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Phoebus

The Glass Room

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During a 100m sprint, the sprinter accelerates for a few seconds and then gradually slows to the finish line. In this sense, the winner is invariably the one that slows down the slowest.

 

The first half of The Glass Room is a joy to read. Exciting dialogue between the characters that tempts you to reread pages on the spot to savour the language. Rich and dense texts mixing philosophy with polical thought.

 

The novel centres on an architectural masterpiece built in Czechoslovakia, as a dwelling for a rich family, the husband being a Jew. The chef d’oeuvre is the living room with glass walls. It is set at the outset before WW II and ends in 1990. It spans a revolutionary period of history where the only aspects that seem stable are the foundations of the house itself.

 

But, in my humble opinion, the novel fails to keep pace. Its initial sprint is outstanding but it slows down faster than other rivals, also in the Booker shortlist. From such an elevated beginning it has a harder fall before it. It fails to follow interesting characters and their stories throughout the narrative. The Glass Room is the focal point and the common denominator of the characters but you are left reading the final page wondering whether the author pulled it off throughout the length of the book.

 

It is nevertheless worth the read and I highly recommend it. Whether it is in the lead, I’m no longer quite sure.

 

An excellent read, nevertheless. I'm just a hard marker. Four out of Five.

 

 

Phoebus

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Thanks for your interesting comments, Phoebus. I have just started this novel. I note that a couple of people on the Booker forum agree with you that it didn't quite live up to its promise. Then again, a few others there are real fans of it.

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Here's my overlong review in two parts.

 

 

Simon Mawer's The Glass Room, shortlisted for 2009's Man Booker Prize, is his eighth novel. He was previously longlisted for The Booker with Mendel's Dwarf, and won the Boardman Tasker Prize with The Fall.

 

The Glass Room is centred around a distinctive building - post-Bauhaus, pre-1950s brutalism - in a small town in Czechoslovakia. The house is designed along clean, minimalistic lines in the 1930s, before the advent of the second world war. The novel's title comes from the open-plan living area of the building which is walled by transparent glass panes, giving an outlook over the hill and the distant castle and town. A glorious sheer onyx wall acts as a partition.

 

Rather than follow the traditional structure of a conventional novel in following a group of people temporally as they move from place to place, the focus of this novel is the glass room itself and the many occupants that come to inhabit it during the twentieth century. This is not as random a structure as that might suggest since the original owners, the Landauers, appear again at the end of the novel in a circular way, and links - sometimes concrete, sometimes tenuous - exist between some of the occupants and visitors over the years.

 

The building is based on a real-life structure, although the source of Mawer's inspiration for the building is never disclosed specifically. In the novel, the unique house is built by a brilliant architect called Rainer Von Abt for the newly married Czech couple Viktor and Liesel Landauer, on a hill on land given by Liesel's parents to them as a wedding gift. The land is adjacent to Liesel's childhood home in the small (fictional) Czech town of Mesto.

 

Von Abt is a gifted and forward-thinking architect, and much influenced by the burgeoning schools of unfussy, stark art and architecture of the time - Mondrian and the other de Stijl painters; Le Corbusier and other architects casting off the baroque and embellished designs of the nineteenth century; Malevich and the other Russians artists looking to the future.

 

The richness of art is ever present in the novel, through political upheavals and war. This is a strikingly visual story with beautiful art decorating the pages, providing a contrast to the ugliness and death of war. From the Klimt portrait of Liesel's mother, shimmering with that artist's characteristic golds and intricate, romantic detail, through the sensuously curved belly of the Maillol sculpture of a torso in the Landauer's living room which reminds Viktor of his mistress Kata, to the sublimely sad strains of musical compositions by Janacek or Ravel, art, visual or composed, is a constant presence in the story. The Nazis of course deemed much of the art of the day as Degenerate, and destroyed it as they destroyed so much else. At one point before WW2, Viktor watches Kata wash his shirt in her tiny attic room and likens the picture of a woman at the basin to a Bonnard painting, all soft light, curved female form and blurred lines. These images imprinted themselves in my mind as I read, bringing the scenarios to life and consigning them to memory.

 

I misjudged the novel from the first chapters. The early scenes between Von Abt and the Landauers don't do justice to the power of what is to come. I was put off by the slightly Mills and Boon way in which the reader is made aware of the attraction between Von Abt and Liesel - his glance lingering on her too long, her wondering, slightly flustered, why she should care that he was seeing her wearing her unbecoming spectacles. I feared, wrongly, that it was a portent for a corset-buster rather than a serious novel. I also worried Mawer might be either repetitive (there are three analogies with milk within a few pages in the opening Return section) or hackneyed (the aforementioned sexual attraction in the first chapter, as well as stalwarts such as steepling of fingertips - surely a cliche by now in literary fiction). But I was too quick to judge: the slightly heavy-handed chemistry between Von Abt and Liesel was not the prelude to a tacky affair as I feared, and the somewhat ornate, formal language which had seemed excessively ponderous to me ('the next day was one of beaten silver, like the plate you could buy in the shops near the Rialto bridge - the shimmering silver of the water turning this way and that to catch the light and fracture in a thousand different directions') became compelling and an integral part of the style as the story developed. Perhaps for me the formal prose style required drama to become more than mere decoration, and drama soon arrived.

 

The Landauers settle into life in their new house. They lead the life of the liberal bourgeousie - they hold recitals, have parties, and their social life involves interaction with many of the accomplished and famous of the day - writers, musicians and artists. Liesel's vivacious, predatory friend Hana - a sort of 1930's version of Samantha from Sex and The City - is a frequent visitor. A Landauer daughter, Ottilie, arrives, followed by a son, Martin. At the same time, Viktor meets a young woman when in Vienna on business, and is soon seeing his new mistress, Kata, sporadically. But more important ructions to the Landauers' life are on their way. The rise of the Nazis in Germany, and their subsequent invasion of neighbouring countries brings panic to persecuted Jews in these countries. Kata disappears, only to appear again through an improbable coincidence. Eventually, the Landauers have to move from their beloved home because Viktor is a Jew, and, together with their family and nanny, they flee first to Switzerland and then beyond.

 

The beautiful house is maintained by the malevolent chauffeur-come-caretaker Lanik and his sister, but once the Nazis have succeeded in occupying Czechoslovakia, the house is taken over by scientists for sinister purposes.

 

Mawer's research is impeccable, and he depicts the delusions and contradictions of the Nazis with flair - the fact, for example, that the blonde-haired, blue-eyed Aryan Opergruppenfuhrer Reinhard Heydrich, number three in the Nazi hierarchy before he was shot, may well himself have had Jewish ancestry; something Mawer conveys elegantly by having him inspect the Research Centre, agree (with the bluff bravado of those taken by surprise) to have his own phenotype measurements taken, then insist on taking his results away with him to remove any possibility of his ancestry being found out. The Director of the Research Centre, Werner Stahl, is a potently convincing character, charming and rational on the outside, damaged and traumatised on the inside. The reader gets the impression that he could either turn towards the light or the dark, and it soon becomes apparent which. His story intersects that of the Landauers through Hana, who has an affair with him.

 

After the Russians drive the Nazis from Czechoslovakia, the glass room is vacated once more and then becomes a centre for physiotherapy for children recovering from polio. The story that unfolds in this incarnation of the room is more personal, less political, than the previous ones, but no less engrossing for that. Tomas is a paediatrician, as selfish in his private life as he is thoughtful in his professional one. Zdenka is his ethereal lover, an ex-dancer and now a physiotherapist. Hana again provides the link between the stories.

 

I grew from feeling uncertain about this novel in the first few pages to loving it soon after. The historical detail is fascinating but is never conveyed with text-book dryness. The personal relationships are convincing, particularly that between Viktor and Kata, which has a heart-breaking poignancy to it, and the doomed, dangerous affair between Hana and Stahl. The life of exiles is sensitively and perceptively intuited in the sections about the Landauers after they leave their home: 'the detachment of exile, recorded scenes blurring at the edges so that they lost their context, memories becoming imagination.'

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The permanence of the glass room in the house despite the shifting transience of its occupants is beautfully portrayed. In many ways this gorgeous shell acts as a mirror for its inhabitants. There are some truly stunning scenes where the natural properties of the room echo the mood of the scene unfolding within. Mawer captures these with the cinematic eye of a photographer, conjuring up the vivid colours and textures. Here is a section from shortly before Hana and Stahl's affair explodes:

 

'Something remarkable is happening to the onyx wall: slanting through the great windows, the light from the setting sun is gathering in the depths of the stone, seething inside it like a fire, filling it with red and gold. This concurrence of sun and stone seems elemental, like an eclipse or the appearance of a comet, some kind of portent. Or hell. The fires of hell.'

 

Other than the slightly slow start, this powerful and engrossing story was marred for me only by two factors. One was the existence of three very unlikely coincidences: one regarding the way Viktor and Kata come into contact again after Kata has left her home, the second concerning Hana's ability to seduce not just two but three people connected with the house (the last, incredibly, when Hana is middle-aged and her seducee young and beautiful), and the third at the very end, providing a convenient but improbable closure. My second cavil was the implausible reaction of Liesel when she finds out about Viktor's mistress. Even the most liberal , laisser-faire type would have been furious, since Liesel had done so much for Kata. Liesel does show fury eventually, in a memorably horrific scene when the Landauers flee across Europe by train on the way to the US, and this reaction is far more credible than her previous passive acceptance; her nonchalance at sharing her husband and affection for Kata up until then had been difficult to comprehend.

 

Still, as with the implausibilities in other excellent books - last year's Costa-winning The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry, for example - the quibbles fade into insignificance in relation to the awe-inspiring achievement overall. Highly recommended.

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Thank you for your comments, Leyla. I read them with interest in the bright sunshine in the garden. It's a glorious day here.

 

Seriously, your comments are worthy to be published as an introduction to the novel itself. I agreed with all your thoughts, except for one aspect that I'm less sure about:

 

I misjudged the novel from the first chapters. The early scenes between Von Abt and the Landauers don't do justice to the power of what is to come. I was put off by the slightly Mills and Boon way in which the reader is made aware of the attraction between Von Abt and Liesel - his glance lingering on her too long, her wondering, slightly flustered, why she should care that he was seeing her wearing her unbecoming spectacles. I feared, wrongly, that it was a portent for a corset-buster rather than a serious novel.

I thought that von Abt's interaction with the Landauers to represent some of the most interesting parts of the book. I haven't read Mills and Boon, so I couldn't possibly comment ! The great architect, in my view, was attempting to construct something in the Landauers' lives other than their home.

 

Even the furniture in the house was designed to be an element of the piece of art that von Abt was creating and it seems that in this sense that he saw the presence of the future occupants themselves in the house as being in some way an element of his creation. In fact, the house as a work of art subsists regardless of its contents, furniture or people.

 

I had the impression that the interaction between von Abt and Liesel's in the Landauers domain came close to a courtly form of love or perhaps moreso lust, acted upon by Viktor but avoided (?) by Liesel. I found Liesel's interactions with von Abt to be more convincing than Viktor's and Kata's.

 

Whilst, in terms of text, von Abt's presence represents a small proportion of the novel, his character is certainly the keystone to the Glass Room and perhaps the book. His presence is most greatly felt in its opening, which is why I enjoyed it so much.

 

The construction of a potential relationship between von Abt and Liesel, from memory, ceased more or less when the construction of the home had been completed.

 

 

Phoebus

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Thanks, Phoebus, for your perceptive comments.

I agree that my early misgivings about the book seem completely redundant in retrospect. I misjudged the book completely - I went to it straight after reading Nick Cave's new novel and the style of Mawer's writing seemed ornate and formal compared to Cave's. My interpretation of the chemistry between Von Abt and Liesel as corny was also inaccurate - just shows one shouldn't make hasty decisions about a novel early on. I only included that part in my review because I had written about my misgivings on the Booker site so had to somehow explain them; if I hadn't made those early comments I would never have brought up my misjudgement of the novel.

 

I hadn't considered Von Abt's character much until you mentioned him but you certainly make a case for him being a significant presence. I had assumed his insistence on designing every aspect of the house, including its furniture, was part of his professional dedication to the post Bauhaus aesthetic, but you're very right, he was in many ways a fascinating character who disappeared too early from the book. I thought his flirtation with Liesel was just the idle act of an arrogant man but perhaps there was more to it than that.

 

At one stage, shortly before he disappears to the US, he asks Liesel to join him in emigrating, and she takes the comment as a joke. How different her life would have been if she'd accepted.

 

For anyone who's read the book and wants to know more about the architecture, I've copied the section below from a post I wrote in the Booker forum about this book:

 

John Self's review of The Glass Room links to the building on which the house in the novel is based, designed by the architect Mies Van der Rohe. Interestingly, last night on the French TV channel Arte there was a programme about another building designed by Van der Rohe: the German Pavilion at the International Exposition in Barcelona in 1929. I was amazed by the similarities between this building and the house in the novel. The building shown in the programme has an entire wall of glass, is open plan, has a flat roof, stairs leading to the main entrance, a couple of levels, chrome poles holding up the roof, and, most impressively, a large, beautiful free-standing onyx wall. I felt like I was in the building of the novel. There is also a statue of a woman, though in this building it's a Kolbe statue from 1925 rather than the Maillol in the novel.

 

I also managed to see some Maillol sculptures at the Matisse museum in Nice while I was reading the novel, and it was wonderful to visualize the style of female torso that so reminded Viktor of Kata in the novel.

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The more that I think about this novel, the more intricate it becomes for me. It grows on you like ivy.

 

I didn't see that on Arté, Leyla, but I've looked at the building on the internet and you're absolutely right - it's almost exactly as described in the book. It just shows how how accurate and empirical Mawer's descriptions are.

 

 

Phoebus

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Yes, Phoebus, he captures the building beautifully, and also adds so much by using his imagination. For example, the section of the book I quoted from in my review about the onyx wall being imbued by the red of the sunset really comes to life after seeing the real onyx wall in its beautiful warm, orange, swirly splendour.

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The more that I think about this novel, the more intricate it becomes for me. It grows on you like ivy.

Oh dear, Phoebus. I hope you don't mean it gives you a rash. ;)

 

There's something amazingly architectural about this book. It's the kind of novel where the structure is the most important thing.

 

Mawer rather brilliantly creates a story that, like the glass room, is carefully designed and created in a world where all seems sane and whole despite the pressures towards chaos and disorganisation (anti-Semitism, approaching war). Then he blows the whole thing apart. The glass shatters, the characters are dispersed, the story fragments.

 

At times towards the end of the novel, it becomes a challenging read. Like aspects of the modern world, new characters are introduced and it is difficult to really get the same sense of them as we had of the original characters. This is true for our old friends in the story as well as for us as readers - one of the older characters is deafened, another is blind. The world cannot be understood or sensed as it was before although in its patterning, there remains the possibility for reunion and renewal.

 

It ends with a note about the word 'raum' which is translated rather clumsily from German to English as 'room', but which also contains a meaning perhaps akin to 'space'. As Mawer notes, of 'room to move'. I don't know about space, but it does seem as if there is a whole world in this book, as if it does touch upon something universal in the twentieth century mid-European experience.

 

It's very, very well done.

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Mawer rather brilliantly creates a story that, like the glass room, is carefully designed and created in a world where all seems sane and whole despite the pressures towards chaos and disorganisation (anti-Semitism, approaching war). Then he blows the whole thing apart. The glass shatters, the characters are dispersed, the story fragments.

Very good point Kimberley.

 

 

Phoebus

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Good thing about long comments is that I can page down quickly while squinting and then decide whether to buy the book or not. In this case, I did.

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At times towards the end of the novel, it becomes a challenging read. Like aspects of the modern world, new characters are introduced and it is difficult to really get the same sense of them as we had of the original characters. This is true for our old friends in the story as well as for us as readers - one of the older characters is deafened, another is blind. The world cannot be understood or sensed as it was before although in its patterning, there remains the possibility for reunion and renewal.

 

That's a really good point, Kimberley, pointing out something I felt rather than understood until I read your comment.

 

I did enjoy the novel, because of its attention to the details of history, and particularly as I had seen and thrilled to the Mies Van de Rohe buildings in Chicago last year, but sometimes felt it...overwritten maybe?

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I did enjoy the novel, because of its attention to the details of history, and particularly as I had seen and thrilled to the Mies Van de Rohe buildings in Chicago last year, but sometimes felt it...overwritten maybe?

 

Brightphoebus, it took me a couple of chapters to get into the quite formal language but I fell in love with the novel once I did.

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Is it, Phoebus? Was that the week that's just ending or the week about to begin? I can never persuade my bf to read books I've loved, but he's an avid R4 listener so I could possibly get him to listen to extracts on R4.

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The Glass Room is the second book in the 2009 Booker Shortlist which I have read, and it definately deserves to be part of that list. (I've read the winner, and thought that this was the better of the books).

 

The Glass Room is actually a glass house, a thoroughly modern home built on a hillside over looking a Czech city. The house, built for the Landauer family, becomes the symbol of sexual and emotional relationships as the novel progresses.

 

Viktor and Lisel Landauer have this home built in the early days of their marriage, when life is a bunch of roses for the family. Viktor is the founder of a famous car manufacturer, and the wealthy couple fill their home with piano recitals and modern art. The glass building becomes a home for their small family, a symbol of oppulance and luxury.

As the marriage cools, Viktor finds comfort away from home, whilst Lisel's life is made exciting through the gossip and behaviour of her sexually adventurous best friend Hana.

When the war looms, Viktor and Lisel are forced to move away, he a Jew and she a German. They escape with his mistress over the border to Switzerland. The house then becomes an empty shell, facing the destruction of bombs, govermental ownership and possession and scientific experimentation.

The characters gripped me from early on, especially Hana and Kata, Viktor's lover. But all in all I wanted to know what happened to the characters, how their life turned out. I felt robbed when I discovered that the book suddenly moved 20 odd years into the future and I had missed out hearing about Ottilie (love that name) and Martin's childhood. The house reminded me of the house in To The Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf. There is a segment in that novel when the war is occuring and the destruction of Britain and the family is characterised by the deterioration of the family home.

A fantastic read, I highly recommend it.

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I'm glad you enjoyed it, Katrina. It's my favourite out of the Booker shortlist too (the ones I've read so far.)

I know what you mean about wanting to know more about what happened to Liesel and Viktor. In some ways Mawer makes this original cast of characters so real that it's hard to let go of them. But I think the way the book mainly centred on inhabitants of The Glass House worked very well, and wouldn't have succeeded if Mawer had kept us up to date with what was happening with Viktor and Liesel beyond their escape to the US.

I loved the way the book worked on so many different levels - as a novel about different individuals and their lives, as a historical record of events in Europe during the time of WW2, and as an aesthetic appreciation of beautiful architecture and art.

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I agree with your first comments about the book, Phoebus. I do not think you misjudged it by saying it deteriorates as it progresses. I too felt it ran out of stream after a fascinating and absorbing beginning. I was disappointed that the relationship between von Apt and Liesl did not develop. Also agree with Leila - too many coincidences. The house dominates the book most effectively but the storyline meanders after the first half. I am not surprised it did not win the Booker. Wolf Hall is far more convincing and coherent.

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I have a friend who belongs on BGO more than anyone I know, but has been hesitant to join (not sure why). In any event, she had emailed me that she was reading and enjoying The Glass Room, so I immediately looked it up on BGO and told her that the comments seemed almost uniform that the second half ran out of steam. After she was done, she emailed me back to tell me that she agreed with that analysis. But then she added the following comment, "What was weird though, is that I started off by loving the house, and by the end I thought it sounded like a horrible place to live." She wasn't sure why, but authorized me to post her comment to see if it would engender any discussion. It would be nice if it did, since it might overcome her reluctance to be part of BGO.

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Hi Binker. Your friend's comment is interesting. My first thought on it is that a house reflects the people who live in it. At the start, the house was a home to a mostly happy family. Despite the fact that all was not perfect and infidelity occurred in that family, the overriding mood was of a settled family home. Then the upheavals from the war drove the family out and the house became a shell, serving the purpose of anyone who took up residence. It lost the sense of being a home and became a chameleon-like space serving whoever was there at the time. Since this included people with sinister motives such as the workers in the eugenics lab, it too was imbued with that aura.

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Simon Mawer's The Glass Room is, I feel, very definitely a mixed bag, a curate's egg of a novel, succeeding resoundingly in some areas and falling distinctly flat in others.

 

The novel deals highly convincingly with the theme of identity and the lack of identity. The choice of what became Czechslovakia, and subsequently what became of that same country following the rise of Nazism, makes this preoccupation with stability and the lack of it strikingly obvious. The glass room itself serves as a symbol for the desire to create something which is both regular, straightforward and transparent (in the positive, glasnost meaning of the word) - but the novel then makes it clear that the essential deviousness often at the heart of human relationships makes such a desire for no-nonsense solidity and transparency totally unrealistic.

 

Where, to my mind, the novel succeeds particularly is in its demonstration that human beings can never be in control of their destinies... this specifically in the area of illicit relationships, and the insidious desire people seem to feel for what is either inadvisable or even quite simply unobtainable. Clearly, Viktor is more strongly drawn to Kata than to his wife, and even more clearly Hana is more strongly drawn to just about anybody, male or female, than to her insipid, pompous husband.

 

But - and this is a very big "but" - I heartily agree that the overwrought coincidences seriously compromise the whole novel. This is summarised brilliantly in John Crace's typically spot-on "digested read" in The Guardian:

 

I have taken in two Jewish refugees," Liesl said one day. Could it be? Surely no novelist would risk such an absurd coincidence? It was. Oh joy.

As for the final chapter... oh dear, yes, it would have been so much better to leave it out...

 

But at least not everything is impeccably tied up and smoothed out.

The mystery of what happened to Kata is left entire.

Although whether Mawer intended that uncertainty in a novel where too much is too streamlined is not at all clear.

 

Out of the four Booker 2009 shortlisted titles I have read, this comes third. Wolf Hall remains ahead by a million miles, with The Little Stranger a creditable second. Byatt's The Children's Book comes fourth.

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Yes, my face fell when that coincidence occurred. However, I felt The Glass Room was strong enough to succeed despite the implausibility in some places.

I like your thoughts about the symbolism of the glass room, JfP. I also thought the simplicity and the glass of the room was intended to show how it reflected those who lived in it; how it had no identity or character of its own but was just a space which took on different characteristics according to who inhabited it.

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The Glass Room

 

Simon Mawer

 

This is a story about a house, designed by a Jew and confiscated during World War Two. It is a modernist construction with onyx walls and a huge glass room. We learn about the various visitors, notably German occupying forces and Russian liberators, but mainly from the tenants’ point of view. People come and go through times of strife and deprivation, ruin and neglect, but the symbolic house remains, variously a laboratory for Nazi genetic experiments, a nursery for handicapped children and a ballet school, seeing the collapse of German rule and the rise and fall of communism.

The characters are thus dwarfed by their setting, the beautiful human artefact, despoiled by its miserable human occupants. The many copulations that take place on the floor of the stupendous Glass Room underline the squalid uses to which beauty is heir. The myth of Ondine, for example, floats above the house’s sordid seductions, by German, Czech and Russian visitors.

 

I found this ambitious novel covering many decades of war and peace extremely lacking in depth of character. Our interest in the owners becomes supplanted not only by the building but by several sub-plots, rather precariously tied together at the end. I didn’t care that much about any of the people, whose inner lives we discover by authorial explication and rather heavy-handed imagery and prolonged dialogue as people explain themselves to each other.

 

The book is peppered with imagery, which too often runs to cliché. Drafts whisper and trees throw caution to the wind ; passengers, a motley collection of young and old, are like sheep emerging from a stable, or later, like sheep jostling at a gate. As indicated above, there is quite a lot of explicit sex in the book, which becomes so mechanical that one cares neither for the doer nor the sufferer. A German officer raping his Slav mistress ‘spreads her buttocks apart so that she is open to his gaze, the dark valley, the tight mouth of her anus, the dark fold of her shame.’ We are told ‘he even feels pity, that emotion you must learn to expunge.’ If you’re one of the Master race, of course, taking your pleasure from an Untermensch. Oddly enough the reader feels nothing, neither for him nor her. A long and at times irritating read; even the titillation falls flat

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