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Glass Room Hardcover – February 1, 2009
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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.
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Ludwig Mies van der Rohe's Tugendhat House in the Czech Republic was to be the architect's last major work in Europe. Built for a wealthy Jewish couple in 1930 on a hillside overlooking the city of Brno, its principal feature is a huge living room, suspended below the rest of the house, surrounded by wall-to-ceiling windows of plate glass, broken only by slim columns of gleaming chrome and a screen of translucent onyx. Something of its power, luxury, and simplicity can be seen in the customer images uploaded to this page. It represents not only a building but also a way of life, surrounded by light, unfettered by history or national trappings, a perfect setting for an enlightened couple of mixed parentage (German, Czech, Jewish) starting a life together in the newly-founded Czech Republic. Simon Mawer does full justice to the qualities of the house itself, and his idea of using the glass building as a symbol for the fragility of hope in the 1930s is brilliant. The story, which begins around 1928, reaches its climax with the outbreak of the Second World War, then passes through the Soviet takeover, through the brief Prague Spring of 1968, to end shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall. The house changes function, but remains standing in its various guises, and the view of history from its hillside makes fascinating reading.
While Simon Mawer admits that his novel was inspired by a real house in a real city, the actual names are fictionalized. As well they might be, for his treatment of his new patrons, Viktor and Liesl Landauer, verges on the scandalous. Hardly have they moved into the new house than their lives are changed by his adultery and her relationship with another woman. By the time they are forced to flee the approaching Nazis, the conflicting passions in that pristine house are not at all what one would want to be glimpsed behind glass walls. But the Landauers are interesting, and the story inevitably loses steam once they leave center stage. Mawer does introduce several vital new characters in the later eras, but relies increasingly on the physical and olfactory details of sex to sustain the interest. The book opens, actually, with Liesl's return to the house in 1968, but Mawer makes nothing of the illusory pathos of that false dawn. When the book finally ends in 1990, it becomes little more than a case of "Whatever happened to old so-and-so?". By this time, I must admit, I was reading along easily and almost automatically. But I also felt that I was slumming, and that triviality -- the one thing that Mies most detested -- had won the day.
The Medusa reference leads me to another problem in the book. When Viktor falls in love with Kata, a short time after he marries Liesel, this is what he is thinking after love-making (about which, it must be added, he doesn't feel shame or guilt). What he feels is the more distant and philosophical emotion of regret, not only for himself, of course (after all, he is not that selfish) but "for a whole universe of things, the irrevocable nature of one's life, the unbearable sorrow of being, the fact that things cannot be changed, that love, the focused light of passion and hunger should be centred not on the figure of his wife but on the body of a half-educated, part-time tart" (111). Perhaps it's easy to be swept away momentarily by this weltschmerz tirade, but one really shouldn't. "The irrevocable nature of one's life"? Viktor, it is your choice to betray your wife. "The unbearable sorrow of being"? Come, come, Viktor. Surely you are not Werther. You don't mean all that about "sorrow" when you are having so much fun with Kata. "Things cannot be changed"? Please, Viktor, don't drag in here the Greek tragedy concept of fate. You just choose not to change them. Simple. Your contempt for Kata is the real "sorrow," not only here, but throughout this book.
"The Glass Room" treats most women (except for anemic Liesel) as whores. Zdenka, as mentioned, is a dangerous Medusa. Kata is a "half-educated, part-time tart." What does half-educated mean? Why not go all the way already and say "uneducated"? "Part-time tart"? A curious expression but one that doesn't go away. Indeed, she shamelessly makes love to him (after all, "things cannot be changed") in his and his wife's house, and later she does the same in their hiding place in Switzerland. Of course, she has no will of her own. Hana, who has more vitality than the other characters, and deserves the one star, is also prowling the town, looking for lovers, men or women. She fancies Stahl, the Nazi scientist who labors to find out the body markers of Aryans, Slavs, and Jews. After their love-making, interestingly, he asks: "How much do I pay you?" (249). She doesn't want pay, but she takes his money anyway. Even Yevgeniya, a woman commander in the invading Russian army, forces (yes forces) Lanik to make love to her. He feels that he might suffocate, or "die," because this commander smells "of horses...and... ordure" (324). Fine, this is war and poor Yevgeniya is hungry for sex. But so are all the other women, in war AND in peace. The strangest of all in the various sexual configurations, is "the shark of desire" that runs among all the women. Leisel presumably has an affair with Hana; later Leisel is attracted to Kata (yes, Kata, her husband's lover); and finally Zdenka and Hana become the lovers to embrace all lovers: "And she loves Hana. She loves her as a daughter loves a mother, as a pupil loves a teacher, as friends and lovers love, all these things all the time" (387). Oh, My! Have we found paradise or what? An all-encompassing love, which is part friendship, part motherly-daughterly, part lesbian, and part incestuous. Well, isn't she her "mother's" lover? This is not a brave treatment of the subject of lesbian love. This is a male fantasy that runs shamelessly throughout the book--the excitement of seeing or imagining two women making love.
Mawer's strange erotic fantasies, which reduce characters to sex fiends, or slaves, may not be the most repellent aspect of this novel--and that is saying something. The most repellent, in my view, is his treatment of Hitler and Nazi Germany. Yes, he is focused on the house, but his protagonist is a Jew. So is Kata, and so is Hana's husband. And yet, the Holocaust is never mentioned, although the Anchluss is, and, as a favor, even the episode where the Nazis forced Jews to brush the pavements. That's something. But in the 404-page book that deals, presumably, with Hitler's storm over Europe and the immediate persecution of Jews, there is barely another comment on the Nazi threat to the Jews. Rich Viktor escapes to Switzerland, with his two women, and Hana's husband, living somewhere near Prague, is still free, even after Theresienstadt was open as a concentration camp, in 1941, and even after Hana tells her Nazi Stahl that her husband is a Jew. And that Jew is still safe? Really? Even the Russians get a more just and expansive treatment than the Nazis. Mawer says several times that "the [Nazi] storm gathers," but it never arrives. Once Viktor escapes, with his family, he is no longer interested in the Nazis. Leisel asks him, "What do you think happened?" And he "can only shrug in reply" (304). And, indeed, once he is free, why should he tax his mind with dark thoughts of 6 million Jews trapped in Hitler's death-camps? In Mawer's book there are no concentration camps--none! Mawer is not particular about dates, but late in the book (surely, after '41, or'42, or'43?) Stahl, in his lab, is looking for Jews, and sighs: "Getting Jews isn't easy these days" (288). Wouldn't the Jews have been taken away by trains already? Doesn't he know that? Doesn't anybody in this book know what happened to the Jews once Hitler conquered the Czech Republic and the rest of Europe? Nobody? Really? And this book is the finalist for the Booker Prize? Really? As Zdenka visits Terezin after the war, she thinks: "Why was the memory of the Jews being left to die?" (349). No, Mr. Mawer. The memory of the Jews has not been left to die--only the Jews were left to die, a fact that seems to be of little interest to you and your characters. In spite of your exclusion of the Holocaust from your book, in spite of your denial of Hitler's evil and Jewish suffering, the memory of the Jews who perished in the camps will never die.
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So I advise readers to keep reading