The Glass Room

Published in Britain by Little, Brown, January 2009 and in the US by the Other Press, October 2009

Short-listed for the Booker Prize and the Walter Scott Prize, 2009

 

High on a Czechoslovak hill, the Landauer House shines as a marvel of steel and glass and onyx. Built specially for newlyweds Viktor and Liesel Landauer, a Jew married to a gentile, it is one of the wonders of modernist architecture. But the radiant honesty and idealism of 1930 that the house seems to engender quickly tarnishes as the storm clouds of World War Two gather. Eventually, as Nazi troops enter the country, the family, accompanied by Viktor’s lover Kata and her child Marika, must flee.

Yet the family’s exile does not signify the end of this spectacular building. It slips from hand to hand, from Czech to Nazi to Soviet and finally back to the Czechoslovak state, the crystalline perfection of the Glass Room always exerting a gravitational pull on those who know it. It becomes a laboratory, a shelter from the storm of war, and a place where the broken and the ruined find some kind of comfort, until with the collapse of Communism, the Landauers are finally drawn back to where their story began.

Watch the author reading from and discussing the book:

Reviews...

11 writers and critics in 8 different publications chose The Glass Room as a best book of 2009

My choice is Simon Mawer's novel The Glass Room. Imagine the house of fiction as a clean, shining, transparent box, befouled by some of the nastiest episodes in recent history. A small saga, beautifully conceived and deeply moving.” Peter Conrad (Observer Critic), Guardian, Books of the Year

I was gripped by Simon Mawer's The Glass Room.” Jeremy Paxman, Guardian, Books of the Year

Simon Mawer’s The Glass Room is exceptional for its resonant complexity, its restraint and the extreme elegance with which Mawer uses a Modern Movement house, Der Glasraum, as a metaphor for love, desire and memory.Jane Shilling, Telegraph, Books of the Year

I admired The Glass Room by Simon Mawer because it tells a story of huge scale – the rise of fascism – through the lens of a very small one, the narrative of a marriage and the myopia of desire, and in doing so is enlightening.” Sadie Jones, Sunday Telegraph Books of the Year

I was enthralled by The Glass Room, Simon Mawer’s Man Booker-shortlisted meditation on an icon of 1930s architecture, the Villa Tugendhat in the Czech city of Brno. In inventing the story of the home’s Jewish owners and the darkness that would engulf its once-optimistic glass walls, Mawer creates an unforgettable literary monument to Modernism and proves that a building can be every bit as moving as a poem or a song.Melissa Katsoulis, Sunday Telegraph, Books of the Year

In 1929, Czech automobile magnate Viktor Landauer commissions architect Rainer von Abt to build him a house. The result – a modernist steel-framed, glass-clad, open-plan villa – becomes a symbol of the world that seems to be disintegrating around him with the ascent of Nazism.” Financial Times, Books of the Year

The story of a room with a world-historical view, by a novelist who has an inquisitive, and quite un-English, interest in history and science.” Economist, Books of the Year

I read Simon Mawer's The Glass Room ages before it appeared on the Booker shortlist, and I was happy it did so well: a powerful novel about what war does to places and ideas as well as people, with the most exceptional evocations of the gleaming Modernist building at its heart.” Rachel Cooke, Evening Standard, Books of the Year

one of the very cleverest novels of the year, about love and loss and art and war, set largely within the light-filled "Glasraum" built by a stylish young Czech couple in the 1930s. A genuinely haunting and stunningly crafted piece of fiction.Alison Roberts, Evening Standard, Books of the Year 2009

Simon Mawer’s Man Booker-shortlisted The Glass Room made, with authority and empathy, one Czech family the focus of Europe’s war and peace.” Boyd Tonkin, Independent Christmas Special Issue

In this exquisite novel, the vast tragedies that befall the Czech people—Nazism, communism—are told through the successive inhabitants of the house. But the people in glass room often remain opaque to themselves and others. It's a brilliant stroke by Mawer to have the convulsions of the 20th century play out in this sparkling house built on optimism.Emily Yoffe, Slate, Best Reads of 2009

US Reviews...

 

UK Reviews:

From the News of the World, 25 April 2010

"...a haunting read... You'll be swept up into the lives of people struggling to find happiness in frightening times. What's amazing is how Mawer perfectly crafts each character and cleverly weaves their experiences together."

From the Observer, 25th April 2010

"Good prose, Orwell would have you believe, is like a window pane. Had Orwell been Simon Mawer, he might have specified what kind of window pane he had in mind, where, when and in what lighting. The Glass Room is full of windows that are smeared, windows that reflect or diffuse light, that shatter. "Refraction of the daytime," as one character puts it, "become reflection of the night." Every window is a potential two-way mirror. A broken shard is a knife.

... Mawer's technique here is a form of the historical layering that he previously plied in Swimming to Ithaca and The Fall. Five sections move the story from 1928 through Nazi occupation, Soviet control and the Prague Spring to the aftermath of the Velvet Revolution. Like the house, the novel is flawlessly constructed, revealing the careful plan of its reflections and symmetries, the lines of force hidden in its surfaces and its concealed architecture. Its only snag is that the final blueprints seem, if anything, too neatly drawn, too traditional: the book could have done without its sentimental coda.

That aside, The Glass Room, shortlisted for last year's Booker Prize, is Mawer's finest work so far. From the materials of the house itself he draws unexpected resonances, candescent onyx balancing pellucid glass, and that glass itself shifting between aspects. When the house becomes a research outpost of Nazi racial science, we think of the test tube and the Petri dish; when a Soviet bomb shatters the room, the shard-carpeted cities of Europe come to mind. And always at the back of the mind, as the Jewish characters flee their homes, are the hideous shatterings of Kristallnacht."
James Purdon

From the Sunday Telegraph, 18th June 2010

"Written so intelligently and seriously that it avoids all traps of sentimentality, it explores the impossibility of perfect vision even as the author displays his own."

Ophelia Field

From the Sunday Telegraph, 14th June 2009

"...truly stunning... a spectacular edifice of a novel, as tightly structured as it is beautifully written."

Melissa Katsoulis

From Standpoint, March 2009

"... magnificent ...delicately subtle - an affair of shifts and shades, retrospective ironies and elegiac grace-notes.

Mawer has created a novel that is subtly and movingly human..."

Caroline Moore

From the Spectator, 25th February 2009

"Here at last is a novel informed by exceptional intelligence...the clarity with which it is written is almost unfamiliar and certainly to be admired.

The ending is infinitely moving. It should be emphasised that this is not the sort of house that features in most English novels. There are no echoes of Brideshead here. This house — long, low, rectilinear — does not inspire sentimentality. It is its unfamiliar purity which is its outstanding feature, and this purity also characterises the novel itself. There is little sex, little weather, and a total absence of stylistic flourishes. It is, in sum, a humanist novel, unusual in its breadth and scope, and also in its dignity. Definitely Bookerish."

Anita Brookner

From the Literary Review, February 2009

"... engrossing... Mawer explores his themes with a subtle intelligence. A novel of ideas, but one driven by character and story."

Martyn Bedford

From the Independent, 13th February 2009

"I couldn't resist the thrilling and satisfying conceit Simon Mawer has woven around his fictional "Landauer house"

The book has the feeling of being the author's tribute to the history of a country, and people, to whose First Republic Hitler put paid barely after 20 years of astonishing flourishing. But it's not a history lesson. The text is convincingly studded with a mixture of German and Czech that was the lingua franca of families like the Landauers. The Jewish fates of Viktor, Kata and others are lightly handled, which seems just right in this optimistic, joyful but never facile vision of human achievement. Mawer's perfect pacing clinches a wholly enjoyable and moving read."

Lesley Chamberlain

From the TLS, 13th February 2009

"Mawer is a gifted and persuasive writer. In particular, he deftly conjures up the proportions and the atmosphere of the Landauer house itself. He has a good ear for dialogue, and the novel has some darkly comic passages...

In Mawer’s hands [the glass room] becomes a means for exploring the way people’s hopes for the future become part of their history. This he does beautifully.

The openness of the glass room is matched by the transparency of the novel’s plot. The Landauers’ lives are on display to the reader from the start, and there is little sense that any character in the novel has a secret life. Nor can there be much doubt as to how things will turn out, in a narrative whose turns are contingent on such well-known historical episodes. But if The Glass Room offers little in the way of suspense, it remains a compelling work of fiction. Indeed, it is the inevitability of events which make it compelling, as we chart the building’s journey from modernity to beautiful obsolescence."
Henry Power

From Time Out, 12th February 2009

"Mawer takes this extraordinary modernist construction and builds it a new past - and... his hunger to change the rules proves inspirational...

... [his] novel is no dry intellectual exercise. The Landauers and their friends... are cultured and rich, and their life through the 1930s is as glossy and exciting as the house it happens in. And as complexly structured: Hana, serially unfaithful, is in love with Liesel, and Viktor - well, if you want to know what Viktor is up to, read the book.

The writing, as sensual and sophisitcated as its subjects, keeps us firmly within the house's elegant parameters, caught up in the touch and taste and roiling emotions of the characters living through these events. Seeing clearly, Mawer shows us, is never an option, no matter how large and expensive your windows. Every era thinks it has achieved transparency, complete with modern fixtures and sundry decorations. But we can't ever actually see out, because our damned humanity keeps misting up the glass."

Nina Caplan

From the Sunday Times, 8th February 2009

"[The] beautifully realised setting does not overwhelm its fictional inhabitants. [Mawer] avoids excessive character analysis and lets the Landauers and their circle gradually reveal themselves by their actions, often in convincingly unexpected ways...

...As the story ends in 1990, with the house a museum, the recent history of the real house does not figure. The Tugendhats have filed for restitution under the law on artworks looted by the Nazis, which will require a legal ruling on whether a house can really be, as von Abt proclaims, a work of art. An intriguing angle missed. But still, Mawer's own work of art is a largely sound and satisfying one."

Hugo Barnacle

From the Economist, 29th January 2009

"Mr Mawer likes to write about ideas, which makes him unusual among British novelists. “The Glass Room” is a carefully constructed book, beautifully written. If there is a flaw, it is a lack of contact with the characters—the only figure portrayed with feeling is the flippant and omnisexual Hana Hanakova, who becomes the real survivor of the story. However, this narrative distance emphasises the fact that to the glass room, indifferent and ageless, people pass through “like summer mayflies with their gossamer wings and delicate tails and ephemeral lives”. The novel succeeds as a reminder of the transient nature of human existence."

top

From City A.M., 29th January 2009

"...cool, controlled and certain. So many contemporary novels are hot and grasp uncertainly for meaning. The Glass Room is a reminder of another way of writing, and in its rueful cosmopolitanism, another way of being."

Jeremy Hazlehurst

From the Sunday Business Post (Eire), 25th January 2009

"...powerful and elegiac... Mawer’s poetic and masterful prose is flawless from beginning to end. Having based ‘Der Glasraum’ on a nameless but existing building, with all its lives, desires, tragedies and triumphs, the reader is as ensnared as the various inhabitants by its unique beauty and organic tangibility."

Johnnie Craig

From the Guardian, 24th January 2009

"[The Glass Room is] a thing of extraordinary beauty and symmetry... a novel of ideas, yet strongly propelled by plot and characterised by an almost dreamlike simplicity of telling. Comparisons with the work of Michael Frayn would not be misplaced, and there are occasional moments of illuminating brilliance...

The Glass Room is not merely a piece of architecture within the book: it is the architecture of the book. All the characters interact with and within the house in some way; all plot revelations take place within its shimmering walls; history doesn't take place outside it, it comes to it... This could easily be over-ingenious or simply absurd, a device ripe for parody. Exactly how Mawer manages to avoid the many potential embarrassments and pitfalls he sets up for himself is worth considering.

...[Mawer] purges his sentences of metaphor and simile, preferring instead the devices of parallelism and symbolism. Thus, through balance, proportion and careful arrangement of both sentences and plot, he transcends mere cleverness to become profound... Such effects lend to the prose a spirit of quiet wisdom.

The Glass Room is a rare thing: popular historical fiction with integrity. When they make it into a film, which they will, they'll ruin it."

Ian Sansom

From the Lancashire Evening Post, Jan 18th 2009

"...unique and evocative... a magnificent literary structure of infinite style and memorable detail. An overriding sense of place and time pervade this tale of human frailty and the will to survive against all the odds. Here is an author at the very peak of his powers."

Pam Norfolk

From the Times, January 16th 2009

"...it comes as no surprise that love triangles litter Mawer's story. They bear witness to his great talent for grasping the non-linear nature of desire.

If there is a problem with his book, it is not that its architecture is “too cold” - as von Abt fears people might think of his building - but that the motives and meanings of his characters are sometimes too crystal clear. Modernist architecture, Freudian psychoanalysis and middle-class angst: so typical of the Mitteleuropean 20th century are the lives of the central pair Liesel and Viktor that one sometimes wonders if we are reading a history book or their proper stories. A few dark corners and dead ends, one feels, would have improved the impressive overall design."

Philip Oltermann

From the Daily Mail, January 16th 2009

"Simon Mawer's grasp of period and place achieves what all great novels must: the creation of an utterly absorbing world the reader can scarcely bear to leave. Exciting, profoundly affecting and altogether wonderful."

John Harding

top

From the Sunday Telegraph, January 11th 2009

"...Mawer creates a passionately detailed portrait of individuals struggling to snatch order and happiness from frightenng, irrational times.

... his style is less modernist angularity than deft fluency: The Glass Room achieves the rare feat of being truly enjoyable to read. Despite the brutal tarnishing of the Landauers' dream, the novel ends with scenes of hope: Liesel's miraculous return to the battered but intact Glass Room, and the reunion of long-parted friends. In the best mirror-reversal of all, its publication may even help to save the Landauer House's real twin, currently crumbling in the hands of the Brno city council."

Rachel Aspden

From the Daily Telegraph, January 10 2009

"The Glass Room is a fiction of many remarkable qualities, not the least of which is the way that its sensibility appears utterly unEnglish, as though Mawer were not giving an expert impersonation of a family of haute-bourgeois Czech Jews at the outbreak of the Second World War but had, by some alchemy, become his characters. A benign side effect of this possession is that it enables Mawer to write about sex and desire entirely without the traditional British overtone of rueful bathos, but seriously, steadily, beautifully: as though desire were a branch of aesthetics (which it is) and also of linguistics (ditto). Mawer’s control of his themes of language, desire, memory and the power of place is extraordinary – as haunting and mysterious as the effect of sunlight on the wall of golden onyx that survives all the convulsions by which his characters are engulfed."

Jane Shilling

From the Financial Times, January 2 2009

"... the novel's main character is Time itself: the old enemy, ever-present and fundamentally indifferent to our human follies.

...Narrating in a formidable third-person, Mawer proposes that Viktor would be an apt patient for "that other Moravian-German Jew, Sigmund Freud". A more challenging study for the good doctor would be Liesel's friend Hana Hanáková, a thrilling female with pansexual tendencies who holds umpteen theories on love and lust, from the aesthetic superiority of lesbianism to the linkage between a man's heart and groin.

Ostensibly frivolous, Hana proves to be the seer of a coming storm. "It's too good to last", she says of all things. The enlightened Landauers are fractionally slower to attend to the daubing of swastikas and the tread of Panzers...

... Hana [is] Mawer's real heroine, who perceives that happiness is as transitory as orgasm and that one must take one's pleasure where one can...

...The Glass Room['s] poetic success is to remind us of two great gilt-edged ironies: that whatever is held to be the height of modernity is already en route to the museum, and that even "cold" art is the embodiment of its maker's passion - one that can prove contagious."

Richard T Kelly

top

 

The Glass Room US Reviews

Boston Globe, 21st March 2010

Mawer filters the story, too rich, intense, and complex in plot to summarize, through his characters’ consciousness, through their voices and by means of a strategic use of the present tense.

Consciousness grounds the novel; it has priority over the original ideals represented in the famous house. Indeed, only one description can be said to be unrefracted by a character’s mind: “A house without people has no dimensions,’’ Mawer writes after the place has been abandoned by retreating Germans... This extraordinary book could have been a routine spelling out of modernism’s failed dream, of its refusal to acknowledge ineradicable passion and contrariness and historical contingency; or it could even have been, oh horrors, an allegory. Instead it is a fully realized novel with its own ingenious architecture and interior ambience, a novel whose irony is reverberant rather than concussive.

Katherine Powers

Seattle Times, 6th February 2010

It's no surprise that British novelist Simon Mawer's "The Glass Room" was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize last year. Covering six decades of one of the most tumultuous periods of European history, it's successful on at least three levels: as a historical novel of Europe before, during and after World War II, as a tale of erotic attraction, and as a meditation on the inspirational qualities of and limits to the power of aesthetics.

"The Glass Room" ... is an old-fashioned, beautifully constructed novel of history, passion and ideas. The Booker Prize went to Hilary Mantel's masterful "Wolf Hall," the best novel I read last year. "The Glass Room" is a worthy runner-up.

Mary Ann Gwinn

The New Yorker, 21st December 2009

In this stirring historical novel, shortlisted for the 2009 Man Booker Prize, Viktor and Liesel Landauer commission a house in Czechoslovakia that is to embody the rational spirit of nineteen-twenties Europe: the Landauer House, with the transparent Glass Room as its center. In the room, “there is nothing convolute, involute, awkward, or complex. Here everything can be understood as a matter of proportion and dimension.” But, as a new decade sees Europe dissolving into irrationality, the Glass Room begins “percolating the human beings who stand within it, rendering them as translucent as the glass itself.” Once devotees of reason and modernity, the Landauers find that there is no straight line in human emotion, and the room becomes a theatre in which the actors are ruled by passions they don’t completely understand.

Washington Post, 11th November 2009

The Glass Room works so effectively because Mawer embeds ... provocative aesthetic and moral issues in a war-torn adventure story that's eerily erotic and tremendously exciting...

[he] rotates several different casts through the Landauers' home, using the glass room to examine people entirely unlike the original owners. In one of the most chilling sections, a German geneticist sets up his laboratory in the abandoned house and hopes the light of science will confirm Hitler's racial propaganda. His work is peaceful -- lots of careful measuring and photographing, "the cool gaze of scientific objectivity" -- but that only renders the whole enterprise more obscene. And like everyone else who lives in this glass room, he finds that such bright exposure makes him more determined to conceal the darkest aspects of his life.

Mawer, an Englishman living in Italy, has written this novel as though it were a translation, endowing his prose with a patina of Old World formality that sounds all the more romantic ...his attention to foreign languages enriches every episode. These are, after all, people caught in the violent confluence of political upheaval; choosing to speak Czech or German or English becomes a matter of resistance or collusion or hope...

In chapter after chapter, era after era, the house miraculously continues, working as a talisman, "its spirit of transparency percolating the human beings who stand within it, rendering them as translucent as the glass itself." Like this gorgeous novel, that's an irresistible promise, though far more troubling than it first appears.

Ron Charles

top

 

 

 

 

The Glass Room, 2009

Read the first chapter

"...a thing of extraordinary beauty and symmetry." The Guardian

Simon Mawer 2008 - 2022. This website is written and maintained by the author.