September 19, 2009

Simon Mawer: The Glass Room

Posted in Mawer Simon at 8:00 am by John Self

Simon Mawer’s The Glass Room seems to be a popular favourite among those reading the Booker Prize shortlist. Its shortlisting was the tipping point I needed to make me read it after KevinfromCanada offered it early praise, which had lodged it in my mind as one to watch … or read … eventually. However it may have been the high expectations thereby established which made it something of a disappointment for me.

Simon Mawer: The Glass Room

The Glass Room has been described as a book where the central character is a building, the Landauer House in Mesto in the Czech Republic (based on the real Villa Tugendhat in Brno, designed by Mies van der Rohe). It is commissioned by Viktor and Liesel Landauer, a motor magnate and his wife, when they meet architect Rainer von Abt while on honeymoon in Venice. Or, as von Abt prefers to style himself, “a poet of space and structure.” The Landauers, in love with the future, agree to let him build their new home, but von Abt wishes to work not in stone and concrete but in glass and steel.

‘Ever since Man came out of the cave he has been building caves around him,’ he cried. ‘Building caves! But I wish to take Man out of the cave and float him in the air. I wish to give him a glass space to inhabit.’

This glass space (der Glasraum) turns out to be the extraordinary open plan lower level which he designs for this modernist masterpiece. “The impact of the place overwhelms visitors, especially those who are used to riches being expressed in things, possessions, the ornamental bric-a-brac of the wealthy, and instead discover here the ultimate opulence of pure abstraction.” It is an extraordinary creation, but it is beautiful only while the Landauers are happy in it, living full lives and surrounded by family, workers and friends. The most significant friend is Hana, introduced to us in a miraculous four-page scene where her relationship with Liesel Landauer is established: and if the book has a central human character it is her.

Hana’s introduction coincides with discoveries of divisions between the Landauers. They sleep in separate rooms; Hana is disliked by Viktor but loved as a sister by Liesel; while Viktor, a man of energy and appetite, begins to find one kind of satisfaction elsewhere. It is Hana, too, who nods to the reader by reminding Liesel that “it’s too good to last. … The good times. All this. The world we live in.” Sure enough, the 1930s are passing, the Nazis are on their way, and their new laws elsewhere in Europe mean that “Viktor has come to feel his Jewishness.”

When they leave the house, not only does it lose its life (“A house without people has no dimensions. It just is. An enclosed space, a box”) but also its purpose in the book. The Landauers occupy their house for the first half of the book – about 200 pages – and we know them intimately. After this, the house passes through various uses – a laboratory for Nazi racial profiling tests, a therapy space for disabled children – but the characters come and go, are never well established, and all the time I was thinking, “But what about the Landauers?” Fortunately we do return to them regularly, and Hana continues to play a central role, but her relationship with Stahl in Part 2 ends in melodrama which seems out of place. Thereafter the pace steps up too quickly and the book never regains the poise of its first half.

The Glass Room, with its wide time frame, cast of characters, and historical overview, is an ambitious work, but it seems to show above all that books like this are hard to do well. It also seems keen at times to hit the reader over the head, as when highlighting the futility of racial profiling. When Stahl tells Hana that the tests are “very straightforward”, she responds (in the last line of a chapter), “But human beings are not straightforward. They are very complex.” The point is reiterated, in ironic terms, 70 pages later. There are also a couple of coincidences or neatnesses which strain the reader’s credulity.

Mawer has written a workmanlike piece of literary fiction (it even says Literary Fiction above the barcode on the back), but in a Booker shortlist that contains a novel as arresting and original as Coetzee’s Summertime, this doesn’t seem to be quite enough. It is a well done example of its type, and contains plenty to chew on from 20th century politics to the eternal mysteries of the human heart – but it never set my pulse racing, except once, with a risky homage to another writer (“Behind the glass wall snow is falling. It is falling over the whole city, out of a sky as heavy and sombre as a funeral shroud. It is falling on the soldiers in the Sudetenland, and the soldiers in the Czech lands as they try to consolidate the hurriedly improvised border. It is falling on the triumphant and the dispossessed, on those that have and those that have not…”).

While they are exiled from their home, Liesel Landauer occasionally wonders when they can go back. “But you can’t go back, can you?” someone else tells her. “You can only go forward.” I must admit that for the last hundred pages or so, the only thing keeping me going forward through The Glass Room was momentum. It is a book of many aspects, some done well, but as an account of Jewish suffering in Europe under the Nazis, it seemed particularly weak. This might have been because whereas other such books I’ve read were based on experience, Mawer is clear that his work is the result of thorough research. It may have been this that gave the book for me a certain soullessness, as though the cold glass and steel of the Landauer house was what the story was constructed out of too.

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25 Comments »

  1. Rob said,

    Interesting to hear a different perspective on The Glass Room, John. I must admit I’ve still not read it, despite having picked it up back in January.

    Funnily enough, this more balanced review tempts me, but I seem to find that a lot – negative or balanced reviews on TFD also seem to inspire more dialogue (in comments and offline, out in “the world”), and people wanting to read the book for themselves.

  2. jem said,

    I’m almost finished reading this one at the moment as so far it’s coming out as one of my favourite Booker reads from this year (although I’ve still got the Coetzee to come!). But I can see your point about the second half being less strong than the first. For me the emphasis on the building is it’s strongest point. But perhaps that could have been taken even further, perhaps telling the story from the perspective of the building itself – has that ever been done in fiction before? I’m sure if anyone knows its you!

  3. Mary said,

    An interesting review which reinforces my decision not to try and read this one. I was amazed when I saw that this book had reached the Booker shortlist because my earlier reading of Mawer’s novel `The Fall’ had led me to conclude that he was an averagely talented writer of slightly up market potboilers.Of course writers can change and develop and get better ( or worse) but in this case it seems to be more of the same – though the setting and theme are completely different to `The Fall’.
    Oh dear, I do feel all my postings on this site so far have been so negative….. apart from `A Town Like Alice’ ( and there’s an averagely talented potboiler…). I’ve nearly finished `The Children’s Room’ and I’m not inclined to rave over that either. Perhaps at some point you could review Norman Rush or `Saul and Patsy’? Then I can enthuse!

  4. Sam said,

    I read the first twenty pages or so in a bookshop and decided to get the Trevor instead. Said Trevor turned out to be lovely and sad and bittersweet in all the usual Trevory ways.

  5. Annabel said,

    I’m torn now! As everyone else has gushed about it, it was top of my list to get – now I may wait for the paperback and buy the Coetzee or Trevor instead as a hdbk treat.

  6. Annabel: If you are going for a hardback treat, buy this one — for the cover, if not for the content. It is one of the best designed books you could ask for, although I gather the new printing has ruined it with a promotional quote. And, yes, the Coetzee or Trevor might be better reading.

    I liked and continue to like this book a lot, but I will not disagree with a word in John’s review. Frankly, I’m a little surprised (since I did read and review it early) at the positive attention that it has received. One of the things that I liked best was the way that Mawer, like the Modernist architects, stripped out details and information as the book went on. That is quite unconventional — and frustrating for some, but then so is most Modernist architecture.

    I disagree, John, on only one point. I think Mawer in his own way takes this book in a direction that is every bit as original as Summertime. It is a book about a building, a home, and what passes by that building — I certainly agree that the story of Jews in the Czech Republic is better told elsewhere, but I don’t think that is the strength of the book. I’ll go back to comparing it to The Bridge on the Drina as the best example of how a structure comes to serve as a “notebook” of history.

  7. Trevor said,

    Despite all of my statements saying “I’m going to get into the Booker this year!” I still haven’t done much. Your review makes me think I can forgo this one for now, though I hope to read it someday. The Giller longlist is coming out on Monday, and that will push the Booker down further on my priorities.

  8. John Self said,

    Well I have no desire to put anyone off reading The Glass Room since, as I suggested above, I think it could have a wide appeal: just not for me. But I must admit I can’t see any modernism in the book, other than the building: Mawer’s style, approach and characterisation are conventional, though when I used the word workmanlike above I meant ‘well done’ rather than ‘pedestrian’.

    I broadly agree with Mary’s (rather scathing!) assessment of Mawer as an “averagely talented writer of slightly up market potboilers” – though The Glass Room is not a potboiler, so perhaps surpasses The Fall in that sense. I read one report in the press which portrayed Mawer as a toiler who has finally got due attention; my view is more that he got lucky this time.

    Kevin, I did buy The Bridge on the Drina on your recommendation previously, so I look forward to seeing how the comparison goes. And as to books about a building and what passes through it, I’d have to mention Glenn Patterson’s Number 5, though he relies as much as Mawer does on grand coincidences (though the smaller scale of Patterson’s book makes them a bit more palatable). Jem, that might answer your question about a book from the point of view of a building, as I can’t think of one that matches your description precisely. (And I’m reminded of Olivier Rolin’s fun Hotel Crystal, in which each chapter describes a hotel room.)

    As to the Booker shortlist, I’ve reread Adam Foulds’ The Quickening Maze and am currently at an early stage in Wolf Hall. Whether or not I finish it probably depends on my pace in the first few days of reading. And Sam, I have read the William Trevor and hope to post about it in the next week or so. All I’ll say at this stage is I think you made the right choice.

    Mary, you’ll have to stick around for the time being and hope for better things, as I don’t have any Charles Baxter or Norman Rush and am trying to get through the books I already have…

  9. Mary said,

    Thanks John I will `stick around’ as I find your blogs and the discussions on this site so stimulating ( life in rural Brittany is stimulating for other reasons but I don’t get many opportunities to discuss books…). I’ve just finished `The Children’s Book’ and felt rather underwhelmed and I might try something else before tackling – Wolf Hall’. I ‘ve always found Hilary Mantel quite a difficult writer to enjoy so it will be interesting.I’ve looked back over your blog ( wet autumnal afternoons offer such possibilities here) and there are indeed lots of books you have reviewed in the past which I love…..`The Assistant’ and – I’ll Go to Bed at Noon’ for example. As there are no `three for one’ offers here ( in French or English!) I can’t buy books on a whim so the opinions expressed on this site are informing future purchases. Thanks again!

  10. Good to read your thoughts on this one. Like Kevin I find myself agreeing with you on just about everything and yet still feeling incredibly positive about the book. I think it has something to do with appreciating what the author was trying to do and going along with that. That was why I titled my review “I’ll always forgive your mistakes”, a line Hana says to Liesel that shows her love for her.

    I’m going to have to read Summertime aren’t I?

  11. Rob from The Fiction Desk pointed me to the review as I just reviewed Madame de by Louise de Vilmorin, and Rob found some similarities between the two books for their presention of a history of things. I am always a bit reluctant to read these sorts of books as I find myself getting annoyed when characters are dropped and new ones introduced while the central object is followed through the story.

    In Madame de the objects central to the story are a pair of earrings and while they drift abroad and other characters are then introduced, the earrings and their history never subsumes the character of Madame de.

    Madame de was marvellous–a little gem of a novella, but I’ll be honest and say that The Glass Room doesn’t appeal to me.

  12. Kerry said,

    Good review, John. I always enjoy getting different perspectives and this book certainly provides that. I think I will ultimately buy and read this book because, as Kevin points out, it has a great cover. In addition, it seems quite interesting and I would like to compare it to the other shortlisters that I will read (Trevor, Coetzee and that might be it). I am looking forward to your take on Wolf Hall, but nothing I have read about it entices me to tackle it.

  13. Lee Monks said,

    I thought it was a rather well-written book. Well, until page 50 or whatever when I got out of the Waterstones leather two-seater and decided against forking out. Slid it back onto the shelf with nary a second glance. Did very little for me. Wonderful cover etc. Coetzee should walk it from what I’ve had a look at and Foulds should get silver for having the temerity to successfully try something interesting but that’s not how it works. Mantel all the way I’m afraid.

  14. John Self said,

    I agree Lee – I’ll be reviewing the Foulds (properly this time) this week, and am currently reading the Mantel (I can come out and say that, now that I’m two-thirds through and pretty sure I will finish it): Kerry, you shall have my take on it in due course (lucky you). I do have the Sarah Waters and am in two minds whether I should read it before the winner is announced.

  15. Interesting review as ever, I’m still planning to check this one out once it hits paperback, I have mixed views on how I’ll find it but it at least sounds interesting and as if Mawer is trying to do something interesting.

    I’ve picked up The Bridge on the Drina by the way, I’d forgotten where I’d heard it recommended, nice to be reminded.

    Guy, Madame de sounds fascinating, I’ll have to look into that too. I’d missed your review, which I’ll now rectify.

  16. John Self said,

    Well I’ll be interested to see what you make of it, Max. I must admit I was relieved to see another blogger, Lizzy Siddal, give it a similarly ‘meh’ response – this assured me that I was not going mad. (Or that if I am, she is too.)

    Mary, your recent mention of Norman Rush came to mind when I saw this list of what are supposedly the best fiction published since 2000. (Also nice to see George Saunders there, and a couple of titles I haven’t heard of – American Genius, A Comedy by Lynne Tillman, and Varieties of Disturbance by Lydia Davis – presumably the Lydia Davis better known, to me anyway, as a translator.)

    • Mary said,

      Thanks John for the list – gosh I love lists even though it will add to the already vertiginous pile of TBR’s. Good to see Norman Rush making it – I can feel a groundswell of Rushophilitis – well there’s two of us at any rate – nudging you towards one of his novels. (I’ve yet to read Mortals because I’m saving it up but Mating is simply wonderful….) Of course I don’t like all the novels on that list but I’m trying to be more mellow these days so I’ll just say very tolerantly that Roberto Bolano isn’t a writer I’m particularly attracted to. Someone rooting around in the Red Cross shop in Chepstow was no doubt pleased to find a half read copy of `The Savage Detectives…’

      • John Self said,

        Bolaño’s appeal has eluded me too so far, Mary. I tried and failed to get through the very slim By Night in Chile, and recently completed Amulet, but didn’t feel I could write anything particularly illuminating about it. Both books struck me as requiring a fair deal of knowledge about South American politics and/or literature to get anything significant out of them; which I don’t have. I do however have a copy of Nazi Literature in the Americas, which is the next book of his to be published in the UK, and which I’ve heard is his best, so I will try him a third time before giving up.

        I see that Norman Rush is out of print in the UK, and that his books are rather long. Nonetheless I have boldly ordered a second-hand copy of Mating. Thanks for the recommendation, Mary and Lee. Expect a review in or around the year 2525.

  17. One of my first blogging experiences was posting a glowing writeup of Hari Kunzru’s My Revolutions, coming over here and finding only one other person commenting liked it. Sometimes folk differ on books, which is no bad thing really. Perhaps I’ll be another meh, perhaps not.

    That said, Guy’s convinced me on Madame de, so that’ll be ahead of this for a bit.

  18. Lee Monks said,

    John, Varieties Of Disturbance is hit-and-miss, but when it hits it’s magnificent. Norman Rush’s Mating is, in my opinion, a masterpiece.

  19. [...] who pulls the reader through 500 pages a lot more smoothly than Hilary Mantel does (or than Simon Mawer does through [...]

  20. girlinczechland said,

    I’m very glad to find a review that offers an alternative perspective on this book as I have been somewhat puzzled by all the praise that has been heaped upon it. For me, it never really manages to get over the fact that thanks to the fact Victor is Jewish and living in the 1930′s, you pretty much know what’s going to happen to the family. I also agree that the whole book is rather cold and that save Hana, the characters aren’t all that convincing.

    Doesn’t anyone else think the whole Victor and Kata sub-plot had a slightly TV movie feel? When she turned up in the Glass Room as a refugee I wanted to groan. And some of the much praised language also made me wince – ‘a swastika as black as death’? Pleeeease….

  21. Wendy said,

    Thanks for a really well-written and thoughtful review of this book … although I had a completely different reaction to the novel! I actually thought Mawer’s writing to be brilliant…and less about the room, but more about the people who inhabit it. This is actually one of my favorite reads so far this year!

  22. [...] The Glass Room, by Simon Mawer, “a novelist who has an inquisitive, and quite un-English, interest in history and science” [...]

  23. Jane said,

    I loved the book and plan to visit the house the first week in August when I will be visiting Brno- the house is one of the reasons I will visit Brno.


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