‘Wolf Hall’ became 2009’s Booker Prize Winner last night, justifying its status as bookmakers’ favourite. I haven’t read Hilary Mantel’s historical novel, based on Thomas Cromwell’s assent from tradesman’s son in Putney to chief minister of Henry VIII. I have, however, just finished ‘The Glass room’, one of the beaten shortlistees, written by Simon Mawer.
Clearly historical fiction, often regarded rather sniffily by critics, is currently fashionable. Mawer’s tale falls into the category too. It examines the tides of twentieth century European history which lapped around the location of its eponymous ‘Glasraum’ in Mittel Europe.
A wealthy Jewish industrialist and his new Aryan wife (the Landauers) commission a precocious architect to design their futuristic home in Czechoslovakia. It is finished in the 1930s just in time to form the backdrop for a lot of sex, Nazi invasion, genetic experiments, communism and a tearful reunion.
Mawer writes well and he has chosen a clever setting in which to unfold his plot. Czechoslovakia was a young, multinational, multilingual state when it was dismembered by forces of extreme German nationalism. Hope, idealism and privilege are rendered obsolete by successive totalitarian regimes and the Landauer couple are forced into exile with their children.
There are problems. The plot relies on a rather improbable coincidence, when Landauer’s mistress turns up at his house in a ragtag group of refugees, much to the surprise of both. The protagonists are uniformly sexually amoral and the novel describes such a relentless parade of affairs and open marriages that it’s difficult to keep up. Then there’s the subplot wherein the house is taken over by Nazi geneticist scientists, an episode which borders on pastiche. Without wishing to spoil the book, its resident ‘liberated woman’ gets off with one of the Nazis, who joins most of the novel’s other pulse bearing characters, male and female.
This is ambitious fiction, spanning an extensive timeframe, expansive in terms of the scope of its plot and its themes. It motions towards the mercurial nature of history, one character actually utters Fukuyama’s quote, sixty years before it became infamous. I wonder whether it was rather too ambitious and whether its Booker challenge floundered as a result.