In The Glass Room, which rightly earned a place on the Booker shortlist in 2009, Simon Mawer demonstrated a rare talent for nuance that lifted the book out of the simplistic confines of popular fiction. At its core is Mies van der Rohe’s magical modernist house, Tugendhat Villa, on the outskirts of Brno in what was Czechoslovakia at the time it was built. There are coincidences galore in the plot and an abundance of the kinds of details one expects from an old-fashioned family saga, but these are of small consequence when set beside the visionary quality that informs the entire novel. The reader gets to know and admire the house and to occupy the exquisitely described glass room. Even more impressive are the portraits of the Jewish car manufacturer Viktor Landauer, his Gentile wife, Liesel, and the uncompromising architect Rainer von Abt. The time is the early 1930s, when Nazism was struggling out of its infancy. History dictates that the Landauers will have to abandon Der Glasraum, leaving it for the Nazis to despoil. Yet the room itself survives, in all its luminosity.
Mawer’s latest book, Tightrope, is a sequel of sorts to its predecessor, The Girl Who Fell from the Sky. The ‘girl’, Marian Sutro, is now a woman of eighty, living in an apartment block near Vevey in Switzerland. In the opening chapter, she is visited by Sam Wareham, a middle-aged man who as an adolescent was infatuated with this beautiful heroine of the Resistance. He has come to question her about her activities during and after the Second World War and has brought a tape recorder with him. He invites her to tell him everything she can remember. She does so, with several glasses of gin at the ready.
Marian’s postwar existence is replete with boredom, never more so than when she agrees to marry Alan Walcott, a former RAF pilot who might have been played by Richard Todd or Anthony Steel in one of those gung-ho films that came out of British studios in the late 1940s and throughout the 1950s. Whenever Alan is expressing his conventional opinions she almost longs to be back in Paris being interrogated by the Gestapo. As a survivor of Ravensbrück women’s concentration camp, she is called to appear as a witness at the trial in Hamburg of some of those who meted out cruelty to its inmates. She meets up with an intelligence officer called Tony Bright, a man as devious as his suspect name suggests, and goes to bed with him. It’s in Hamburg, too, that she encounters an enigmatic Russian major, David Absolon, with whom she later has an affair. He is, of course, a spy, as is Marian herself, so one is transported into the all-too-familiar fictional territory of espionage, counterespionage and even counter-counterespionage.
Here is a typical passage, accounting for Marian’s understandable sense of displacement:
She lay awake at night. Faces passed before her eyes – the dead of Ravensbrück wasted by disease and starvation, the dead of Auschwitz gassed and Hiroshima charred to cinders. How to stop it all? She saw death around the corner, smelled it on her skin, felt it deep in the core of her being. Hers had been a bitter, personal war and now it had become a bitter, personal peace.
Where to begin to account for the banality of this paragraph? It gives no sense whatsoever of the peculiar nature of the horrors it summons up with such facility. Survivors remember much more than faces, as Sarah Helm reminds us in her new history of Ravensbrück, which is also published by Little, Brown. Compassionate generalisations about the evils inflicted on the innocent and unknowing are always inadequate. The Glass Room never indulged in such easy editorialising.
There are scenes in Tightrope that are truly compelling, especially those involving Julius Miessen, who intervenes in Marian’s life at the darkest time of the war. But otherwise the narrative pace is pretty leaden. Famous names appear. Bertrand Russell has an entire chapter almost to himself. There are clichés as well, in the form of our old friend the ‘ghost of a smile’. What does the ‘ghost of a smile’ look like? I wish I knew.