Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 9, 2011

The Glass Room, by Simon Mawer, read by Jefferson Mays

I’ve really enjoyed listening to The Glass Room as an audio book.  I bought the book ages ago when it was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2009, but couldn’t resist borrowing it when I saw it as an audio book at the library.  The narration by Jefferson Mays is excellent and the chronological structure made it easy to follow the story.

The house which inspired this story is the Villa Tugendhat in the city of Brno in the Czech Republic.  It was designed by the German architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and built between 1928 and 1930 for Fritz and Greta Tugendhat, who had to flee Czechoslovakia in 1938 as the Nazis advanced.  They never returned.

In fictionalising the story of this house from its birth as a family home to its reincarnation after decades of neglect to become a World Heritage site and museum, Simon Mawer traces the tragic history of this part of Europe through the prism of the Jewish-Gentile marriage of  Viktor and Liesel Landauer.  They are fascinated by modernism and commission a German architect to build a house in the functionalist style, a triumph of space and light. (The photos below are all from Wikipedia Commons).   But the war clouds gathering in Europe mirror strains in their marriage, and their optimistic dreams of a modernist salon of artists and thinkers collapse as both Viktor and Liesl are unfaithful in different ways, while free Europe betrays its ideals and acquiesces to the Munich Agreement which tore Czechoslovakia apart and condemned its Jews to genocide.

This part of the story is the most engaging because the story of the Landauer family – their lovers and friends – is the most compelling.  When Viktor and Liesl disappear en route to the US –  their nanny Kata and her child deported and the destiny of Liesl’s friend Hana unresolved – the story abruptly shifts to the Soviet Occupation when the house is used for more prosaic purposes by new characters, leaving the reader in limbo.  This uncertainty mirrors the anxious postwar situation in which so many families and friends had to accept that they might never find each other again in the maelstrom of displaced persons so it is an authentic authorial choice, but it was very unsettling to read.

Consistent with Communist philosophy,the new characters disapprove of the extravagance of the original owners and the house is allowed to fall into disrepair.  This part of the story can’t help but feel a little dull after the sparkling repartee of the Landauers in their heyday.  However, as we all know, there is then the fall of Communism and the house has its rebirth, along with some rather far-fetched coincidences.  I found myself happily suspending disbelief at these because I really wanted the characters to be back, reunited safe and well, but Simon Mawer was too true to the history of the 20th century to take things too far.

As you’d expect with a Booker Prize nominee, there are heaps of reviews everywhere but my favourite is from Tom at A Common Reader.

© Lisa Hill

Author: Simon Mawer
Title: The Glass Room
Narrator: Jefferson Mays
Publisher: Clipper Audio 2010
ISBN: 9781407458083
Source: Casey-Cardinia Library


Responses

  1. I want this to win ,I liked how he turned the house into a character in the book ,also how one place seem to catch so much history ,all the best stu

    • It’s a brilliant concept, I agree. It also showed how important architecture is as an expression of our age. I love watching Kevin McCloud’s Grand Designs on TV!

  2. Ditto wrt Kevin McCloud!

    I meant to read this at the time of the Booker nomination, but never did, and get the feeling now that it has rather dropped out of the public consciousness. As your review reminds me, it hasn’t lost any of its appeal in the interim. Thanks for the reminder.

    • Just to let you know, there is another book – actually published before Simon Mawer’s – on almost the same theme (i.e. book as character, Jewish owner’s flight etc) – but written in an entirely different way. It’s called Visitation by Jenny Erpenbeck. I’m going to try and get hold of it before long.

  3. […] as soon as I saw it because I really liked The Glass Room which was nominated for the Booker.  (See my review).  What prompted me to read it now was that the sequel Tightrope has just been released and I […]


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