The globally renowned architect Philip Johnson built a home for himself in 1949 in New Canaan, Connecticut, that became known as the Glass House. The home is recognized as a masterpiece, perhaps the architect’s finest work. Simon Mawer’s superbly suspenseful novel, The Glass Room, revolves around a similar house built by an Austrian architect in a Czechoslovakian town twenty years earlier. (However, the author claims that his inspiration was a villa designed by Mies van der Rohe and built round the same time in Czechoslovakia.) The title refers to the glass-walled combined living and dining room that was the home’s most visible element. In the novel’s conceit, the building becomes known as the Landauer House, after the family for which it was built. Their story, and the action that takes place in the house, are the central preoccupations of the novel, told over the span of more than sixty years.
The Glass Room by Simon Mawer (2009) 417 pages @@@@@ (5 out of 5)
Czechoslovakia from 1928 to 1990
Viktor Landauer is the wealthy and highly regarded owner and chief executive of Czechoslovakia’s principal automobile manufacturing company. Culturally Jewish but not observant, his wife, Liesl, is a beautiful and artistically sensitive young woman who is gentile. Shortly after moving into their new home in 1929, she gives birth in quick succession to two children, a girl named Ottilie and a boy named Martin. The cast of principal characters also includes Liesl’s best friend, Hana Hanakova; Viktor’s sometime mistress, Katalin Kalman, and her daughter Marika; the house’s caretaker, Josef Lanik; and Captain Stahl, the Nazi “scientist” who commandeers the house after the family has fled to Switzerland. Others crop up later in the story in significant but short-lived roles. Mawer paints each of these characters with a fine brush and a sophisticated understanding of human motivation. Each is unique and difficult to forget.
These characters and, in some cases, their children and grandchildren, interact in succession over a span of six decades. During that time Czechoslovakia morphs from an artificial national entity carved out of Central Europe by the victorious Allies in World War I, to a Nazi colony, to Soviet occupation and oppression, to independence once the Berlin Wall falls, and finally into the rump independent state known today as the Czech Republic.
Life in Nazi Europe
Mawer’s historical novel is centered around the experiences of the Landauer family, their servants, and friends from 1938, when the Nazis seized power in Prague, through the end of World War II in 1945. Events that occur before the Nazi invasion are prologue; what comes after is an epilogue. The same might be said about the history of Europe in general during that time period.
Several of the characters in Mawer’s novel are Jewish: Viktor Landauer, Hana Hanakova’s husband, Katalin and Marika Kalman. Their disparate experiences dramatize the length to which Hitler’s minions went to rid Europe of a people who had inhabited the continent for two thousand years.
About the author
Simon Mawer worked as a biology teacher for most of his life. British, he now lives in Italy. He published his first novel in 1989 and has written ten others since then.
For further reading
My posts 5 top nonfiction books about World War II (plus many runners-up) and The 10 best novels about World War II (plus 19 runners-up) may interest you.
If you enjoy reading history in fictional form, check out 20 most enlightening historical novels (plus dozens of runners-up). And if you’re looking for exciting historical novels, check out Top 10 historical mysteries and thrillers reviewed here (plus 100 others).
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