Cool. Balanced. Modern. The precisions of science, the wild variance of lust, the catharsis of confession and the fear of failure - these are things that happen in the Glass Room. High on a Czechoslovak hill, the Landauer House shines as a wonder of steel and glass and onyx built specially for newlyweds Viktor and Liesel Landauer, a Jew married to a gentile. But the radiant honesty of 1930 that the house, with its unique Glass Room, seems to engender quickly tarnishes as the storm clouds of WW2 gather, and eventually the family must flee, accompanied by Viktor's lover and her child. But the house's story is far from over, and as it passes from hand to hand, from Czech to Russian, both the best and the worst of the history of Eastern Europe becomes somehow embodied and perhaps emboldened within the beautiful and austere surfaces and planes so carefully designed, until events become full-circle.
This is a beautiful novel, filled with a deep sense of melancholy, and unfulfilled dreams. The house as a central character, occupied during WWII and communism, was very reminiscent of Jenny Erpenbeck's Visitation, though the novels are very different in the stories they tell and the fates of the buildings themselves. While Erpenbeck's house slowly falls to ruins, the Landauer mansion eventually becomes a museum, preserved for all time. I loved this novel and was particularly taken with the story of the house itself, the Landauer family and Hana, and the complex relationships they form. I felt however that I was reading quite a different novel when the house becomes used as a gymnasium in communist times and was sorry to be taken away from the Landauers, though this is very much a personal preference, and takes nothing away from what I consider to be a fantastic piece of literature which is well worth taking the time to savour. 2009 was a strong year for the Booker Prize, and this novel definitely deserved it's place among the other selections on the shortlist.
Even the best laid plans can go array, though. Sadly, that is what happened when I read The Glass Room. Despite my best efforts, this book didn't click for me.
Let me express the good qualities of this book first. First, Mawer's writing style is descriptive and rich. He can paint a picture in the mind's eye, which helps propel his novel. Additionally, he did a great job incorporating the arts into the novel. With an architectural feat such as the Glass House, that's an important thing to do, but he also wove in music, painting and sculpture - and did so beautifully. Finally, the plight of early Czechoslovakia as it struggled to get its legs between the World Wars was illuminating, and I learned more about this aspect of history.
Here's where I struggled: the characterization. It was very one-dimensional, and as a result, I didn't like one character. Perhaps I would have liked them more if Mawer had given me more information about them. His characterization centered around their sex lives. Each character's lives were qualified by their sexual activity or desires. Making this worse was the unequal descriptions about sex. Mawer fills us with intimate details about the female characters - the size of their breasts, the color of their nipples, the roundness of their bellies, the texture of their pubic hairs. However, with the male characters, we got nothing - not even a chest hair. Sex was definitely told from a male perspective in this story.
I am in the minority when it comes to The Glass House, so I encourage you to read other reviews before deciding on this book. Many other readers were moved by this story, and you might be too. As for me, I am happy that The Glass House is over and ready to find a book that better fits my fickle tastes.
"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 Mĕsto.
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.
In the 1920s, newlyweds Liesl and Viktor Landauer hire visionary architect Rainer Von Abt to build them a house that represents the vibrant future that they see for their country. Modern and gleaming, the Landauers use their home and especially their unique and crystalline Glass Room as a place for artists and progressive thinkers to gather and share their avant-garde ideas.
As time passes, Viktor feels the need to seek the arms of another woman, putting his marriage on unsteady ground and, in time, the rumblings of war, and the coming invasion by the Nazis threatens the country of Czechoslovakia and the young Landauer family. As a Jew, Viktor feels they must escape to Switzerland.
”That autumn the Great Powers assisted at the dismemberment of the country. They witnessed the cutting off of limbs from the body, the severing of arteries, the snapping of ligaments and tendons, the sawing of bones. That autumn the Czechoslovak army stood down and watched while men in field grey tramped into Eger and Karlsbad, into Teplitz and Liberec. In the north, like a vulture taking an eye from a dying man, the Polish army snatched part of Czech Silesia. In the east Hungary took parts of Slovakia. Everywhere refugees fled from the advancing soldiers like herbivores scattering before a pack of predators. They shuffled along roads and across fields, pushing handcarts with their belongings, humping sorry bundles on their backs. The trains were packed, the roads crowded. It was the effect of war without the fighting, a kind of rehearsal for the future.” (Page 178)
The book spans sixty years and we follow the Glass Room as it moves on from its original owners and purposes and falls to the Czechs to the Nazis to the Communists and finally back to the Czech government. And each occupant feels the enormous influence it has on them.
Beautifully written, epic in scope and passion, The Glass Room is a book not to be missed. Highly recommended.
- providing little architectural content or context. The book reads more like a story of people fornicating in a modernist house, regardless of
- being creepily focused on female sex (every woman in the author's universe is of course bisexual), both as an activity and as a part of women's anatomy. There may be more lines dedicated to the scent of a women's nether regions than to the actual house - or at least I had that impression;
- being cheaply sentimental or, what's worse, cavalier with the atrocities of the Nazi period: when the family that owns the house disembarks from a train on the Spanish border, visions of Auschwitz are evoked for cheap effect. Another character spends three years in the Ravensbrück concentration camp for women, but seems to have spent that time mainly in lesbian trysts;
- not checking foreign languages. Scattering bits of Italian, Czech and German through one's text may be sufficient to impress an audience which is not too familiar with foreign languages (I'm looking at you, Brits). But when the errors become too numerous, and elaborate puns are built on plain erroneous understanding of other languages, the reading experience suffers.
- relying on a deus ex machina to provide a highly improbable but sentimental ending.
Honestly, I cannot imagine what the Booker Prize nomination jury saw in this book.
The Glass Room spans most of the twentieth century, beginning in Czechoslovakia about 10 or 15 years after WWI. We meet Victor and Liesel Landauer, newlyweds on honeymoon in Venice. They encounter Rainer von Abt, a modernist architect who abhors all things ornate - a view that the Landauers support. Rainer is contracted to design the Landauers' new home, a masterpiece that centres around the Glass Room, a living space of light and air, a place that draws people in, and a place that sees the good and the bad in mankind.
While the first half of the novel focuses on the Landauers, Liesel's friend Hana, and Victor's mistress Katalin, the real star of this novel is the house itself. When WWII forces Victor to uproot his family, the reader returns to the Glass Room. We watch its life throughout the war, and the ways in which it is used in times of peace. It really is another character - one with as much depth and variance as Victor, Liesel, Hana, or any of the other people lucky enough to enter into its life.
Mawer's skill is in his characters, but also in his prose. His wordy, thick way of writing contrasts the light of the Glass Room, grounding his characters in a very complex world. The Glass Room seems like a world all on its own, but really, it is a space that sees human beings for what they really are - whether that be positive or not.
I enjoyed Mawer's acuity of perception when it came to character portrayal, and I found his descriptions of the house around which the story revolves (The Glass Room of the title is a room/space in the house) very interesting. The decision to focus the story on the house is a real coup on Mawer's part, with it a forming a constant basis for perspicuous metaphor and a setting for the action. I did find the constant roll-call of new characters a bit distracting - one couldn't really form a strong attachment (or dislike) towards some of the later, less individualised characters - but the main family of the story is beautifully drawn.
A small irritation was Mawer's use of the word 'humped' in the book. Every time someone lugs/carries/hauls something, Mawer writes that they 'humped' it upstairs, for instance. A peccadillo, I know, but it distracted me from the otherwise lucid and vivid language.
On the whole, an excellent book. Of the 2009 Booker nominees, I still prefer the winner, Wolf Hall, maybe even The Quickening Maze, but I am glad that I eventually got round to this book.
The house of glass that was designed and built for a rich Czech couple was the epitome of modern art. They fill it with
Over time, there other inhabitants of this glass house. Caretakers turn to hoarding goods and selling them on the black market. A Nazi scientific laboratory where people are brought in and measured, to see if Jews had specific physical measurements. Russians turn it into a children's hospital for physiotherapy.
And through all this time, the glass house continues to provide us with a microscope into the lives of all who live in or pass through its panes. We're given an insight into a man who is detached from his family but becomes infatuated with a woman he meets by chance, his wife who compartmentalizes her feelings and coordinates a unique living arrangement to keep her family together, a woman who lives as a free-spirit flitting from one lover to another...until one sends her to a concentration camp in Ravensbruck, an actress who seeks to escape from her jealous husband in order to return to the silver screen, and a woman who turns to a different career once her dreams where shattered by a broken ankle.
Time passes, governments come and go, lives change, and through it all, the glass house remains.
Viktor –a Jew – owns the Landauer car factory and has no shortage of money. He’s pessimistic about Czechoslovakia’s survival, and his own, with Hitler’s rise to power, so he shovels some money into a Swiss bank account. When Germany annexes the Sudetenland, the family gets ready to leave. The Landauers spend several years in Switzerland, and take Kata, a refugee from Austria, and her daughter Marika with them. We see life in Mesto during the war through letters from Hana, Liesel’s friend, and Lanik, Viktor’s rather slimy driver.
The characters were beautifully written, especially Viktor, Liesel and Hana. There were two big coincidences in the plot though, one in the middle and one at the end. I’m not a fan of big coincidences driving the story, but it was still an excellent read. I hope it makes the Booker shortlist!
The architect in the novel is modeled after Mies van der Rohe, the house is modeled after the Tugendhadt House in Brno. There is a glass room in the house that Mawer uses as the transparent stage for all of the characters in this book that ranges over time through the Holocaust and into the next century. The metaphor is crystal clear, but what the author does with it just wasn't compelling for me. I didn't care about anyone in this book or anything that happened. Instead, I spent most of the book pondering the modernist aesthetic in architecture, painting, and sculpture and whether or not it has held up over time. This pondering was only loosely inspired by the book's subject matter and, I suspect, was more likely my imagination's way of keeping my brain occupied while I ploughed through this book.
I know that lots of people really loved this book and it was shortlisted for the 2009 Man Booker Prize, but for me it was torturous and awful. I gave it two stars because the modernist aesthetic is interesting to think about and I hadn't done so in awhile. I don't think that's a ringing endorsement.
I found The Glass Room a fascinating novel. It was about the house, which could have only come into existence because of the relationship with Viktor and Liesel. Regardless of what they were trying to portray, their minimalistic home was a reflection of their sparse relationship. They were not compelled or forced into their marriage, yet I never got a real sense of why they wanted to marry in the first place. While they claim that the lack of walls allows for no secrets or deception, I found it to really say that there was no structure or support for their marriage or themselves. Could the house have been brought into existence by a couple in love or did the house create an atmosphere that simply didn't foster what could have otherwise been a warm, loving marriage?
Perhaps the most intriguing thing about this novel is that it is based upon, Villa Tugendhat, a home actually designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. The fact that there was such a house and an onyx wall really captured my imagination. Not only was I able to see how the Laudauer's Glass Room shifted and changed as it was lived in and used over time, I was able to read about what happened to Villa Tugendhat as well. As with Loving Frank, I loved how this novel combined historical fiction along with architectural history. I really love that in a novel and that surprises me a little. I'm not otherwise someone who is curious about architecture. Perhaps because it gives the story structure as well it just makes sense to me.
I cannot say enough about The Glass Room. It was one of the last books I read in 2009 and will be listed among my favorites. I enjoyed the stories of the people populating the Glass Room as much as I enjoyed spending time there. This is my first novel by Simon Mawer and I found him to be an excellent writer and story teller. That this novel was shortlisted for the 2009 Man Booker Prize does not surprise me at all. It was just that good.
The narrative is gripping throughout. My one qualm is the book's tendency to portray its working class characters, such as the house's caretaker, in a stereotypical light, with no serious attempt at analysing the class relations all too ripe for examination.
The writing is excellent -- and although the Landauer's story depends a lot on coincidence (which normally I don't like to see in a novel), here it actually works. Mawer's characterizations are wonderful, and the house itself stands as probably the most important character in the novel. The author also has this incredible sense of place and time that make the story real, believable, and well worth reading.
It's definitely a book full of symbolism and observations, but in the interest of not wanting to spoil things for other readers, I'll merely note that there are a myriad of places on the internet where you can read more in depth about this book.
I would recommend this book to anyone who wants an outstanding read, and I must say, this is one of the best of the Booker Prize nominees this year. People who enjoy good historical fiction will definitely want to read this as well. The Glass Room is truly an amazing book.
For the next ten years the Landauers live there, seeming ly content, though the transparency of their living arrangements is not sufficient to prevent them from keeping their dark secrets. Meanwhile events in Europe gradually conspire to render their own menace, especially as Viktor Landauer is Jewish, and the menace of the Nazis moves ever closer. there is a marvellous scene in which Viktor, Liesel and their friend Hana listen to a radio broadcast of Neville Chamberlain speaking after his now infamous meeting with Hitler in Munich in 1938. Appeasing Britons may have allowed themselves to be swayed by Chamberlain's platitudinous rambling but the three Czechs immediately recognise the truth of their situation.
The Germans duly annex the Sudetenland and beyond, and the Landauers decide that their best policy might be flight, though their circumstances have already become additionally complicated by the presence in their lives of Katalin, with whom Viktor has had a few adulterous encounters, and her daughter Marika.
Beautifully written and meticulously plotted, this novel is one of the most enjoyable, but also moving, books I have read all year.
An excellent book based on the events of WWII but from the point of view of characters in Czechoslovakia.
Using the house as the central character, Mawer brilliantly interweaves the support characters of Liesel and her husband Viktor, owner of Landauer cars in Czechoslovakia.
There are several other characters who come and go, not least Vicktor's mistress, Kata, but I think my favourite has to be von Abt, the architect. With his clear vision of how the house is to look when finished, he effectively steam-rollers any diversions proposed by the family who will eventually be living in it.
The majority of the book concerns the Landauer family, but the last third wraps up the story by following the fate of the house during Nazi occupation and beyond. Several additional characters appear briefly and neatly tie up all the loose ends.
I was so sad that Liesel, when she finally returns to see the house of her dreams, is blind and has to imagine it.
The book is based around a real house and pictures are available on the internet - search Tugendhat House or Glass Raum. I was particularly interested to see the onyx wall.
I really enjoyed this book and wondered how come I'd never read any of the author's previous 7 books? If they are as good as this then I shall be busy for a while!
The idealistic dreams of modernism that were first embodied in the house slip further and further from its charms, as it metamorphoses into a clinical and unlivable scientific ward for Nazi eugenics. Czechoslovakia itself disintegrates, divided up by larger and more powerful countries, and the house remains as a testament to a country which once was but no longer is.
The modernist spirit itself would eschew the house's final function as a museum, as "museums are just like churches, they're memorials to something that's finished - the past or religion. Either is pure fantasy." But history, culture, and national identity cannot be simply done away with, nor should they be. Czechoslovakia's tumultuous history (and that of the subsequent nations after its dissolution) in the wake of both world wars drastically shaped its social landscape, and an informed hope for the future must also be grounded in the past - a solid foundation alongside the boundless space of glass.
Yes, it is a bit of a romance book, but there is enough geo-political, nationalistic thought that it all kind of makes sense. Even though this one is a bit more heavy in the, ahem, 'relations' area than I'm used to, that really didn't get in the way either. All of the passions really make sense. Whether for other people, their country, their social status or their house.
Ah, the house. It is central to the story. It is the anchor of the story. Some have said it becomes it's own character and while I won't go that far I certainly appreciated the role it plays. The descriptions of such a modern architectural home were fantastic. The story follows a well-to-do couple in Europe in between WWi and WWII. They elect to build a modern house with glass walls all of the way around. The family and house are received about as well as you can imagine in such a traditional part of the world back in the early to mid-1900's. Much of the story revolves around the relationships of a core group of friends and society types. There is love, affairs, work, travel, etc. and then was looms. And all of the fantasy and such goes out the window when it comes time for them to answer: jew or not jew?
I'm told that if you read a lot of literary romance fiction, this one might feel cliche at times, but I never felt that way.
I did read this on my phone via the Kobo reader app and really enjoyed it. The bookmark feature was fun to use. I only noticed 6 errors, which is waaaaay less than any Kindle book I have ever bought. This is one I will look for though and buy as a paper book so that it can sit on my shelf for me to loan and talk about.
Many characters inhabit the house as the times change and years go by. We see them defined by their relationship to the house and mostly by the sexual relationships they have- but they are never fully explored as characters. The plan for the house had its fictional origin in the sexual tension between the architect and the owner, so there is some justification for it in the story, but there is a multitude of characters, and they almost only seem to be going to bed with each other. We almost never meet them in other situations. It seems as if the author wasn’t able to figure out a non-sexual, non-committal relationship, and its use in the story. Even a sixty year old woman has to fall in love with a twenty year old one (after having fallen in love and having had sex with other characters there as well) to be able to pour her life out to her. They can’t just become friends, or compassionate acquaintances- such a situation is apparently too difficult for the author to figure out. And, then there are things that are just plain corny there, the ending included.
There are some interesting aspects to the story, with the house being an anchor to the plot and a metaphor for transparency and peace, abused by both the people inhabiting it and by history, and definitely interesting language games, but they get drowned by the corniness there.
What comes to mind, vaguely, is the atmosphere of The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Kundera, but in a much worse shape and form.