The Glass Room
By Simon Mawer
Published by Little, Brown, 2009
Longlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2009
General reading value: 4/5
Armchair travel value: 3/5 – especially for the comments on language.
Despite the fact that Simon Mawer has acknowledged The Glass Room is based on a real life house, he has always refused to identify which one. However, he has conceded that anyone familiar with the source of his inspiration will immediately recognise it when reading the novel and since the book was published, numerous readers have publicly exposed the house as being Villa Tugendhat, located in Brno, Czech Republic. Here some photos of the home:
The central character of The Glass Room is unsurprisingly, given the title, the glass room or “das Glasraum” – the piece de resistance in a monumental house built in a pre-WWII Czechoslavakia by a wealthy young couple, Viktor and Liesel Landauer (The real life glass room in Villa Tugendhat can be seen in the following image):
Having been gifted a sweeping plot of land by Liesel’s parents as a wedding present, the Landauers commission architect Rainer von Abt to design for them a modern, minimalist, yet grand, home. Abt, who considers himself a “poet of form” and preaches the notion that “ornament is crime” designs for them a remarkable structure consisting of a flat roof, long rectangular shape and concrete walls – except for the walls of the downstairs living space which are made entirely of glass. Much like the contemporary warehouse style, the house has few interior walls, however, the library and sitting room are separated by a partition made solely of onyx which can also be found in the real life version as seen in the following image:
For much of the beginning of the novel, the Landauers seem to live the perfect storybook life befitting their snow-globe like existence in the glass room. Attractive, rich and blessed with both a son and a daughter, they seem to be the model family. However, as the book progresses, the transparency of the glass walls belies the veiled existence the characters come to live. Viktor begins an affair with an impoverished young Hungarian named Kata and rapidly falls in love with her. Meanwhile Liesel struggles to fight her growing feelings for her best friend, a woman named Hana who, despite herself being married to a much older man, has professed her undying love for Liesel. Hana becomes an interesting character in the book for it is she who brings out the chinks or flaws in the glass-like exterior lives of all the characters who come to inhabit the Landauer house over the course of the novel.
When the Germans invade Czechoslovakia in WWII, Viktor, a Jew, uproots his young family and, along with Kata – who in a perhaps far-fetched turn of events comes to be hired by Liesel as the Landauer children’s nanny – and Kata’s daughter Marika, escapes to Switzerland and then the United States. The Landauer house then begins the second act of its life under the occupation of Nazis who use it as a Biometrics centre in which scientists strive to determine the biological markers of Jews, Slavs and Aryans or as Hauptsturmführer (Captain) Stahl puts it “what defines human and subhuman, of what makes Herrenvolk and Untermenschen”. Much of this part of the novel is concerned with a relationship that forms between Hana and, despite his best intentions, Stahl who ultimately shows his true colours in a violent and cowardly manner.
The third act of the novel sees the Landauer house briefly taken over by the Soviet army before becoming a physiotherapy centre for child polio victims. The centre is run by a doctor, Tomas, and a former ballet dancer Zdenka. Once again Hana becomes part of their lives, this time in the role of a representative from the heritage committee who liaises between the pair and a journalist interested in writing about the home. Much has happened to Hana during and after the war and these events, as well as those of the exiled Landauers, come to the surface as the book moves towards its ending.
The conclusion of the novel sees time fast forward to 1990 when the Landauer house has become a museum of sorts, its war wounds patched up in a higgledy piggledy fashion and some of its furniture returned. Arriving on the same day, two visitors who barely remember one another or even much about the house itself, both find themselves at the house – a house which despite the ravages of history, “still denies the very existence of time”.
There are a number of parallels between the fictional lives of the Landauers in The Glass Room and those of the Tugendhats, the original owners and inhabitants. Grete and Fritz Tugendhat commissioned architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe to build them “a modern, spacious house with clear and simple shapes” on a plot of land gifted to the couple by Grete’s father. Mies who did indeed live by the motto “less is more” built them a three storey villa which, as in the novel, had a flat roof, a glass room and in the interior, a large onyx wall. The Tugendhats lived there with their two children and Grete’s daughter from her first marriage from 1930 until 1938 when due to the outbreak of WWII, the family fled Czechoslavakia for Switzerland and eventually settled in Venezuela.
The house was then taken over by the Gestapo in 1939 and then by a Soviet calvary regiment in 1945 who used some of the house’s grand rooms to stable their horses and caused much destruction to the place. From 1945 to 1950, it was used as a private dancing school before becoming property of the Czechoslovakian state and turned nto a rehabilitation centre for children with spinal defects.
There were some aborted attempts at renovating the home during the 1960s but little was achieved until the property was turned over to the city of Brno. Renovations eventually occurred between 1981 and 1985 and the house became a public museum in 1994 and UNESCO World Heritage listed in 2001. It featured in the film Hannibal Rising in 2007. The home is currently closed to the public while it undergoes further renovations and restorations. For more information and to see further pictures of this home that so inspired The Glass Room see: http://www.tugendhat.eu/en/
The Literary Nomad xx
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Delay your stay…
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Non-fiction: The Spirit of Prague (Ivan Klima), To the Castle and Back (Vaclav Havel), In Memory’s Kitchen: A Legacy from the Women of Terezin (Cara de Silva), Mendelssohn s on the Roof (Jiri Weil), The Aluminium Queen (Petra Prochazkova).