433 of 441 people found the following review helpful
on August 16, 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.
181 of 184 people found the following review helpful
on October 12, 2009
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.
62 of 64 people found the following review helpful
on November 21, 2009
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.
51 of 57 people found the following review helpful
on June 22, 2011
I had great expectations when opening this book - the Booker price shortlist is usually a good indication of quality. Although one quickly understands that the book is not meant to go into any greater depth about any of its main characters, I found the first 50 pages or so quite entertaining. But then I became more and more skeptical. One problem is the role of "the glass room" throughout the novel. It is mentioned and referred to too many times, and used as metaphor in too many situations. It simply doesn't work, and makes you wonder whether the author is unable to think of other methaphors or images to describe situations and moods. The same can be said about "the onyx wall".
Another problem is that there are too many improbable coincidences throughout the book, characters showing up again at the "correct" time and place. Then, towards the end, the story makes a 50-pages or so side-track which seems quite unnecessary to the main story. And finally, the ending of the story is far too comfortable for the author. Further criticism could be raised against the focus on sex, which seems rather unsubstantiated
At a more structural level I think the main problem of this novel is that the author has not been able to decide whether he wanted to write a book with the glass room as the main "character", a book about the Landauers (the original owners of the house), a book about a greater group of people (who all somehow are related to the Ladauer house) or a book about second world war and the persecution of jews. It seems he has tried to combine all four. In my opinion that was a bad idea.
12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
Nominated for the prestigious Man Booker Prize in 2009, this amazing novel kept me mesmerized for the couple of days it took me to read its 404 pages. I will never forget its impact or the fact that, when it came to the end and all the facets of the plot were pulled together with extraordinary skill, there were actual tears in my eyes.
The story starts in Czechoslovakia in 1929 when an upper class newly married couple engage a world renowned architect to design a house for them . The house is constructed of glass, a work of art viewed as a symbol of modernity and a design for a bright future. As the years go by though, Germany is gaining power and Europeans experience uncomfortable changes. The young husband is a Jew although his wife is not but this put them and their young family in especial danger. This is just the barest outline of the plot however. The story is about a varied group of the individuals - their hopes, fears and emotions all brought to life in exquisite detail as they experience the fragility and horror of their times.
The architecture of the house seems cold to some and so does the husband, who must make responsible decisions related to both his wife and his mistress. The author makes his inner turmoil real and I found it easy to relate to him and these two women in his life. As the dark clouds of Fascism approach, they must leave the house and the house itself becomes a character in the story as the occupants change through the years. However, it is the individual people and their stories that hold the plot together as they each embody a different world view of the times. There is the wealth of the husband which allows his small family with two young children to flee. There is the love the wife and the acceptance of her husband's frailties. There is the working class mistress who has to flee her surroundings in Austria with her young daughter as the Nazis move in. There is the wife's sophisticated friend who embodies the avant garde movement in culture and art and whose own story intersects with that of the family and of the glass house itself.
The British author, Simon Mawer, puts all of this together with a spare and hauntingly beautiful use of language and several complex themes which made the experience of reading this book truly magnificent for me. I loved it for its sense of time and place, its deeply human characters and a unique view of history. Bravo to the author for bringing this book to the world!
13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
on October 24, 2010
If not for Hilary Mantel's magnificent opus "Wolf Hall", on literary merit alone, Simon Mawer's "The Glass Room" would have beaten the competition hands down and walked away with last year's Booker Prize. No doubt about it. It's one of those rare treasures with an irresistible storyline and utterly compelling characters that will resonate with you and haunt your dreams long after you've finished the book. It also has incredible cinematic potential, so I expect that sooner or later it would be commissioned for a movie.
Set in the former Czechoslovakia and straddling the pre and post Second World War years before finally winding up at the point of history marked by the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the story is rich in human drama across the full spectrum of humanity, from the wealthy Landauers, their fearlessly unconventional friend Hana and her Jewish husband Oscar, to the sibling pair of cook and housekeeper, Viktor's mistress and wartime nanny Katalin and her daughter, etc right through modern times when the dust has settled but pain, misery and sexual indiscretion endure as part of the unchanging human landscape. Through this violent and tumultuous era characterized by haphazardly redrawn national borders, the mass extermination of Jews, selective migration among the privileged to America, and the trauma of wrecked lives for those who remained, lies the steady, unyielding and enduring Glass Room, an architecturally unique design consisting purely of geometric lines, angles and shapes built for the Landauers in the 30s.
Ironically, the Glass Room was conceived as a symbol of hope for a better, freer and less cluttered future but instead stood witness to death and destruction on an unprecedented scale at the social and national level, and to lust deception and betrayal among its occupants at the individual level. For those familiar with Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby". the Glass Room is reminiscent of the all seeing eyes of Dr T J Eckleburg watching 24/7 over the endless manifestation of human folly. Though the Glass Room remains non-judgmental throughout, the menfolk in my opinion (eg, Viktor, Werner and Tomas) acquit themselves rather less honourably than the womenfolk. Liesl started off naïve and immature before wisdom through the force of history found her. Then there is Katalin, cleared eyed and making no claims as mistress or nanny until fate caught up with her. But it is the character of Hana that sparkles and shines brightest for me. Amoral, bisexual, truthful and often outrageous, she is the cracked pot aunt or loose canon one fears most in a social setting, yet the honesty and courage she exudes right through the end makes her the most compelling character in the story. Hana - not Liesl - is the part A-list actors would die to play in a movie version of this fantastic story.
"The Glass Room" is simply a masterpiece of fiction writing. Great modern literature that should be read by all who love serious fiction. Sadly, it lacks a prestigious book award to guarantee a wider readership. One of the most brilliant books I have read all year. Don't miss it !
19 of 22 people found the following review helpful
on April 20, 2011
The Glass Room
This is a story about a house, designed by a Jew and confiscated during World War Two. It is a modernist construction with onyx walls and a huge glass room. We learn about the various visitors, notably German occupying forces and Russian liberators, but mainly from the tenants' point of view. People come and go through times of strife and deprivation, ruin and neglect, but the symbolic house remains, variously a laboratory for Nazi genetic experiments, a nursery for handicapped children and a ballet school, seeing the collapse of German rule and the rise and fall of Communism.
The characters are thus dwarfed by their setting, the beautiful human artefact, despoiled by its miserable human occupants. The many copulations that take place on the floor of the stupendous Glass Room underline the squalid uses to which beauty is heir. The myth of Ondine, for example, floats above the house's sordid seductions, by German, Czech and Russian visitors.
I found this ambitious novel covering many decades of war and peace extremely lacking in depth of character. Our interest in the owners becomes supplanted not only by the building but by several sub-plots, rather precariously tied together at the end. I didn't care that much about any of the people, whose inner lives we discover by authorial explication and rather heavy-handed imagery and prolonged dialogue as people explain themselves.
The book is peppered with imagery, which too often runs to cliché. Drafts whisper and trees throw caution to the wind ; passengers, a motley collection of young and old, are like sheep emerging from a stable, or later, like sheep jostling at a gate. As indicated above, there is quite a lot of explicit sex in the book, which becomes so mechanical that one cares neither for the doer nor the sufferer. A German officer raping his Slav mistress `spreads her buttocks apart so that she is open to his gaze, the dark valley, the tight mouth of her anus, the dark fold of her shame.' We are told `he even feels pity, that emotion you must learn to expunge.' If you're one of the Master race, of course, taking your pleasure from an Untermensch. Oddly enough the reader feels nothing, neither for him nor her.
A long and at times irritating read; even the titillation falls flat.
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on April 1, 2010
This is a lovely, wonderfully written novel with a compelling story told in a beautiful setting. Despite the dark background of a looming Nazi threat, the reader is captivated by the lives of the characters who occupy the dazzling glass house. This is unlike any other book about this era that you have ever read and well worth the experience. I found myself putting the book down periodically so that I could make it last longer. The Glass Room would make a wonderful choice for book groups looking for a well-written novel with a good story that is also infinitely 'discussable'. Enjoy.
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
Early on in The Glass House, the architect Von Abt -- based on Mies van der Rohe -- says to the Jewish auto magnate Viktor Landauer, "Ever since Man came out of the caves he has been building caves around him. But I wish to take Man out of the cave and float him in the air. I wish to give him a glass space to inhabit."
Glass Space --- Glasraum -- is meant to represent the glittering transparency of the future: a place of clarity, openness, and light. As the storm clouds of World War II begin to gather, the future -- and its inhabitants -- are anything BUT. The incredible glass building stands as witness to the past; it's the one enduring thing. Mawer writes, "The cool, calm rationality of the place undisturbed by any of the irrationality that human beings would impose on it."
The irony, of course, is that NOTHING is transparent. Viktor seeks a simpler comfort in the arms of Kata, as his wife turns to her bohemian friend Hana for excitement. At the wake of the pogroms, the couple is forced to flee the house, which is later inhabited by the German Stahl, a "scientist" for the Human Genetics and Racial Policy. It will eventually fall into the hands of the Soviets, until finally finding its way back into Czechoslovak control.
Mawer's themes are ambitious: he is constantly contrasting the transparency of the Glass House with the opaqueness of those who pass through it, and consistently exploring past versus future as well as the power of place and how we gravitate back to it. One of the metaphors -- the extraordinarily expensive golden onyx wall which changes color when the sun shines on it, literally turning into the flames of hell during one German scene, is fascinating in its execution.
The problem, for me, is that all too often, Mawer sacrifices his character development on the alter of theme progression. Viktor's infatuation with Kata -- whom he meets in the backstreets of Vienna -- comes somewhat early in his marriage without sufficient fictional justification. Later he will run into Kata again with a coincidence that defies credibility. Hana -- Liesel's flamboyant lover -- is a bit too one-dimensional; the lesbian relationship seemed a convenient plot twist rather than organic. Mawer states that the Glass House has the effect of "liberating people from the strictures and conventions of the ordinary, of making them transparent", but when EVERY character is liberated, the effect becomes less than authentic and the motivations become murky.
There is much to recommend The Glass House, including the gorgeous writing, and the use of the Glass House as a window to the times and the hopes and fears of its inhabitants. Yet even this Glass House (actually, the Tugendhat house in Brno), has a few locked doors.
32 of 40 people found the following review helpful
on April 29, 2010
The Glass Room had just enough promise to keep me reading for 300 pages. The WWII history and different characters / locales. And then, with about 100 pages to go, I just said "enough!". Yet another set of characters was introduced to an overly complicated saga. Too many unbelievable "coincidences", constant annoying references to the house, and prose that I kept convincing myself was serving the material and bringing an existential feel to the book. Finally, I have to say that the simple writing is just plain and boring. The book is like an overworked painting. No warmth or emotion or spontaneity shine through, and neither does it work as a hard-edged design piece.