Category: Simon Mawer

book review – The Glass Room – Simon Mawer

For a brief moment caught up in the excitement of the Booker Prize it seemed like a good idea to read a few of them. Reading them all was never going to happen before the prize was given because of time and money constraints but I did manage to read The Little Stranger and this book before starting the eventual winner Wolf Hall.

In many respects coming to this story after reading Eva Figes it has echoes of a Jewish family torn from their home and friends by the war. As the forces of evil draw nearer to the Czech location of the main family so does the need to escape. But they are not just leaving behind friends, family and their lives. They are also leaving behind their modern home with its glass room.

The story charts the development of the house, from an idea conceived as Viktor and Liesel honeymoon and meet an Austrian architect, to its building then finally occupation. The glass room encourages the characters that inhabit that space to be themselves and in a sense of seeing through objects it is a place where pretence drops.

The dropping of inhibitions of course leads to a fair amount of sex. In a book that starts slowly sex becomes a theme that threatens to overtake the architecture as Viktor enjoys his Viennese mistress, Liesel dabbles in a bit of Lesbianism and elsewhere most of their friends seem to be at it as well.

In a cinematic sense the characters that inhabit the house operate in the foreground but the house and the glass room are always there and the camera stays on the house allowing people to enter and leave back into the wings.

And as the years clock by the entrance and departure of characters happens with more regularity. The house remains, even through the bombs and the turn from free society to one of Stalin’s satellites. It not only remains but acts as a magnet to draw back former owners and those who remembered it in its first happy years. It provides a platform for the loose ends to be tied up as the remaining cast converge on the house.

But in terms of the wider themes you have to wonder what was being said. There is a debate about traditionalism versus modernism and the way that the house continues to produce reactions is something that would divide those who visited. Against a background of a troubled period in history it is also raising the question of whether or not modern, and you tend to think of things like V2 rockets at this point, is all good.

The glass also acts as a metaphor about transparency. Most of the characters have secrets, lies and ambitions that the glass room somehow exposes and strips back. In that space, protected by war, love continues to bloom until the end. You have to conclude that this perhaps missed out on the Booker because the story loses power after the family leave the house and the attempts to tie-up loose ends are perhaps too easily done.

The Glass Room – post V

What I might not have mentioned in all the thoughts about this book over the course of this week is just how much sex dominates. The glass room seems to be a magnet for sexual activity with doctors, yoga teachers and soldiers all being aroused to action in that space. Sex is part of life but I’m a bit of a prude and so will limit my comments on that side of the novel other than to say some of it is important for plot development and some of it isn’t. The stuff that isn’t could have ended up on the cutting room floor.

The sense of the house surviving all that has happened around it despite being made of glass is perhaps the most important image here. Something built with high design values and a determination to be different survives all that is thrown at it. In the end it is almost comical with the communist housing committee trying to decide what to do with the building. The building survives but so does its power to change people, to liberate their minds, in that space made of glass.

Anyway without giving away any endings or anything the various loose ends caused by war and the spreading out of the main characters as a result of the war are tied up. Some of it feels slightly too neat but as a reader you are grateful for things coming to a conclusion in the way that they do.

A review will follow soon….

The Glass Room – post IV

As the family leaves the house the story of the glass room is told via those that stated behind with it initially being taken over as a base for a scientific research programme with Nazi goons measuring skulls and vital statistics looking for a way of identifying Jews. But as the war switches back and forth it moves to a point where the house has been vacated and the Red Army is coming closer.

All the time the glass room and the modern architecture manage to wow the occupants whether they be Nazi’s, war beaten communists or the locals who manage to get inside to have a look around. All the time Viktor’s family struggle to leave Europe and head to Cuba on their way to America. Viktor’s affair is discovered and the marriage is shattered by the distrust. But just like the bombed windows in the glass room it remains to all intents and purposes intact.

Back at the glass house the last few friends of Viktor have been rounded up and taken to the camps and the City and the house are now under the shadow of Stalinism and another period of history begins.

More tomorrow…

The Glass Room – post III

With Austria taken over by Hitler and the refugees starting to come through to the Czech Republic the Nazi threat is now just 50km from the Glass House.

As a Jew, Viktor seems to be more acutely aware of what is potentially coming in terms of hate and he starts to plan for an evacuation to Switzerland. But most of those around him seem to be acutely unaware of what will happen believing that humanity will prevail.

Faced with the reality of the refugees and for Viktor with his own mistress from Vienna standing telling her story in his living room the fear of what might happen starts to become a reality and the family plan to leave the glass room and head for the sanctuary of Switzerland. Before they go there is the opportunity for both husband and wife to be unfaithful in the house and for the memories of the glass room to become impregnated with regrets even before the house is vacated.

More tomorrow…

The Glass Room – post II

The storm clouds are gathering not just in terms of European politics, with the rise of Hitler, but also perhaps in the relationships of the key characters.

In a book that starts slowly sex becomes a theme that overtakes the architecture as Viktor enjoys his Viennese mistress, Liesel dabbles in a bit of Lesbianism and elsewhere most of their friends seem to be at it as well.

Meanwhile the glass house has been completed and stirs debate about modernism and domestic versus work spaces. The owners are happy inside and enjoy the experience of wowing their friends and neighbours.

But as Hitler comes to power and the signs of the swastikas and brown shirts spread to the edges of Viktor’s world he starts to prepare for the worst moving funds to Switzerland. The unease he feels in his relationship with the mistress is an extension of the unease many are feeling across central Europe.

More tomorrow…

The Glass Room – post I

This is another book that was in the running for the recent Booker prize and my god fortunate is to work with colleagues who care enough about contemporary literature to pop out and buy books like this they are then happy to share and pass on.

As the story starts to unfold of the Czech husband and wife and their home designed by an Austrian architect you know that things are going to get difficult because these are the inter-war years and there is already tension in the air.

However the focus of the honeymooners is to commission the Austrian architect to build their home after they meet him in Venice. They set about getting him to design what he describes as a space with a glass room that is somewhere the couple can make their own environment living in natural light.

At parts you expect Kevin McCloud to start narrating the progress of the build as the action moves to the hillside where the work will take place.

You know that the peace that exists on the hillside where their home is being constructed will not last for much longer and you are already starting to wonder what will happen to the house and the people who will live and work in it.

More tomorrow….