the moment, and I am trying to see how I can use it in a narrative, in a novel.

The most obscure thing in particle physics is quantum mechanics, the strangeness of modern physics, which is very remarkable. I mean the fact is that you cannot conceive of the atom and subatomic particles except mathematically. And mathematics is used as a description. It’s very peculiar because it doesn’t work in practical physics. Mathematics is a statement about something you can visualize, like a pendulum swinging. And the idea of modern atomic theory is remarkable, extraordinary, because it’s got to do with uncertainty, the uncertainty of our imagination, the inability of our imagination. That happens in art, in good art all the time. Uncertainty, the inquiry, in fact it’s fascinating. Quantum mechanics had its great burst during and immediately after World War I, at the same time as you had that great burst of artistic invention and experiment, like abstract painting and Dadaism.

MS: Do you think, for example, that the theory of relativity had this kind of direct impact on art and literature?

SM: I don’t think it was direct. Lawrence Durrell claimed that he was using the theory of relativity in his novel The Alexandria Quartet. He did it some way. But not successfully in the obvious way. It is rather the uncertainty principle. It comes at the same time. We’ve got uncertainty in art, we’ve got the uncertainty of the unreliable narrator in literature, all sorts of ideas of shifting viewpoints. I find that all very much interwoven with twentieth-century scientific ideas.

MS: The British conservative historian Paul Johnson sees this relationship between modern science and modern art and literature as well, but he dismisses this development as something negative – as the decline of positive values – and argues that relativity actually provided for the onset of the great totalitarian systems because it cast doubt on moral certainty.

SM: Actually, what we got is valueless art. And maybe valueless science. But that is also why the twentieth century is so startling. Under these ghastly historical events that we can’t deny, there is something else, which is extraordinary, and it concerns the development of human thought. A lovely example of this is another native of Brno, mathematician Kurt Gödel. His incompleteness theorem seems to be magic. Gödel proved mathematically that there are mathematical truths that can never be proved. This is brilliant. It could have been written by Beckett. I must say I feel that a lot of the uncertainty in art – the unreliable narrator in literature, the denial of art in Dada etc. – is wonderfully parallel to the uncertainties of modern physics. But that is absolutely not relativity, and both relativity and Heisenberg’s uncertainty are “true”. Surely Johnson can’t be denying the truths of modern physics. He’s hardly qualified to pass judgment on such matters. The truth is, we are scientifically, morally, ethically and artistically very uncertain beings – and that’s what makes the intellectual discoveries of the twentieth century so exciting!

Published 2 November 2010

Original in English
First published in Host 7/2010

Contributed by Host
© Host Eurozine

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