Artists who have no science are severely limited


Simon Mawer

Simon Mawer

The Glass Room

Brimming with barely contained passion and cruelty, the precision of science, the wild variance of lust, the catharsis of confession, and the fear of failure – the Glass Room contains it all.

I have sought out everywhere on the Internet in vain : the Landauer House doesn’t seem to exist, and the architect Rainer von Abt seems fictitious as well. Yet, it is very believable. Where did you get the idea of such an extraordinary house?

This is easy – while there is no Landauer House and no Rainer von Abt, there is most definitely a Tugendhat House in the city of Brno. It was that building I used as the model for my fictitious house, although the characters in the novel are entirely fictitious.

The glass room was created by a rich couple; later it became a “nazi research center”, a hospital and then a museum. How did you choose the several protagonists who successively lived there?

I partly used the actual history of the Tugendhat House, although it was never used as a biometrics centre – although the biometrics that takes place in the novel were exactly the kind of thing German (and other) scientists were doing in the 1930s and 40s. I suppose it is my biological background that evoked this. Of course museum is precisely what has happened to the Tugendhat House.

In the short history of Czechoslovakia, what are you interested in?

Really, the fact that it was a wonderful and brave creation – a true liberal democracy that was genuinely multi-ethnic – in the midst of a continent that was sliding rapidly into darkness. Czech art and intellectual achievement was remarkable in the brief two decades of the First Republic.

You also tell the story of the Nazi persecution of jews, through the installment of this preposterous research laboratory studying races. Nowadays, it would seem improbable that the Nazis looked for scientific evidence to support their antisemitism.

Not at all improbable! Exactly what people – respectable scientists in all advanced countries believed. Nowadays biologsts have decided that the very concept of “race” has little or no validity with respect to the human species but then it was very different. And of course the Nazis, among others, were convinced that the Jews constituted a race, an idea that just seems absurd now.

You are a biologist. What does writing fiction bring to you?

You have it the wrong way round: I am a writer who happened to have trained as a biologist. So the question too should be inverted – what does biology bring to my writing fiction?! A degree of logic and clarity that I hope is essential to good writing. And a more balanced outlook on the world. Artists who have no science are severely limited. Scientists can always read novels and look at pictures and listen to music. Most do. But artists ought to study physics, chemistry and biology. Few do. Which group is the richer? And, of course, mankind is essentially unintelligible without a grasp of genetics and evolutionary biology.