Thursday, 17 September 2009

The Glass Room


When the Man Booker longlist of 2009 was announced I didn't know anything at all about The Glass Room by Simon Mawer and it didn't appeal. In fact, I was deterred because the book's cover reminded me of one of my University textbooks. The Booker enabled me to read a book that I would not have read otherwise and I have been rewarded. The Glass Room is an exceptional novel and I am now championing it to win this year's prize; it is definitely in contention for my book of the year although that doesn't come with a cheque for £50,000 and international acclaim.

All of the six Booker shortlisted novels are set in the past. The Glass Room is set in the Modernist period and encompasses the lead up to WWII and its aftermath and its affect on one house, one family, and the people they love.

The Glass Room, the subject and character, is a room of glass (clever things are done with the Czech and German translations where it also means the room of tranquility), the feature room in a modernist home. Architect Rainer von Abt creates a dream-home for a newly married couple, Viktor and Liesel Landauer; the Landauer House becomes an architectural sensation, a piece of art in its own right. The novel follows the Landauer House and its exquisite glass room, an open space of light and balance, through the history of an unsettled Eastern Europe and its time as a family home; a Nazi laboratory; a shelter from war; a physiotherapy gymnasium; and a museum from private ownership into Nazi hands to Soviet ones to those of the Czechoslovak state. The passing of ownership illegally is one of the novel's central themes - who owns art? Is it the property of the artist, the commissioner, or the public, and can a building legally be considered a work of art? A curious question in light of the author's note, where Mawer states that although The Glass Room is a work of fiction, its house and setting are not (apparently the Landauer House is modelled on the Villa Tugendhat in Brno, in today's Czech Republic. It would seem from the brief entry I have linked to that Viktor and Liesel Landauer are also loosely modelled on the couple who had the house designed and built).

The writing in The Glass House is exceptional and the story deeply compelling; where you are shown the dramatic and breathtaking quality of the glass room so too do you experience a narrative that parallels it. The house is imbued with a past full of love and lust and witnesses the best and worst of Eastern European history and stands as testimony to endurance. The personal stories are engrossing but it is the story of the house that is awe-inspiring. If I can draw a crude comparison: Sarah Waters' personified Hundreds Hall, home to the Ayres family, in the Booker shortlisted The Little Stranger pales in comparison to the wonder that is the Landauer House.

Beautifully written and rendered, The Glass House sustains a leitmotif throughout of light, balance and space. I found it engrossing from the opening pages and was immersed in the lives of Viktor and Liesel, a Jew and a Gentile, and most of all of Liesel's close friend, Hana, who is a remarkabe character. I was wowed by this novel, its content and style, and thoroughly rewarded.

Some favourite passages (I didn't take note of many as I almost loved them all):

The house grew, the baby grew. The latter was a strange and rapid metamorphosis, punctuated by events of moment: the grasp of her hands, the focus of her eyes, her first smile, her recognition of Liesel and Viktor, the first time she raised herself on her hands, the first laugh. The growth of the house was more measured: the laying of steel beams, the pouring of concrete, the encapsulating of space. And ten delay, problems with materials and the workforce, argument and frustration stretching over the summer and the autumn before things were resolved.

How do you dismember a body? There are two fundamentally different approaches – that of the surgeon and that of the mad axeman. The one is cool and calculating and progressive, with the application of bone-saw, scalpel and shears. The other is a frenzy of hacking and tearing, with blood everywhere and the taste of iron in the mouth. But whichever way you do it the result is the same – dismemberment.

29 comments:

Rachel said...

I like the sound of this! Love the house, too. Architecture is something I have a horrendously uninformed interest in and I would love to visit that house.

Am I sensing an undercurrent of Sarah Waters dislike here??!! I've only read Fingersmith and it was good but I wouldn't call myself a fan.

Paperback Reader said...

Rachel, I have an interest in architecture too, in modernity, and in interiors. I definitely want to visit Brno to see the house; coincidentally a friend is just back from a three month placement there but I don't know if he visited but very interested in finding out.

I LOVE Sarah Waters but I harbour conflicted feelings about The Little Stranger; I found it her weakest novel yet and stunned that it made it to the Booker shortlist.

verity said...

How intriguing; I really like the sound of this one. Particularly as you are now championing it to win.

Paperback Reader said...

Verity, I passionately recommend it; it was immense.

Rachel said...

re: Sarah Waters - interesting! I really liked Fingersmith but I only read it for my degree course and wouldn't have read it otherwise. I can take her or leave her - I've never felt a burning desire to read the rest of her novels.

Personally I think a lot of these awards turn into a popularity contest rather than a competition of artistic merit. It's always the same players who make the cut every year and frankly it does get boring. They put a few token outsiders in the shortlist to make it look like they embrace everyone but we all know the truth!!

Paperback Reader said...

Rachel, Fingersmith is by far her best but if you've read it and feel no pull to her other books then sounds as if she's not for me.

I completely agree about the favouritism. The cynic in me was half-expecting all of the big names to appear on the shortlist but I was still disillusioned in how predictable it was.

Vivienne said...

I agree with you about the cover. I find it quite off putting. This book has definitely slipped through my radar.

Paperback Reader said...

Hi Vivienne, thanks for commenting. This is definitely a book that should not be judged by its cover; some will love it for the Roger de La Fresnaye painting "The Architect" but it doesn't do the book justice.

JoAnn said...

Oh, I like the sound of this one! Didn't know a thing about it until reading your review - thank you!

Paperback Reader said...

Happy I could share, JoAnn! I don't think it's available in the US yet but definitely try to get a hold of it once it is. I think you would love it.

Rebecca Reid said...

I LOVE those quotes you shared.

I heard about this book on Farm Lane Books' blog and you've convinced me I need to read it sooner, not later. Sounds great!

Thomas said...

But I am trying not to buy books right now...

farmlanebooks said...

I am so pleased that you loved this book and are sharing my wish it wins.

I loved it and hope that many more people will try to read it, as I am sure they will love it.

Jenny said...

Dude, I am sad. There are all these books I want to read that are not yet available in the US, and I am completely broke and cannot buy them from the wonderful amazing Book Depository. Oh to be in England now that the Booker Prize is here.

Paperback Reader said...

Hi Rebecca, I hope you enjoy it when you do read it. There were so many great quotes that I could have used but love the ones I posted.

Thomas, I'm trying not to buy books just now too. Luckily my library had a copy although now I wish I owned a copy. I don't think it has been published outwith the UK yet.

Jackie, I think we are playing our part in ensuring that others reading this book. I am so happy that I came across this in reading the Bookers.

Jenny, don't be sad! I know how it feels to be poor when wanting to buy lots of lovely books :(. Hopefully by the time this is available in the US you can buy it. The Book Depository is fantastic! Especially with a good exchange rate...

Bianca Winter said...

Your review of The Glass Room is lovely, and captures some of the inarticulable reverence I felt whilst reading it - as though I were witnessing something pure, exclusive and beautiful.
My money is on this to win, if only because it makes my heart burst with longing and demonstrates that the epic resides in each of us; in each story of the heart.

savidgereads said...

Wonderful review of a wonderful book. If it wasn't for Wolf hall I would be championing this one it has to be said.

You have also reminded me I havent popped a review up of this one on my blog yet so a double thanks.

Paperback Reader said...

Bianca, thank you for a beautiful comment. I thoroughly agree. I feel that the book is in every way as breathtaking as the architectural masterpiece it is describing.

Do you literally have money on it to win? It has outsider's odds at 10-1 so it would make for an additional bonus to a very well-deserved win.

Simon, thank you. I've been looking out for your thoughts on this and How to Paint a Dead Man.

It definitely looks as if WH won't be available from the library in time not that I am complaining too much... ;)

Bianca Winter said...

Thanks for the prompt - it was my intention to have a flutter, but I hadn't actually put my money where my mouth is! I now have £15 on Mawer at 8/1... and I hope I haven't cursed it by betting!

Paperback Reader said...

Ah, the odds have shortened... good sign? Good luck!

Steph said...

I don't think I will be as ambitious as some and read the entire longlist or even the entire shortlist, but this is definitely one of the books I've seen highlighted that I would like to read very much. Alas, this one doesn't even have a U.S. release date at the moment, so I don't even know when I might get to try it! I try to only buy my books used so as to keep down on costs, though I always love to check out the Persephone website, and of course, the Book Depository. It looks like it might be coming out in Canada in March, so maybe if it isn't out in the U.S. by then as well, I can ask my parents to buy it and send it to me as a belated birthday gift...

Paperback Reader said...

That would make a great belated birthday gift, Steph! I hope you manage to obtain a copy; there's always the book depository.

anothercookiecrumbles said...

This is on my TBR at the moment, and I didn't really read your review - will do once I finish the book, which I can't wait to start, after hearing some really fantastic things about it.

I did finish Summertime though :)

Teresa said...

I'm reading the Waters now, but this may be my next read from the Booker shortlist. (I'm wavering between this and Wolf Hall.) Even if I don't read it by the time the winner is announced, I will read it eventually. It sounds terrific--but I've been impressed with all the contenders this year (with the caveat that joke in Me Cheeta wore thin).

Paperback Reader said...

anothercookie, I'm looking forward to reading your thoughts on Summertime and hope you enjoy my review once you've read The Glass Room.

Teresa, there was a great selection this year and reading them has opened me up to some wonderful books; it's been a great experience. This was is terrific.

Mae said...

Out of all the Booker prize shortlisted, I am most intrigued by this book not to mention the cover is most awesome.

Paperback Reader said...

Mae, out of all the Booker shortlist this is the one I would highly recommend that people read.

Danielle said...

I sort of like the cover of this one, but I can see if it had been the cover of a school textbook the associatons might not be so favorable! I recently bought an earlier title by Mawer not even realizing that he was a Booker award nominee (as someone else mentioned this isn't due out in the US for a while, so it's one I figured I wouldn't read anytime soon and put from my mind). I'll try and read the earlier novel first, but I'm certainly adding this to my wishlist--I can at least watch for the UK paperback of it--it does sound very good. He seems to like writing about this period as the book I have is also set during WWII.

Paperback Reader said...

Danielle, it is a wonderful period to read about. I'm interested in his earlier work, some of which has been very well received. You could always purchase the paperback next year from The Book Depository. It's a great book so deserving of that place on your wishlist.