I read over the last few days Simon Mawer’s acclaimed novel The Glass Room. The story is loosely based upon the famous Tugendhat house in Brno in the Czech republic. Mawer tells the story of Viktor Landauer, a young man with modern views living in the newly formed Czechoslovakia in the 1930’s. Viktor decides to build a house the is uncompromisingly modern, a building that will in effect wipe away the past and point to a new hope filled future. Viktor engages a renowned modernist architect and his dream is realised as a stunning, yet antiseptic home is created.
For a while the house is an oasis filled with jazz and contemporary attitudes. But the sleek lines of the building’s design cannot hold at bay the forces outside as Hitler’s Third Reich dismembers the Czech republic. Due to his Jewish heritage Viktor and his family are forced to flee. The house then is transformed into a Nazi laboratory, later as the Russians take over, the house then becomes a kind of museum in which young communist children are brought in order to see what kind of ‘decadent lives the form capitalist owners lived’. By the end of the book as communism falls Viktor’s daughter now an older woman visits the house. It has been restored to its former glory, but it no longer seems modern, despite trying to spurn and cast off the past, the house still is filled with memories. It cannot exist as a modernist bubble resisting the march of time. Instead history and pain forces it way into it.
As I read the book, I thought of the great modern heresy of trying to stop time, of creating something which is new and vital. Our culture often claims to create something that in effect will wipe the slate of past clean. Pop music does this all the time. New bands that we must hear are foisted on us constantly, yet within in months are passed over as passe. When I was younger I felt the constant pressure to keep up, to be seen as being on the cutting edge. But as you get older, the way that you listen to music changes, songs no longer are listened to because they are new and hip.
Instead pop music becomes a container of memories. You will find yourself walking through the supermarket, an old song comes on and memories of youth come flooding back. The Go Betweens song Through the Streets of Your Town is like that for me. In 1988 I was not really into the band, or even really liked the song, but it was often on the radio, now when I hear that song, a whole world is reborn in my head. A song that at one time was the latest thing now becomes a time capsule. The modern myth is pierced and our culture’s inability to stop the constant metronome is time is exposed.
“Our days on earth are like a passing shadow, gone so soon without a trace.” 1 Chronicles 29:15