Simon Mawer was born in 1948 in England, and spent his childhood there, in Cyprus and in Malta. Educated at Millfield School in Somerset and at Brasenose College, Oxford, he took a degree in biology and worked as a biology teacher for many years. His first novel, Chimera, was published by Hamish Hamilton in 1989, winning the McKitterick Prize for first novels. Mendel's Dwarf (1997), his first book to be publish in the US, reached the last ten of the Booker Prize and was a New York Time "Book to Remember" for 1998. The Gospel of Judas, The Fall (winner of the 2003 Boardman Tasker Prize for Mountain Literature) and Swimming to Ithaca followed. In 2009 The Glass Room, his tenth book and eighth novel was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize.
Mawer is married and has two children. He has lived in Italy for the past thirty years.
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.Read more ›
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.Read more ›
This book has some emotional heft. It is centered around "Landauer House", which is based on Villa Tugendhat in what is now the Czech Republic; however, the real story is about what happened to people in that area during the Nazi rise to power and World War II.
In the book, the ultra- modern house was built to symbolize a new beginning for the fledgling country of Czechoslovakia and its inhabitants. However, the beginning was to very quickly come to an end for the Landauer family and those around them. The book follows the Landauers as the house is built, while they live in the home, and after they must flee Czechoslovakia when the Germans invade.
The characters are very nuanced and complex, while the house itself is built be transparent and stark. One of the wonderful juxtapositions of the books is when, during WWII, a Nazi scientist uses the home as a laboratory to try and classify people by their race (ie Jew vs. Aryan) using physical characteristics. He finds the task impossible to accomplish. This seemed to me to be an over-arching theme of the book, given that the Landauers themselves were from many different backgrounds, spoke several languages, and didn't appear to be allied with any philosophy other than progress.
To me this book was all about gray areas and the inability to classify people into neat categories, as well as the danger in attempting to do so. Somehow, with everything else going on in the book, the author also managed to provide a tapestry of sexuality that deeply humanizes the characters.
I found this book to be extremely moving, and far from a usual treatment of the WWII era in Europe.
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