The Glass Room, by Simon Mawer

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The spectacular residence pictured above is the Villa Tugendhat in Brno in the Czech Republic. Designed by Mies van der Rohe, built in 1930 and designated a UNESCO World Heritage Centre, it now adds to its distinction by being the central character in Simon Mawer’s new novel, The Glass Room. I’m not spoiling the book by including the picture — Mawer says in an Author’s Note preceding the novel that while it is “a work of fiction, the house and its setting are not fictional.” He doesn’t actually name the Villa, but drawings of various elevations precede each chapter and it took no time to figure out what the “real” house is. For more pictures and description (and they are useful to a reader), here’s a link to the Villa Tugendhat website.

glass-room-3The Glass Room is the latest, for me, of 2009’s “widescreen” novels, a very useful concept coined by John Self at the Asylum: “…ambitious works containing a large cast of characters, far flung geographical settings, and modern history or political issues rendered in fiction.” There is one crucial difference with this work however. As the title indicates, the geographical setting is constant — the charcters and their part in history are what is far flung.

Victor Landauer is owner and director of an assortment of Czech manufacturing enterprises, the biggest of which makes automobiles. It is 1929, he has just married Liesel and they are honeymooning in Venice. Liesel’s parents have given the couple a spectacular piece of land overlooking the town of Mĕsto on which to build a home. The First Republic of Czechoslovakia, carved from defeated empires after the Great War, is still young, but a nation of hope — the young, rich couple and their modern tastes are a reflection of that.

While in Venice, they meet Modernist architect Rainer Von Abt and are quickly introduced to his mantra: “Ornamentation is crime” (a slight adaptation of Adolf Loos’ famous essay Ornament and Crime). He begins sketching concepts and Victor and Leisel are soon on their way to building one of Europe’s most interesting modern houses. Von Abt, like most Modernists, believes that structure should be used to “create” space, not “enclose” it. That’s why two walls of the glass room are floor-to-ceiling glass and two of the very large planes can be lowered into the basement to extend the room into the outdoor slope over the village. An interior onyx wall, which is what gives the real building away as the Villa Tugendaht, captures and creates an interior “sun” at certain times of the year and day. That process of creating space — and the story of the house that results — is one of the strongest themes of the book.

Ornamentation may be crime, but as anyone who has visited a Modernist building or home can testify, the alternative has some downsides of its own — I’d characterize it as a formal, almost chilly, austerity that makes these buildings wonderful to visit, but not terribly attractive to live or work in. Where Mawer is at his best in The Glass Room is when he takes that chilly architectural austerity and transfers it to the human relationship of Victor and Liesel. Having been introduced to two characters who are interesting and likable, once their son and daughter are born, we watch their relationship develop the same kind of non-ornamented formality that their home possesses.

That kind of austerity cannot be sustained for 400 pages and the author moves onto much trickier ground when he begins to develop the warmer human relationships that are required to produce the tension that is essential to the novel. In Victor’s case, it is a relationship that starts out with a part-time tart, Kata, in Vienna, and turns into an obsessive kind of love. For Liesel, it is her continuing friendship with Hana, a very modern, bisexual, gossipy character, who would like to have a lesbian relationship with her, but friendship is also just fine.

For me, those two relationships at first seemed forced, sentimental and verging on the melodramatic. Having loved the opening portions of the book centred on the Modernist house, it was threatening to turn into a soap opera.

Mawer saves that by taking a bold risk. While the relationships continue, he returns the house to centre stage — and makes it the focus of unfolding history. Czechoslovakia is one of the first nations to be forced to kneel to the Nazis, Victor (and Hana’s husband, Oscar) are both Jews. While Victor and Liesel do escape, first to Switzerland and eventually the United States, “their” house remains.

During the war, the Germans take it over and make it into a “scientific” laboratory, a biometric centre that “measures” people in a search to validate the Nazi premise that Jews and Slavs are inferior races. A whole new cast of characters (with the exception of Hana) enters the book. When the Germans are defeated, the conquering Soviets first use it as a billet, complete with horses; after the war it becomes a physiotherapy centre for polio victims. Another cast of characters is introduced.

While The Glass Room is a historical novel, it is not a conventional one. Most (such as Kamila Shamsie’s Burnt Shadowsreviewed here) take a cast of characters through a range of geography affected by history. Mawer, on the other hand, chooses a very restricted geographical point, builds an interesting structure there and then explores how history passes by that point. I was reminded frequently while reading this book of Ivo Andric’s Nobel Prize winning The Bridge on the Drina, althought that spectacularly good book extends over centuries rather than the seven decades of this book.

That technique allows Mawer to escape one of the traps of “widescreen” novels — having so many storylines open that the final pages are the literary equivalent of watching someone carefully pack up several suitcases in preparation for a very long holiday. There is another trap that he doesn’t escape — keeping a large cast of characters together often involves inserting some very unlikely coincidences. I was willing to grant the author that licence; others might not be so forgiving.

I will be very interested in how The Glass Room fares in this year’s Man Booker judging. It is Mawer’s eighth novel (and the first I have read) and he was long-listed for Mendel’s Dwarf. On the positive side, his reader-friendly prose style make this book both literary and accessible. On the other hand, I could understand where some of the risks that he takes that I find successful others would find to be serious flaws. We shall see come July.

A final hypothesis. While I know it verges on heresy to say it, some books can be judged by their cover and I suspect this is one of them. I was looking forward to this book from the moment I saw the cover on the internet (it is detail from Roger de La Fresnaye’s The Seated Man, or The Architect) and it met my high expectations. If you don’t like the cover (“I like pictures that look like pictures”), I suspect you would find the book equally unappealing.

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34 Responses to “The Glass Room, by Simon Mawer”

  1. Colette Jones Says:

    I like the cover! I have this book from the library now and will be reading it as soon as I finish the Orange Prize shortlist.

  2. Rob Says:

    Just shifted this to the top of the TBR pile… although I’m sure I did that last time I read a positive review of it. Slippery things, TBR piles. I think I have another of his knocking around unread as well: The Fall?

  3. KevinfromCanada Says:

    After a few weeks, the memory of this book continues to make it better — I hope you both try it.

    • Colette Jones Says:

      Reading it now, and finding it very good so far. The fact that the building actually exists adds to the story for me.

  4. Max Cairnduff Says:

    I like the cover, but despite my love of A Dance to the Music of Time I have a low coincidence tolerance threshold, so I’m not sure. I note though that it’s growing in the memory, curious how books sometimes do that (and sometimes do quite the opposite).

    I do like the device though, history moving through a point rather than the point moving around history, that’s rather clever.

    Can you say a little more about the Bridge on the Drina? That sounds interesting and I’m not familiar with it.

  5. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Max: I think you would quite like Mawer’s book — the conceit that he employs around the house worked very well for me.

    I discovered The Bridge on the Drina in a very awkward way. My wife was on one of her trekking tours through Croatia and sent an email saying I should research books on the history of the Balkans. I sent out a panic email and got a longlist from an old boss who knows the area well. He said a friend had told him that this novel did a better job of capturing the very strange history of the region than any of the histories did — so of course I ordered it and read it immediately. It is an amazing book, certainly deserved the Nobel in my opinion and is still topical today. Not an easy read, but one that I certainly recommend.

    Back to The Glass Room. Given your real-life occupation and our troubled times, I would be interested in your take on how Mawer’s story about the “hope” in Czechoslovakia in the late 1920s plays out against some of the similar thoughts in post-Soviet Europe. It was a theme that I found intriguing.

  6. Tom C Says:

    A wonderful book. I reviewed this one too. I agree with you about the cover!

    Our blogs have much synergy and I have put you on my blogroll

    Tom

  7. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Thanks for dropping by Tom — I’ve added you to my blogroll as well and trust we will visit each other (and comment) often. Kevin.

  8. Colette Jones Says:

    A good recommendation, Kevin… there is only one coincidence that I find problematic and unfortunately that’s how the book ends… otherwise near perfect.

  9. KevinfromCanada Says:

    I forgave Mawer the ending because he presaged it in the prologue — and I had had that in the back of my mind throughout the book. I do agree that it is a bit predictable but am willing to accept that something like that is almost necessary in the “widescreen” format. And by then I was so entranced by the house that there was a lot of other stuff the author could have got away with.

  10. Colette Jones Says:

    What was presaged in the prologue was fine and perhaps the book should have ended with that chapter instead of jumping to 1990. I liked it that the two met each other at the end but would have preferred if somehow it were orchestrated by some person or happening rather than the two just happened to be there at the same time. I’m trying not to give anything away to people who haven’t read it yet, so this may sound a bit criptic.

  11. KevinfromCanada Says:

    I had to retrieve my copy for another look — and I see your point. Also trying not to give anything away, I’ll leave it at that and other readers can make up their own minds.

  12. The Booker Prize Longlist 2009 Says:

    [...] over the universally loved Glass Room: her “holistic reading experience” is his “bold risk“, and one that pays [...]

  13. Tom Cunliffe Says:

    A fine review Kevin. I particularly like the way Liesel returned to the house at the end of her life – a very moving passage which seemed to bring the whole novel to a fitting conclusion. I hope this one wins the Booker!

    • Colette Jones Says:

      If only that were the conclusion though. Unfortunately there was one more bit (coda is a good description, Kevin).

      • KevinfromCanada Says:

        Codas sometimes work well in the theatre — the playwright keeps the audience in their seats, creating time for them to contemplate what has happened before joing the crush to the exits, usually with some helpful guidance, but not much more, in what is happening on stage.

        In a novel (and I think in this one), codas often don’t work — the reader is fully capable of closing the book, pouring a drink and contemplating. Direction from the author becomes an annoying distraction rather than something helpful.

  14. KevinfromCanada Says:

    It is interesting, Tom, that a number of commentors find the ending of the book to be its biggest flaw — personally I’d be happier if Mawer had left off what I call the coda.

  15. P.S. I Love You Says:

    I recently finished reading this one and, having read all of the Booker shortlist, it is currently my first choice to win this year’s prize. The only other shortlisted novel that, in my view, is competing for first place is Coetzee’s ‘Summertime’. I doubt that a second reading of ‘Summertime’ would make me change my mind, though. Coetzee has won the prize twice; ‘The Glass Room’ would be a deserving winner.

    Just a couple of points from this review and some of the comments. Firstly, regarding the ending of the novel. I would go further than you, Kevin, and say that it would be a brutal reader who doesn’t forgive Mawer the ending. As you point out in your review, with so many new characters appearing along the way, it was always going to be tough to tie up the loose ends. I think I realised this early on, though. Whilst I was interested to know what was going to become of certain characters, there came a point when I was just entranced by the Landauer House, and Mawer’s excellent writing. I think the last paragraph of the novel, in particular, was fantastic. I remember reading it back countless times.

    Secondly, I would just point out that if one character in particular interested me, it was Hana. Despite her attitude to her friends early on, I always got the impression that she was smarter than she seemed. I was really hoping that Mawer would ‘test’ her – and he did, which I thought was a significant contribution to the novel.

    Oh, and just to prolong my post a bit more…I remember reading one review of this novel in which the reviewer points out that, someday, this ‘The Glass Room’ would be made into a movie and that this would really bad. If anything, I always found Mawer’s writing style to be sensual. No amount of special effects, celebrity actors (and I can see them lining up to play the lead roles in this one) could do it justice.

    Well done on spotting this one well before the longlist was announced, Kevin. I recall reading just a few paragraphs of your review at the time and then deciding to come back to it after I had finished reading the book. Four months later, here I am.

  16. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Wow, PS.Iloveyou, that is the equivalent of a free review on the blog. Thanks.

    This is still my favorite Booker book and, despite availability problems, one that I have hopes for. I agree with all of your comments on the book — it is not perfect, but it is very good.

  17. P.S. I Love You Says:

    Haha – you do a better job. It’s OK, I don’t charge for my thoughts :)

  18. KevinfromCanada Says:

    And I don’t pay.

  19. Colette Jones Says:

    P.S. I Love You says:
    “I would go further than you, Kevin, and say that it would be a brutal reader who doesn’t forgive Mawer the ending.”

    To which I reply: Mawer seemed to write two endings. It’s the second ending I disagree with (what Kevin refers to as the coda). It was unnecessary. It doesn’t completely spoil the book because the rest was written so well and the story was good. I do not forgive the second ending though.

  20. Simon Mawer: The Glass Room « Asylum Says:

    [...] Its shortlisting was the tipping point I needed to make me read it after KevinfromCanada offered it early praise, which had lodged it in my mind as one to watch … or read … eventually. However it may [...]

  21. Marcia Dumptruck Says:

    Only about 30 pages in, but luving this book so far. Recently finished another nominee for the Man Booker – The Quickening Maze. TQM is truly brill – best book I have read all year (and so far this year I have read – deep breath – A game of hide and seek by Elizabeth Taylor, The kill by Zola, Lady Anna by Trollope, The Watchmen by Alan Moore, Sophie’s Choice by Styron, At swim two boys (oopska, forgotten author’s name), A perfect waiter by Sulzer, bio on Cat Power by Elizabeth Goodman, autobio by Marc Almond, The slap by Tsiolkas, The song is you by Arthur Phillips, The sheltering sky by Paul Bowles, Personal history autobio by Katherine Graham, Savage grace bio on the Baekelands, film theory text on Woody Allen (sorry, forgotten exact title) and Sister Carrie by Dreiser).

  22. KevinfromCanada Says:

    A very interesting list, Marcia. Hope you continue to enjoy The Glass Room.

  23. Booker 2009: The Glass Room – Simon Mawer « Lizzy’s Literary Life Says:

    [...] Tom’s effusive praise.  Since then readerly applause has been ringing louder and louder:  KevinfromCanada, Farmlanebooks, and both Wonderang and My Spy In Edinburgh (my Edinburgh book festival buddies) [...]

  24. Max Cairnduff Says:

    Very disappointing cover for the paperback edition:

    The Glass Room

    The Glass Room

    Buy from Amazon

    I may have to waive my usual no hardbacks rule on this one in the circumstances. How annoying.

  25. KevinfromCanada Says:

    I agree, Max, terrible cover. The book is about the house, not the people. I love the hardback cover and suspect you can find a used version online that would justify waiving your rule. It is not a super long book, so can be read while commuting.

  26. Max Cairnduff Says:

    I bought the hardback from Amazon. The rule is about storage space at home and problems reading while travelling (and I note your point on length), but sometimes exceptions must be made and this is one of those sometimes.

    Looking forward to it arriving now. One of the joys of my no hardback rule is it does tend to mean I arrive at current books about a year after everyone else, which I often rather like. I sometimes find at the time a book comes out and is most discussed I get caught up in the excitement but if I still feel excited a year later then I know it’s one I really want to read.

  27. Karyn Says:

    Many thanks for this great recommendation Kevin.

    As an art historian, with a strong interest in contemporary and modern architecture, particularly after the Japan experience – as well as so many other aspects of the book – I am very excited to read it.

    I am recommending it tonight to the Brussels Book Group for next year, as we can each recommend only one book (and it doesn’t have to be a book that one has read).

    Comment to be posted after I have the pleasure of reading it. Thanks again – I love your Blog!

  28. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Hi Karyn: This was my choice for the 2009 Booker and one of my favorite books of last year — I am sure given your background that you will enjoy it. I do hope your book group also decides to read it — I’ll be very interested in hearing how a multi-national, cultured group reacts to it.

  29. Karyn Says:

    Unfortunately the Book Group did not choose it -very disappointing.

    I am going to read it very soon – so looking forward to it – and recommending it to my Tokyo Book Group. I remain in touch with them and receive their reading lists. So thank you again. I will then submit a comment.

  30. Liz at Literary Masters Says:

    I usually see your comments on Mookse and Gripes, so I was pleased to find a KevinfromCanada review of The Glass Room. My Literary Masters book groups are reading this novel for our February choice, and I’m very interested to see what my members’ reactions will be. I loved this novel from the start, but as I learn each month, you can’t please all the people all the time!

  31. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Liz: It is a novel that tends to provoke varied reactions. It remains one of my favorites of the last few years — the villa lives on in memory. I have Jenny Erpenbeck’s Visitation on hand for reading soon — I gather it is another book where the “place” forms the centre piece of the story.

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