Friday, March 26, 2010


By Simon Mawer

Other Press, $14.95, 416 pages


The house survives even when it is abandoned. It endures the steel hurricane of Nazi invasion and even a German bomb in its garden.

According to Simon Mawer, who has written what reads like a poem to the house, it is defiantly there still embodying the concept of the glass space envisioned by its owners and a brilliant architect.

“Space, light, glass; some spare furniture; windows looking out on a garden; a sweep of shining floor; white and ivory and the gleam of chrome.” That is how it is envisioned. The glass space becomes the glass dream and ultimately the glorious glass room. It was intended to embody the spirit of a new country in which democracy would prevail and being Czech or German or Jew would not matter.

Sadly, the architectural dream evolved at a time when the world was dissolving into chaos and Viktor Landauer, being Jewish, eventually forced the family to flee to America.

Left behind was the Landauer House and its silver beech tree that still dominated the garden and, indeed, was a theme for the house with its flooring that looked like mother of pearl, the glass room where light bounced off chrome pillars and the library and sitting room divided by an onyx wall that architect Rainer von Abt saw as the “piece de resistance” of his creation.

This is an unusual and fascinating book, written in a flowing, often emotional prose style tailored to its subject. The author refuses to pinpoint the location of the house in one of the many European cities overrun by the Nazi war machine in World War II. But where it is doesn’t matter in this case because what matters is the house that oddly dominates and transcends the plot and even the characters whose story is played out in the drama of global war.

Viktor and Liesel Landauer are the wealthy couple who join with Von Abt in mutual passion for what the architect sees as an “upside-down house.”

The house lives up to its promise in providing the Landauer family and their children with years of happiness. Their marriage is stylized and lukewarm, with Viktor developing a genuine love for Kata, a young prostitute he meets on trips to nearby Vienna. Liesel is shocked at her feelings for Hana, a sleek and amoral friend with liberal sexual proclivities. Perhaps what shocks her most is that it is Hana who becomes more important in her life than Viktor.

After the Landauers leave the house they love, it is Hana who returns to find it turned into a Biometric Center in a Nazi plan to discover the genetic variations in races. Even the brutal Reinhard Heydrich, the Reichsprotector of Czechoslovakia, visits it to be measured and photographed, yet in a hint that he is afraid what the results will show about his genetic heritage, warns technicians that the results must never be disclosed.

Ultimately Hana, who has a Jewish husband, takes too many risks in a strange affair with Stahl, the German officer in charge of the Center. Bitterly and cynically she terms herself a “German whore,” but she needs the money Stahl hands her after sexually bizarre encounters. How colossal a mistake she has made she discovers when she becomes pregnant by him and he promptly reports her as “Jew friendly.”

That results in her being sent to a work camp where she has his child which is promptly taken from her and killed. Yet throughout the turbulent times, Hana and Liesel continue what amounts to a love affair by letter, with Hana pouring out her life and Liesl only once bringing herself to admit her sensual feelings for her friend.

This admission is also brought about after her discovery of Viktor’s long-term affair with Kata. She comes to terms with it with an aplomb that is especially surprising when Kata becomes the children’s nanny until she is lost to the family in the chaos of their flight from the Nazis. Once in America, life goes on for the Landauers until Viktor’s accidental death in a boating accident.

Yet they never forget the house and it is in its way waiting. It is showing wear and tear yet it has its own strength drawn from beauty. And it has Lanik, the resident caretaker who lives in its basement with his sister and has an odd affection for the house. Lanik becomes a communist as a matter of survival when the Russians arrive and are understandably puzzled by his surroundings.

He is accepted because he explains he is one of the proletariat condemned to work for the spoiled rich.

There is deep irony in Liesel’s return to the house, although she is surrounded by her children as she returns to her memories. She remembers the nights when the curtains were left open and the windows became mirrors, with the onyx wall reflected in the night.

But now she sees only in memory. She can only sense the reappearance of her lost Hana, because Liesel has become blind.

Muriel Dobbin is a former White House and national political reporter for McClatchy newspapers and the Baltimore Sun.

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