on 2 February 2009
This is a another first rate novel by Simon Mawer. The central protaganists are the Czech/Jewish industrialist Landauers, who are traced from their courtship and marriage to their exile from the Nazis through Switzerland to the United States. But the real hero of the book is the Glass Room (Raum - not exactly the same thing in German or for that matter in Czech or in Russian as is noted in the novel) itself, a fictional version of Mies Van der Rohe's Tugendhat (the architect makes his own appearance as Rainier Von Abt), which the urbane Viktor builds as a marital home for his almost adventurous wife, Liesel. The house - though house is not quite the right word either - metamorphosizes several times over the century, from rich man's showpiece, to nazi biometric research centre to postwar physiotherapy dance studio to communist museum to symbol of the Prague Spring. The house - given some imaginative substance by a series of prints spaced throughout - is far more than a building: it acts as a mirror for the great themes of the twentieth century . It is also the venue for a lot of forbidden sex, its transparency perhaps suggesting a riskseeking desire to be discovered. The waves of history and of eroticsm flood together in this glass room, the one, perhaps, making the other bearable.
The plot depends a fair bit on coincidence - the appearance of Kata, Viktor's part-time mistress from Vienna, as a refugee in Mesto and her subsequent transition to becoming his children's nanny, for example. However, the pace of the story, the excellence of the prose and the ever present mixture of evil, hope and eroticism, and the great lighthouse beam reflection of the glass room itself more than compensate.
The Glass Room refers to the dramatic living area of a modernist house built on a hill-side in Czechoslovakia in the 1930s. Its architect was commissioned by Victor Landauer and his wife Liesel, with a brief to design a house made of glass and steel, devoid of ornamentation or unnecessary decoration, a house fit for a stylish couple, owners of the Landauer company, makers of luxury motor-cars.
The house is built and lives up to expectations, the young couple receiving guests in the glass room, with its onyx walls and its breathtaking views. Victor and Leisel are wealthy and thoroughly modern couple and their new house matches their style perfectly, "living inside a work of art is an experience of sublime delight - the tranquillity of the large living room and the intimacy of the smaller rooms . . . the most remarkable experience of modern living".
Simon Mawer follows the history of the house over the next 50 years, but of course the Landauer family and their friends are the main point of the story. Is it possible to tell the story of a family without also recalling the places in which they live? We build our homes as an expression of ourselves and our memories are often centred on the sense of place as much as on those who inhabit those spaces. Leisel Landauer has her great friend and confidante, the stylish and erratic Hanna. Her husband has another friend who come to play a large part in both their lives. Children are born and grow and find that the house has a place in their lives too, although perhaps retrospectively.
Beginning in the 1930s in Czechoslovakia, Mawer's story is of course about the war and its aftermath. Victor Landauer is Jewish, and after the Germans take over the Sudetenland, the family flee to Switzerland, leaving Hanna and other friends to watch the house fall into German hands to be used as a laboratory. The story follows Hanna and her attempts to survive under a hostile regime. Meanwhile in Switzerland the Landauers plot their escape out of Europe across the Atlantic and we read of their only partially successful attempts to keep their household together.
Mawer does not leave us wondering about the fate of his characters. We follow the progress of the house under Soviet rule and later under the new Czcechoslovak state, and in these "flash-forwards" we get glimpses of the lives lived by the Landauers and their friends.
These are the bones of the story, but it is impossible to say more without ruining it for other readers. What is special about the book is Mawer's great gifts for character development and his depictions of the terrible human conflicts brought on a family in such unstable times. This is a book about the divisions inflicted on Europe in the 1930s and their tragic consequences. All the characters are marked by their times and some barely recover. And yet there are passages of lyrical brightness and cathartic resolutions of thirty year old losses which made this reader at least sigh with thankfulness.
I recently read Thomas Mann's Buddenbrooks, the story of another industrial dynastic family, and was struck by the similarities between the two books. Really, Simon Mawer has achieved something not much less that Mann's classic masterpiece and I can only congratulate him on his achievement. I am particularly impressed by his research, including a significant amount of linguistic background around the Czech language and its relationship to German. I do hope that The Glass Room is a serious consideration this year's Booker Prize - it is certainly well within that league.
The author tells us in a Note at the beginning of this novel that the beautiful modern house that contains the Glass Room is not fictional. Here called the Landauer House in Mesto, it is in fact the Villa Tugendhat in Brno, completed in 1930; and, excellent and faithful though the descriptions of it are, some readers may like to look at Google Images to see what the exterior and the interior actually looked like. They can also ascertain that the real name of the architect, here called Rainer von Abt, was Mies van der Rohe, and the real owners of the house were Fritz Tugendhat (a textile magnate) and his wife Greta, who were BOTH Jewish: in the novel only the husband (Viktor) is Jewish, his wife (Liesel) is not. Well, we have been told in the Note that most of the characters in the novel are fictional, but that some of them are not. So, for instance, one member of Victor's circle is the armaments manufacturer Fritz Mandel who really existed (a converted Viennese Jew who nevertheless had close contacts with the Italian fascists and German Nazis), and Mandl was really married for a time to Eva Kiesler, better known as the sensational film star Hedy Lamarr, who in this novel is said to have had a brief lesbian relationship with Liesl closest friend, Hana Hanacova. When the Nazis confiscated the Villa Tugendhat, they rented it out to the aircraft manufacturer Walter Messerschmidt. This does happen in the book, but before that, the novel has the villa used as a Eugenics Research Centre, and the people working there are students of Nazi eugenics departments that really existed. Fritz Tugendhat, like Viktor Landauer, did die in 1958; and old Mrs Tugendhat did accept an invitation in 1967 (though in the novel Mawer has Liesel accept the invitation after Dubcek had become General Secretary in January 1968 and makes the actual visit take place after Dubcek's fall, which was in August 1968). I am unfortunately always troubled by such 'poetic licence', by wondering what is fact and what is fiction - not that that detracts in any way from the considerable quality of the novel.
The cultural and political situations described in the book are real enough: the clash between tradition and modernity, the growing tension between Germans and Czechs in Czechoslovakia, the rising menace of Nazi Germany, the refugees pouring into Czechoslovakia after the Anschluss; then the German occupation; then the Russians arrive (a vivid chapter), and they did in fact stable their horses in the Villa Tugendhat. The novel then slightly conflates what happened to the Villa under communist rule: it first became a dance studio and then a rehabilitation centre for crippled children. Finally it becomes a piece of architectural heritage.
Whether fictional or not, the characters and the relationships between them are well drawn. There is especially the uninhibited Hana, Liesel's best friend. Liesel, for all her modern cultural tastes, is much more conventional, though she manages to accommodate herself somehow to live in a menage a trois. When the Nazis take over Czechoslovakia in 1938, the Landauers (like the Tugendhats) emigrate (but to Switzerland and the United States, whereas the Tugendhats went to Venezuela), with a particularly heart-wrenching episode in the process. In the later sections of the book some situations of the earlier part repeat themselves, like variations on a theme: music, like architecture, plays a considerable part in the novel. And the very end is deeply moving.
The Glass Room, at the centre of the novel, has seen so much: political changes have washed through it; much suffering; complicated human relationships; many erotic episodes; confessions. It is redolent with symbolism, some of it elusive. It stands for clarity, light, purity, reason, and harmony, and as such has a hard time surviving in an age of unreason, corruption, darkness and disharmony. But survive it does.
As in his earlier 'The Gospel of Judas' (see my review), Mawer loves using foreign words where English words would do ('Hakenkreuz' for 'swastika', for example - and I did come across two small mistakes in his German). True, sometimes there is no good English equivalent: he rightly says in a postscript that the word 'Raum' has resonances which the word 'room' does not. But this novel is much better and much freer of cliches than that earlier one, and richly deserved to be a contender for the Man-Booker Prize.
on 7 March 2009
In his eighth novel, The Glass Room, Mawer sets himself the challenge of bringing a house to life, making it the central character in a novel, a feat of fictive architecture that risks relegation to the ranks of literary kitsch, yet one that the writer pulls off magisterially.
A rich young couple in 1930s Czechoslovakia commission for themselves a house that will come to define modernism, a design of spare lines, eschewing ornament, in minimalist style. It has one astounding feature: the Glass Room, a living area that looks out through walls of sheer glass over the surrounding town of Mesto. Inside the Glass Room, a sculpture of a woman's torso, the only ornament allowed by the architect, stands beside a partition made from a single slab of onyx. Chrome-plated columns hold up the structure, reflecting the Room and the town, mirroring and witnessing a series of events that span several crucial European decades. The Glass Room provides for the young couple a captive volume of light and space, an augury of brightness and optimism, a physical metaphor for integrity, transparency, and hope.
History shatters the idyll. War breaks out. The family are forced to escape, the husband being Jewish. The house, abandoned by its creators, mutely offers shelter to a succession of Nazis, Soviets, and Communist Czechs who come to use it for their own purposes. Finally, with the lifting of the Iron Curtain, and the return of the wife, now aged and blind, the future may finally lay the past to rest.
Two characters linger in the reader's memory: Liesel, the young wife, herself the inspiration for the house, and Hana, Liesel's confidante and devoted friend. Liesel, like the house, is passive, lovely, sparely drawn, present in her absence, and buffetted by events that she never herself initiates. She is as sheer and transparent as the Glass Room itself. Hana, on the other hand, is vivacious, omnisexual, passionate, and full of wit and insight. She is flesh to Liesel's skeleton; Hana is the soul of the Glass Room where Liesel was its muse. Their friendship and their understated love drive much of the emotional tension in the plot, stretched taut as the tightrope across which we must journey from their reunion in the prologue to the novel's resolution.
The Glass Room grips you with the power of invention, with the wordplay that spans four languages, with the accuracy of re-creation of a Europe in turmoil, with the construction of an ethereal space forged out of words and light, and with the reluctant tears evoked by the last, unexpected, redemptive reunion that lies waiting in ambush even if foreshadowed from the start.
Brno, Czechoslovakia 1928. Leisel and Victor wealthy newly weds with liberal friends and modern ideas meet an architect by chance in Venice who offers them an ideal way of reflecting their hopes, aspirations and beliefs both personal and political in an innovative modern home. Despite their own qualms and technical problems, the house is built overlooking the city made of steel, glass and precious minerals-a testament to progress and clarity. Alas, the situation of Europe and the marriage of the couple rapidly disintegrates and quickly the glass house of dreams becomes a place of secrets, repressed desires and fear. Mawer guides his characters and their iconic house through the betrayals of Munich, escape from Nazism and the later trials of Communism. He writes well with a good feeling for the country and the story is compelling often carrying strong erotic overtones as if the house itself carries a sexual charge. However, for me the book is badly compromised by the author's excessive use of coincidence to drive his plot and by the weak, sentimental ending. There is definitely a sense of disappointment at the finale, when having read what went before, you are expecting a more convincing and original conclusion. This is one of those books you will enjoy for the atmosphere, the ideas and the individual scenes, but where the whole is not quite the sum of its parts. Read it anyway, but Wolf Hall rightly won the Booker over this.
on 16 August 2009
The Glass Room is a novel about a house, a real and remarkable one, although the story and characters are fictional. It begins with the return of Liesel Landauer, now elderly and blind, to the house that she, a gentile, shared with her husband Viktor, a prosperous Jewish manufacturer of fine automobiles. The Landauer House, which sits on a hill overlooking the Czechoslovakian city of M'sto, was designed for the young couple by a famous Viennese architect in the 1920s, and was a classic work of modern design. The centerpiece of the house is the Glass Room, which has large plate glass windows and is partitioned by a wall made of onyx that changes in appearance with the position of the sun. Mawer describes the Glass Room early in the book, as the Landauers see it for the first time:
"It had become a palace of light, light bouncing off the chrome pillars, light refulgent on the walls, light glistening on the dew in the garden, light reverberating from the glass. It as though they stood inside a crystal of salt."
The Glass Room becomes a place where anything and everything is possible, as previous structural and cultural restraints are lifted. The wealthy and sophisticated couple embrace their new home to the fullest, using it frequently to host friends and business colleagues. Liesel's best friend, Hana, a irreverent, beautiful and sexually hungry married woman, is a frequent visitor who provides vitality and spark to the setting.
However, changes are occurring in Europe that darken and threaten the couple's idyllic existence. Hitler's national socialism spreads through and beyond nearby Germany, and the livelihood of Jews in Czechoslovakia becomes slowly but progressively more difficult. The Landauers initially ignore the warnings, as their wealth and influence insulate them from the growing menace. The couple agrees to take in a young woman who has been forced to flee from Vienna, a woman who is well known to Viktor. Finally the couple decides to flee their beloved house and country, but by the time they decide to do so, the Germans have already occupied Czechoslovakia. Hana and her Jewish husband, however, decide to stay in M'sto.
The novel then alternates between the lives of the Landauers and the new occupants, leading up to Liesel's eventual return to the Landauer House.
This was a brilliant and near-perfect novel that covers Europe before and during World War II and the subsequent decline in European culture, and includes rich descriptions of architecture, art and music. Love, infidelity and devotion are infused throughout the book, but ultimately the main story and character is the Landauer House with its Glass Room, and the effects it has on its inhabitants and visitors.
I suppose the highest praise I could give this novel is that I would like to start reading it again from the beginning. It is easily the best of the 2009 Booker Prize longlisted books I've read so far, and would be a deserving winner of the award, in my opinion.
on 28 July 2011
Simon Mawer weaves a captivating story around the Landauer House, based on Mies Van Der Rohe's art-deco masterpiece, the Villa Tugendhat in Brno. You may or may not come to love this house, I certainly did, but then this is no ordinary building.
The early years see the commissioning Landauer family engage architect Rainer Von Abt whose masterpiece this is to be. They take up residence; Liesel Landauer loves it, her husband Victor gives more measured approval, the key point is that the house's credentials are established as a family home. Their tenure is remarkably short lived and less than ten years pass before the occupying Germans expropriate the house, cause the Landauer's to flee Europe, Victor is Jewish, and turn it into a pseudo-scientific research establishment where they unsuccessfully seek the defining physical characteristics of Jews. The end of the war sees bomb damage and a brief tenure by Russian forces as they victoriously pass through on their way to domination of eastern Europe, before handing it over to their puppet Czech government. They don't know quite what to do with it, but the unappreciative view that the house appears more municipal, clinical even, than domestic sees it become a hospital annexe for treating child victims of polio, before the commissariat cotton on to its possible architectural value and decide it should perhaps be restored to its original purpose and become a museum. Well, come the revolution don't we all own a Rolls-Royce?
As the Czech Republic slowly emerges from communist oppression and seeks re-engagement as part of the world at large, the local authorities seek out the Landauer family, now unsurprisingly American citizens, and invite the ageing and now blind Liesel to return and give the house's new role her blessing. Which of course, she does.
It is through this history that Simon Mawer rapturously weaves a tale of creation, love, lust, infidelity, deceipt, persecution, loss and, ultimately, survival. Liesal and her dream house are finally reunited, both have suffered and are damaged as a result, but both have survived and are, perhaps, worthy testament to the strength and durability of creative spirit, and what it may conceive given freedom. A beautiful story, beautifully told.
on 6 December 2011
I know I am writing contrary to what seems to be the general swell of opinion here, but I did not find this novel to be worthy of five stars (one amazon reviewer even made a favourable comparison with Thomas Mann's 'Buddenbrooks', which is very high praise indeed). It is a readable piece of literary fiction, framed by a brilliant idea and structure, but which, I felt, sagged a little at various points.
I won't dwell on the plot here - essentially, the book is fictional but based on the building of a modernist villa by a rich Jewish couple near Brno in what was then Czechoslovakia between the wars. The house is given centre stage in the novel as the Landauers, the rich industrialist builders, are forced to flee, the Nazis then use the house as a sort of eugenics research station, and later the Soviets drive them out and the house, for decades, is put to various other uses. The metaphor of the house (which can still be visited to this day) for the European twentieth century is fantastic and cannot be praised highly enough. There are also interesting ideas about the effects architecture itself can have on the way people live their lives.
Where the book faltered, I felt, was in the sometimes clunky characters (the giant Russian female soldier, for example; or the cold, cruel Nazi lover), and, more importantly, in what came across as highly self conscious 'showing off' of knowledge presumably researched for the novel - the best example being a page shoehorned in around the breakout of war where, it is observed, the lines of soldiers look like robots. Robots was a term invented by the Czechs, you know... etc, etc. The announcement of various key historical events by one character to another in order to pin the plot in specific points in history, and their often cliched responses to them, also jarred in its lack of subtlety for this reader, as did a plotted co-incidence near the end. A good comparison might be made with 'Wolf Hall' by Hilary Mantel, a historical drama released the same year, which treats the Tudor age with brilliant ease, and within which not one line of dialogue sounds unlikely or contrived (or written by someone in the twenty first century).
Overall, I do agree that 'The Glass Room' is a competently written, atmospheric book with a very clever structure, treating a fascinating building with great descriptive care and generating emotion in describing the lives which may have passed through it, particularly in its middle third. The writing, however, also tends to lurch into cliche at times and the dialogue verges on the risible on some occasions. I would not consider it a future classic, and given its flaws, am surprised that it has attracted so much high praise.
A well written and compelling story, 'The Glass Room' focusses on a fiercely modern house built in the 1920s for the wealthy part Jewish Landauer family, in the 'Sudetenland' area of the Czech Republic. The house is occupied first by the Landauers, and then passes through the hands of various occupiers, until it ends up as a museum. However, it is really a story of people, those who live in the house and whose lives are affected by it.
Because of the various changes of ownership, the book is divided into distinct sections and does feel a bit disjointed. Mawer tries to keep threads of storyline and common characters between the different sections, but once the lengthy first and second sections are over and the Landauers have left Europe behind, the story never quite retains its initial appeal. There's a bit too much coincidence for my liking, especially at the end, and Mawer makes the mistake of introducing new principal characters very close to the end, just when the reader wants to know about those they formed a bond with in the earlier several hundered pages. Unsurprisingly it is hard to care about the newcomers and the arrival of old faces just seems contrived.
However, that said it is a well written book that is enjoyable - if at times painful - to read. It is a moving account of how WWII destroyed the hopes of a new nation and the personal tragedies of many of the Jewish people living in Europe at that time. The fact that the Landauers aren't particularly likeable characters makes it maybe all the more poignant that they escape whilst their friends remain to suffer and perish.
So despite my critisms, it is a book worth reading.
The quality of the writing justifies the inclusion of this imaginative work in the Man-Booker shortlist,and it would have made a worthy winner. Mawer's skill is wide-ranging: the meticulous description which conjures up striking images of, say, Von Abt's glass house, vividly described from his drawing, which gradually rises from the mud of the hillside; the sharp, witty dialogues; the subtle development of a cast of varied characters in all their complexity, strengths and flaws; the underlying sense of menace and insecurity. The intriguing plot soon caught my interest: from the first few pages, it was clear that the early optimisim and good fortune of the wealthy Landauers was doomed, the year being 1929, the husband being Jewish, and their homeland being the newly formed Czechoslavakia, soon to fall under Soviet control.
Although I have no great liking for modern architecture, this book succeeded in enabling me to appreciate the vision that the glass house represented, and something of what architects working in angular lines and non-traditional materials are trying to achieve. I particularly liked the way in which the appearance of the building changed over time as, rather like its occupants, it was battered by external forces.
My criticisms are minor. The initial prologue, foreshadowing the end, added little, and ran the risk of putting readers off, with its slightly mawkish tone, before there had been time for us to be intrigued by the construction of the unusual house and the inevitably eventful and probably tragic fate of its inhabitants.
Although the complex relationship between Liesl and Katalin was explored quite well, Victor's role in the ménage à trois could have been revealed in more depth.
The hints at lesbianism irritated me slightly, since I wondered whether they had been included for effect, and how well the male writer could really handle them.
The plot deteriorated for me towards the end (Part 4) when most of the original characters had slipped away, and, as other readers have noted, the pace seemed to speed up, presumably to "get to the end" without becoming too long-winded, but at the cost of the satisfying, in depth development of characters and situations which marked the early chapters. Tomas and Zdenka were pale shadows of Victor and Katalin, as lovers and "real people", and I would have liked more of Von Abt.
However, the final denouement works reasonably well, bringing together some of the "original" characters, full circle. Although many "loose ends" are tied, a few questions remain unanswered. What exactly happened to Katalin? This adds to the realism and pathos of the work.
I shall certainly look out for more of Mawer's work and appreciate the view that he ranks amongst our best current writers, and has been underestimated to date.