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Fashion statement

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By Paul Scheerbart. Translated by John Stuart.MIT Press, 2001. 143pp. £16.95

Paul Scheerbart is one of those names in the margins of accepted histories of Modernism. Best known for his manifesto Glasarchitektur, and collaborations with Bruno Taut, Scheerbart was a prolific writer and member of the Expressionist avantgarde in Berlin before the First World War.

When he died aged 52 in 1915, he had written almost 30 works (many of them 'fictional narratives' on glass architecture), founded the literary magazine Der Sturm, and done enough for Walter Benjamin to claim - as John Stuart cites in his informative introduction - that 'Bertolt Brecht had ended what Scheerbart had best begun'.

The Gray Cloth and Ten Per Cent White: A Ladies' Novel is one of those 'fictional narratives', at least in outward form - a novel first published in 1914 and here translated for the first time. Its plot is simple. Edgar Krug, an architect with a penchant for glass, proposes to the organist Clara Weber by the odd means of stipulating that she should only wear grey with 10 per cent white, shortly after meeting her in a glass pavilion of his design at a Chicago World Fair.

She accepts, and there begins an odyssey in an airship that takes them to Fiji, an artists' colony in the Antarctic, an animal reserve in India, an island in the Arabian sea inhabited by a curious, rich Chinese man and his entourage, and Malta, before arriving home on Lake Maggiore. At each stop the purpose is to design or advocate glass architecture, though Clara's peculiar dress code excites almost as much interest.

This is, of couse, the point.

Krug wants her to wear grey with ten per cent white because he thinks it best shows off the colours of his glass architecture. Bound by the terms of a marriage contract (Krug's lawyer friend Herr Loewe was happily on hand at the momentous meeting), Clara has to wear her monoglot outfits, despite the tempting suggestions of women she meets on her travels. Although travelling in great modern luxury, she is the prisoner of an idea, just as so many were to versions of Modernism later in the 20th century.

When she lapses, the consequences are not quite as drastic, though, as they were for Judith, Duke Bluebeard's seventh wife in the old central European folktale, around which Bela Bartok was composing an opera at about the same time. Judith's unwise propensity to open too many doors leads her into the incarceration suffered by her six predecessors: Krug eventually releases Clara from the clause and they manage to live, if not happily ever after, at least until the World Fair on Lüneberg Heath in northern Germany, with which the book concludes.

As fairy tales do, The Gray Cloth embodies many truths, though mostly in a state of half digestion. Gray did indeed become a fashion statement; people did become prisoners, not just of buildings, but of architecture; and yes, we do have glass buildings designed by megalomaniac architects fond of flying. And Lüneberg Heath may not have hosted a world fair until the Hanover Expo 2000, but it was the setting for the closing stages of the Second World War. These affinities with the future account for part of the fun of reading the book.

More comes from Stuart's translation, which has a verve that no doubt comes from the original. Even the hectoring tones seem authentic - glass buildings and airships are hardly the place for refined repartee à la Jane Austen, and Scheerbart's career makes clear the literary affinities between Expressionism and manifesto writing.

The Gray Cloth has a structure which is a little like a series of glass shards, transiently commanding attention before retreating into a myriad of indistinct reflections and refractions. It does not have the organic unity of a novel by Scheerbart's great contemporaries like Thomas Mann, Robert Musil or Alfred Doeblin, where the narrative structure itself embodies metaphorical meanings in a way which defines a genre.

But Scheerbart's genre is architecture, and if the apparent paradox hinders The Gray Cloth from being a great novel, it uses enough of that literary form to give an insight into the pretension and potential of architecture.

Jeremy Melvin is a writer and teacher at South Bank University

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