A Reading Life

Two houses, with many dimensions

By Katherine Powers
Globe Correspondent / March 21, 2010

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My particular friend is restoring a Federal-style farm house in a hill town a couple of miles from the Quabbin Reservoir. At the time it was built, probably when James Madison was president and Jane Austen was alive, its two stories rose to better neighboring dwellings, all now vanished. Neat fields and well-knit stone fences surrounded it; Emily Dickenson is said to have come calling. And then the agricultural economy of the area collapsed; the population dispersed; adjacent towns were taken by eminent domain and submerged to provide water for Boston. The house changed hands; the inhabitants led increasingly brutal lives; and, finally, when my friend bought the place a few years ago, squirrels had moved in and ravening nature was shoving the neglected fields back into her maw.

There are few things so eloquent as a longstanding house, not only of the passing of things, but of human ideals, in this case, permanence, independence, uprightness, order, and dignity. Despite ruin and rot and asphalt shingling, those ideals were still visible in the building’s classical proportions, the deep, stone-clad well, and the massive, hand-sawn beams decorously concealed by plaster. Another eloquent house, though one championing quite different ideals, is at the center of Simon Mawer’s “The Glass Room’’ (Other Press, paperback, $14.95). Liberation and openness incarnate, it is a modernistic structure based on an actual house built by Mies van der Rohe.

In the novel, the house, finished, like the original, in 1930 during the brief Czechoslovak Republic, becomes the setting for the doings of a sequence of characters from its conception to 1990. Viktor and Liesel Landauer — he is Jewish, she is not — commission a noted architect to build them a dwelling that is free from oppressive ornamentation and the dark fetters of the past. It will be a place of light, space, and tranquility in perfect harmony with “the brand new country . . . a state in which being Czech or German or Jew would not matter, in which democracy would prevail and art and science would combine to bring happiness to all people.” In other words, the Landauer House, as it became, expresses the modernist dream of releasing humankind from the coils of tradition and repression, which, hypothetically at least, breed irrationalism, deceit, and destructive emotion. “I think we should all live in glass houses,’’ declares Viktor at the housewarming party. “If we all lived like that there would be no more secrets, no more deceit. We could all live openly and honestly.’’

We know where such optimism ends up in history — and, indeed, Viktor recalls his blithe pronouncement just as his own acts of deceit and betrayal enter the house.

As it happens, the first years of the Landauers’ tenancy bear out the house’s bright promise, but the state of their marriage and of Europe itself begins to deteriorate. With the German invasion of Czechoslovakia, the family flees, first to Switzerland and then to Cuba. The house is appropriated by the Nazis and turned into a “Biometric Centre” for the study of racial types, with the goal of determining a scientific key to classifying individuals according to race.

The irony of reducing human beings to mere biological types in the place where science and art had combined in the hope of elevating them above the mere animal is clear, but not bald. This is because Mawer filters the story, too rich, intense, and complex in plot to summarize, through his characters’ consciousness, through their voices and by means of a strategic use of the present tense.

Consciousness grounds the novel; it has priority over the original ideals represented in the famous house. Indeed, only one description can be said to be unrefracted by a character’s mind: “A house without people has no dimensions,’’ Mawer writes after the place has been abandoned by retreating Germans. “It just is. An enclosed space, a box. Wind rattles round the shutters of the building. Rain falls on the terrace and batters against the walls. Snow falls and melts. Water, the death of all structures . . . insinuates itself into the walls. It freezes and expands, melts and contracts, levering apart the material. . . . Dust settles in the cold spaces and draughts whisper around the wainscot like the hints of what has happened there and, perhaps, may happen again.’’ This extraordinary book could have been a routine spelling out of modernism’s failed dream, of its refusal to acknowledge ineradicable passion and contrariness and historical contingency; or it could even have been, oh horrors, an allegory. Instead it is a fully realized novel with its own ingenious architecture and interior ambience, a novel whose irony is reverberant rather than concussive.

If you were to summon up a house that embodies all that the Landauer House rejects it would not be the one my friend is restoring, for that itself looked to a better day in a new republic. On the other hand, it could be the house that is the setting for Olivia Manning’s “School for Love,’’ first published in 1951, years before the author’s best known works, the Balkan and Levant trilogies, and now published in this country for the first time (New York Review Books, $14). The novel takes place in 1945 in Jerusalem, the city filled with refugees and pervaded by a sense of dyspeptic expectation of the war’s end and the escalation of the conflict among Arabs, Jews, and the forces of the British Mandate.

Felix Latimer, teen-aged and recently orphaned, comes from Baghdad to lodge with a certain Miss Bohun until he can secure a passage to England, for which there may be a long wait. Miss Bohun provides room and board at extortionate amounts, and is indomitably stingy with food and heat. Ruthless and conniving in all her dealings, she has, in fact, managed to turn the house’s original leaseholders into her servants. She also belongs to a group of millenarian loonies called the Ever-Readies and keeps one room free for Christ’s return. All the other bedrooms might best be considered bolt holes. Places of retreat from Miss Bohun’s machinations and dearly bought shelter from the chaos and privation outside, they are arenas of loneliness and barren time. The oppressiveness of this house is powerfully conveyed, as is Miss Bohun’s wretched dominion over its inhabitants — though the latter is portrayed with a good deal of extremely mordant humor. This is a short, deadly, bleakly amusing little novel and I gobbled it up.

Katherine A. Powers lives in Cambridge. She can be reached by e-mail at