Set in Czechoslovakia in the late 1930’s , the story is anchored around the Glass House, a masterpiece of innovative architectural design, and its changing owners/occupants on the cusp of World War 2.
Many thanks to “bookie” Mel who identified that the house is actually based on the Villa Tudendhat in Bruno, designed by Miles Van der Rohe.
The vision of the fictional architect Rainer Von Abt is to “enclose space with glass”. Other features a flat roof, no load bearing walls at all, the whole thing hung on a steel frame. Where uprights pass through the interior “steel will be as translucent as water. Light will be as solid as walls and walls as transparent as air….the whole will merge seamlessly into the garden”. You can just see the onyx wall where each evening at sunset the rosy light strikes the wall and lights up the natural gold streaks and tones in the stone.
The story starts with the commissioning of the house by the fabulously wealthy Victor Landauer and his wife Liesel, owner of the Landaur motor company. The young married couple have their first child Ottilie whilst the house is designed and built under the watchful eye of their architect Rainer Von Abt. Their second child Martin is born, and their lifestyle includes hosting and attending concerts, frequenting cafes , and seeing a lot of their close friends Hannah and Oskar. Both Victor and Oskar are Jewish, which impacts later in the story.
As the Landauer Company have offices in Vienna Victor is frequently away on business trips, where he feels no guilt at all about hiring the services of a young prostitute called Katarin , whom he starts to see on a regular basis. She is a single mother, eeking out her existence as a seamstress and Victor surprises himself by falling in love with her.
Meanwhile Hannah has an affair with a concert pianist Nemec, and at the same time we get the feeling she wishes her deep friendship with Liesel could be something more.
The Second World War begins to impact, with Katalin and her daughter Maricka fleeing from Vienna, where they conveniently happen to end up in the Landauer House where a charity function is being held to help incoming refugees. Victor sees her and so does Liesel, who then insists she become the children’s nanny. So it is that Katalin, Maricke, Lisel, Victor, Ottilie and Martin end up living in the Glass House together and Victor is able to continue his relationship with Katalin.
Victor makes escape plans, for them all to flee to Switzerland, transferring the business into his parents names and his assets into Swiss accounts. Here the book naturally subdivides into their lives after they’ve fled, as compared to the precarious existence of Hannah and Oskar remaining behind.
Hannah and Liesel continue their friendship by correspondence; in which we first learn that the Landauer House has been requisitioned by the Nazis for their Biometric Testing Centre. Headed up by a young Scientific officer called Stahl, their mission is to be able to identify Jews from physical characteristics. Many civilians are rounded up and are weighed, measured and photographed naked so that data can be produced and correlated back in Germany. Hannah has an affair with Stahl to her cost, when she finds out she is pregnant by him she is sent away presumably to a camp, to emmerge at the end reunited with Liesel.
At the end of World War 2 we skip around a decade to where the Glass House is being used as a centre for physiotherapy for children and a new love story emerges which again is anything but normal.
What Our Bookgroup Thought.
Of the 9 “bookies” present 8 had either finished or nearly completed it. We all liked the backdrop of Europe at the outbreak of the War, and the long time line that was played out. The contrast of what happened to the very wealthy family before and after they fled was also different; Mawer chooses not to revisit the horrors of the holocaust and the general feeling is that the War is going on elsewhere in the distance. Having said that he does create very sinister tension, when Katalin and Maricke are taken away after having their papers checked whilst fleeing on the train to Switzerland. Stahl is quite the evil Nazi monster, using his research files to select his next romantic liason.
We also liked that it is written in small sections; makes it easy to pick up and read on the way to work etc. It is also worth noting that it is illustrated with line drawings at the start of each chapter, as miniature architectural views of the house.
However we were all of the opinion there was something unsatisfactory about the writing firstly in that the plot looses some credibility with too many coincidences. Most notable of these was when Katalin tuns up as a displaced refugee at the Landauer House and is taken on as housekeeper/nanny by Liesel. Although Katalin is left as a loose end and we don’t hear what happens to her, Ottilie and Maricke happen to bump into each 30 years later as tourists at the Landauer House.
The other aspect we didn’t like was what one bookie referred to as “gratutious lesbianism”..Hannah as active bisexual prays on Liesel and later Zzendka the young dancer. Put simply there isn’t a conventional relationship in the book with which to temper or balance the extremes of these characters; and in those times there are no broken relationships presented.
Overall : a very good read; a mixture of architecture, World War2 and exotic relationships. If you like “Fountainhead”by Ayn Rand you’ll like this.