“The Glass Room remained indifferent, of course. Plain, balanced, perfect, and indifferent. Architecture should have no politics…the house stood beached on the shore above the tidemark like a relic of a more perfect age.”
Simon Mawer uses the Villa Tugendhat in the Czech Republic as the inspiration for The Glass Room – a silent witness to the transparent lives within and the encroaching war. This historical fiction of a wealthy Czech, who builds an architectural wonder in the 1920s – a precursor to Frank Lloyd Wright’s vision of functionality and communing with nature – revolves around a house, modern before its time for its austerity of glass, steel, and onyx walls.
The historical significance of the Villa’s design, renamed the Landauer House in the novel, as well as its role during Hitler’s invasion is true, and some of the characters are real. The most recognizable is Eva Kiesler, who did enjoy notoriety for her nude movie scenes before becoming Hedy Lamarr, Hollywood’s Austrian film star.
Newlyweds Viktor Landauer, a wealthy Jewish entrepreneur and his Christian wife, Liesel, commission a new house designed by an avant-garde architect, Rainier von Abt, on a beautiful slope of land in Czechoslovakia – not far from Liesel’s childhood home. The details of the construction create a vivid picture of the house and its surroundings; you will wish Mawer had included more than the simple sketches. The first half of the book focuses on their settling into the house, having children, entertaining, getting richer, seemingly happy – until two characters unsettle the foundations.
Viktor starts an affair with Katalin, a poor unwed mother who prostitutes herself to survive, and Liesel is drawn to the love of her unconventional but well-connected friend, Hana. The war hovers over the strain of their marriage; Katalin becomes a refugee and conveniently moves in with Viktor and Liesel as governess to their two children. As the country is about to fall, they escape to Switzerland, leaving the Glass House behind to the Germans. By now, Liesel has discovered Viktor’s blatant infidelity with Katalin, but they all remain together – for a while.
As the story continues in Part 2, the fate of the Glass Room shifts to the horrors of the war, as it becomes a German laboratory for eugenics. Hana has stayed behind and reports through letters to Liesel. The atrocities are only beginning, and the coldness of Stahl, the German doctor “researching” Jewish genes becomes the symbol of how the war has penetrated. The house survives storms, bombing, the Russian invasion – morphing into a hospital and finally, a museum. Unfortunately, Mower prolongs the ending, and after more angst, finally ties the loose ends, connecting the present to the past.
Although The Glass Room was published in 2009, when it was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize; I just discovered it – thanks to the recommendation of a good friend. With elements of romance and betrayal, the story is a compelling account of lives that endured not only the war but also each other. The historical significance of the house led me to look for pictures and commentary.
I read it straight through – hard book to put down. In the end, the house survives – now a UNESCO World Heritage Site – with the beautiful onyx wall still standing, but the lives in the story – although fictional – represent those lives that are changed irrevocably.