Simon Mawer: The Glass Room
Summary by Michael McGoodwin, prepared 2013

Onyx Wall and Glass Room of the restored Laundauer House (actually, the Villa Tugendhat in Brno)
Onyx Wall and Glass Room of the restored Laundauer House
(actually, the Villa Tugendhat in Brno, per Wikipedia)

Acknowledgment: This work has been summarized using the "Other Press" 2009 paperback edition (one of the Sloan Technology Series books).  Quotations are for the most part taken from that work.   

Overall Impression: This is a fairly good book read for a book club.  It deals with important subject matter in the Nazi era, atrocities and evil science included, is rather heavy and biological in numerous sexual encounters (the author is a biologist), and at times seems a little forced.  Despite the author's assurances, the fictionalization of an actual family (complete with scandals) and house seems potentially problematic.

Note: For ease of typing, I have not consistently included the non-English diacritical markings.

 


 

The novel takes place in Czechoslovakia, a country formed from Bohemia, Moravia, Silesia, Slovakia, and Carpathian Ruthenia in October 1918, after the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  It was divided into the Czech Republic and Slovakia in 1993 after the Velvet Revolution.  The country is bordered by (clockwise from NW) Germany, Poland, Romania, Hungary, and Austria.

 

Return

Frau Liesel Landauer (L.) returns with her daughter Ottilie after 30 years exile to the Landauer House in Město, Czechoslovakia. It is c. 1969, and the house has been appropriated by the Czech government.  She greets Hana, her old friend, as well as the caretaker Laník.  Her husband Viktor is no longer alive.  The centerpiece of the house is the Glasraum (Glass Room or Space), which had windows that could be lowered electrically and was bordered by a lavish onyx wall. L. is now blind, but a flood of memories are evoked.

Honeymoon; Commitment; Conception

We move back 30 years, c. 1928 when L. and Viktor Landauer (V.) have just married and are honeymooning in Vienna. He is a wealthy manufacturer of luxury cars, Landauers made at the factory Landauerer Závody. Viktor wants to plan a new modern house for his family, not an old-fashioned fortress, something in keeping with their new modern state.  They continue on to Venice, driving their Landauer.  The couple fondly recites the well-known poem of Mignon, "Kennst du das Land..."  They stop at his grave to honor Liesel's brother Benno, who died serving in WWI. Il Duce and Italian Fascism are on the rise.  In Venice, they meet Rainer von Abt, an architect (modeled after Mies van der Rohe, 1886 – 1969).  Viktor's family of origin is Jewish, but he is non-observant.  Rainer takes them under wing, gives them a tour and extols his project for the Austrian Pavilion 1928.  He is a disciple of Adolf Loos and the Modern Movement, an enthusiastic promoter of glass, steel, and concrete, and wants to build a Glass Space (Glasraum).  V. explores the possibility of Rainer designing their new house, interviews him, is impressed.  Rainer wants to create a work of art, with form entirely lacking in pointless ornamentation.  They bond.

Back in Město, Rainer arrives from Vienna and tours the proposed house site at Blackfield Hill.  They meet with her parents, former monarchists who are providing the land just uphill from their own home.  Rainer will design for them a whole way of life in the new home.  He sketches out his ideas, including a flat roof and modern materials.  L. points out the nearby chata (cottage) where she was isolated at 12 y/o when she contracted scarlet fever.  The parents host them for dinner, with invited guests including the pianist Miroslav Nemec.  They view a painting of Liesel's mother made during the monarchy by the Austrian painter, Gustav Klimt (1862 - 1918).  L. favors socialism—it "builds things"—to the displeasure of her parents. Rainier also favors socialism, and later V. chastises L. for acting childish with V.  They sign a contract for Rainier to complete house plan by 1929. 

Hana; Gestation; Construction

Hana Hanáková is Liesel's friend, lives carefree and sexually liberated, and they meet weekly at the Cafe Zeman.  She was once painted nude by a Russian artist.  She is having an affair with the artist Nemec.  She is attracted to Liesel's enlarging pregnant belly, has an erotic impulse, and foretells it will be a girl.  Viktor is somewhat leery of the plans for the Haus Landauer but accepts the project.  He disapproves of Hana's vulgarity.  Their daughter Ottilie is born April 1930.  Construction begins.  Skepticism about the unconventional design is expressed by the site foreman, who thinks it looks like a machine.  Liesel nurses Ottilie and for some reason invites Rainier to watch, apparently feeling some attraction to him.  With Liesel insisting, the baby is baptized over Viktor's objections, with Hana named as the godmother.

Onyx; Interior; Exterior

Viktor perceives the interest of L. and Rainer with some suspicion.  Rainer describes the planned onyx wall (onyx is named after a tale involving the fingernails of Venus).  V. finds Liesel's breast feeding alien, animal-like. 

In Vienna c. 1930-1, V. encounters 25 y/o Kata (Katalin) Kalman, a seamstress from Slovakia who offers sexual services, which V. accepts.  He determines how he can reach her in the future.  After this erotic encounter and inspired by Venus, he approves the onyx wall.  That summer, they vacation in Marienbad (W. Czechosolvakia).  Prompted by Hana's cynicism, L. asks V. if he would ever be unfaithful to her, and he laughs.

Oskar Hanák, Hana's Jewish husband, and V. discuss and fret over the rise of the Nazis—Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei (National Socialist German Workers' Party)—and Oskar predicts pogroms.  The glass for the Glass Room is hung.  V. and L. meet with Rainer in Vienna in autumn 1931 to discuss plans for custom furniture, etc.  L. returns home while V. stays in Vienna, meets up with Kata at the Golden Globe restaurant, and has another tryst.  She asks about his wife and family.  Ottilie is 17 months.  Kata has no boyfriend.

Completion; Housewarming; Happy Families; Birth

The house is completed for moving in Dec. 1931 (the Villa Tugendhat was actually built 1928 - 1930). Liesel's mother says is is like an office, but L. promotes it as the vision of the future.  As the only ornamentation in the Glass Room, Rainier has agreed to add a life-size female torso by Maillol to add a feminine touch—the belly suggests early pregnancy.

They have a house-warming, in which many distinguished intelligentsia and artists are invited.  These include composer Vacla Kapral and his 15 y/o daughter Vítězslava Kaprálová aka Vitulka (both real persons).  Both she and Nemec play the piano, she choosing "Ondine" from Ravel's Gaspard de la Nuit.  Hana suggests that the good times are too good to last.

The public and press reception of the house are mixed, with some negative, suggesting bourgeois excess, etc.  Liesel writes a letter to Die Form to protest.  She and V. make love on the floor of the Glass Room after he challenges her to prove the space is private.

Liesel is pregnant again, but Hana laments that she cannot conceive.  Viktor visits Kata in Vienna again, a passionate encounter.  Martin is born, requiring forceps, and Liesel has a post-partum infection and nearly dies.  L. wonders if V. would be unfaithful to her with Hana, but he dismisses the thought.  Back in Venice, he is feeling more remote from L., who exhibits less sexual passion.

A Day in the Life; Dinner; Memories; Recital

A few years later, domestic life includes nurse Liba for the children.  V. wants the children to be citizens of the world.  Anti-Jewish practices and laws are arising in Germany, Jewish doctors cannot treat non-Jews and new miscegenation laws are in effect, etc.  V. is taking note of the future problems this might cause for him if this spreads to his country.  His children would be Mischlinger (half-breeds).  V. thinks longingly about Kata.

A Nazi named Schreiber dines at the Landauers.  He wears the Hakenkreuz on the NSDAP badge, is from Stuttgart and extols German culture and the duty to maintain German blood and the national culture.  Viktor states he is a Jew, not a German.

Hana has told Oskar of her infidelities but he is tolerant and accepts her.  She is discontent, rejected by Nemec (who is married and has chosen the wife over her).  Liesel kisses her on the lips

Czech. President Tomáš Masaryk has stepped down (1935), and Edvard Beneš succeeds him.

The Landauers give a charity recital to raise funds for the Human Rights League.  Viktor is quietly moving money to Switzerland.

Love; Ecstasy; Loss; Coda

V. meets with Kata, who is more probing than usual, wants more from him, what he feels for her.  They go for the first time to her place, he meets her daughter Marika, 5 or 6 y/o and younger than Ottilie (she has not previously mentioned her).  She will not name the father, but states it has nothing to do with him.  She lives in the Jewish quarter.  He gives her a generous check, revealing presumably his full name.  He could love her, he says.  He asks her not to go with other men.  He departs in a mood of regret that his passion is focused on her (a "half-educated part-time tart).

Vitulka is having an affair with Bohuslav Martinů.  Hana quizzes V. regarding his fidelity to L., and seems to come onto him.  Fritz Mandl arrives from Vienna.  He is a Jewish head of an armaments manufacturer, who is learning how to get along with Hitler and claims he has been made an honorary Aryan.  He sells armaments to the Mussolini government.  V. predicts, "if you play with mad dogs you are going to get bitten".  His wife Eva once made a beautiful porn film, Gustav Machatý's 1933 film Ekstase.  (She was Hedwig "Hedy" Kiesler then, and later becomes known as Hedy Lamarr in Hollywood.)  She is eager to escape from her husband.  Hana later asks L. if she could love another woman sexually.  She is in love with her.  She kisses her on the neck, L. is confused.

In Vienna, V. finds that Kata has moved out and disappeared.  He sends her a loving note.

Hana recounts how she aided Eva to escape her smothering husband and flee to Prague, to become a movie star.  Eva was once seduced by an older female.  Eva and Hana spent the night in bed.  How Hana is trying to seduce L.

Anschluss; Encounter; Chata; Robots

Austria is taken over by the German Reich without resistance (March 1938).  Refugees are flowing into Czechoslovakia.  The Nazis are 50 km away.  V. fears imminent invasion and advocates to L. they emigrate.

A meeting of a committee on Refugees.  Kata and Marinka (now 8 y/o) are there.  The refugees tell of Austrian Nazi persecution which they have fled (presumably including Kristallnacht, 10 November 1938, instigated by the Sturmabteilung or Storm Troopers).  V. and Kata converse briefly.  L. offers the chata (a summerhouse) to them to stay in.  Kata acknowledges she is Jewish.

Viktor wants to transfer his ownership i the firm to Liesel's father Wenzel. He fears invasion fomented by the Sudeten German party led by Konrad Henlein.  They advocate annexation of the German-speaking parts of Czechoslovakia, the so-called "Sudetenland" (April 1938).  After telling him of his fears, V. makes his way to the chata, smells her scent, eventually Kata arrives.  She has avoided V., is focused on her daughter, doesn't see men.  Wenzel has made advances to her, which she spurned.  He kisses her but she backs away, fears she is being watched.  He tells of his fear of invasion.  She lacks proper documents.

V. recalls seeing Benno when they were serving in the military leading up to WWI.  They were like robots.  L. and Kata play with their children.  Martin is 5 y/o.  V. longs for Kata, writes her a note.

Gossip; Proposal; Ship; The Last Year in Marienbad; Small Issue

Oskar predicts ongoing dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian empire.  Hana gossips about Martinů and his affair with Vitulka.  The nanny Liba is quitting and astoundingly, L. suggests they hire Kata for this role.  She has noted how V. looks at her, and also suggests they have a moral obligation to help her flee from Jewish persecution.  The British are limiting emigration to Palestine.

V. tells Kata of Liesel's proposal, that Kata & Morika come with them for emigration.  She challenges his motives and hidden desires, is it Love?  He begs her to come.

With his wife and kids away, V. goes to Kata's room.  She is anxious but they make love.  She worries, it can't go on without discovery.  He recalls Hana's love of deceit.  When V. returns to the Glass Room, Laník appears sly of manner and appears to suspect their tryst.

A vacation in Marienbad (W. Czech.) is marred by pro-Nazi demonstrations and swastika graffiti.

Germany forces Czechoslovakia to give up the Sudetenland (1938).  Hitler has assured Neville Chamberlain and Britain that this will end his expansionist plans, and Chamberlain informs the British in his appeasement speech 9/27/1938.  L. has prepared a Christmas tree.  V. says they must emigrate by March 1939.  The dismembering of Czechoslovakia has begun.

Storm in March; Flight; Laník; Exile

March 1939, Germans have invaded.  L. and V. are furiously packing to leave. Hana is intoxicated, asks L. if V. is having sex w Kata, and does he love Kata?  Hana professes her love to L., leaving L. confused, affectionate, repelled.

They hurriedly pack essentials and drive to the airport. They are delayed by Hitler's passing by.  Finally, they are allowed to proceed aboard the plane to Zürich. Hana and Oskar remain behind. L. sees her home from the air and weeps.

Laník takes over the house.  He tells his sister Lanikova that he saw L. naked and caught V. and Kata having sex.

The Landauers are in a Swiss villa, enjoying swimming and sailing.  L. has growing suspicions that V. is having an affair.  She finds V. not in bed and overhears him & Kata having sex.  She hints about this to V., but later confronts Kata. She was suspicious from the outset.  She wants details, and Kata tells all.  But Kata assures L. she did not come seeking him in Město.  She tells Kata of her reduced sex drive.  Kata is in love with V.  Eventually L. confronts Viktor.

Germany is at the Polish border, and invades 9/1/1939, annexing W. Poland by 10/1939.  War is declared by Britain and France 9/3/1939.

Dispossession; Occupation; Rainer; Encounter

Laník gives a tour of the house to an official from the planning department.  He disparages V.  Later the Landauers in Switzerland learn the house has been confiscated by the Nazi "Protectorate" or Bohemia and Moravia.  L. weeps and Kata comforts her.

Hauptsturmführer Werner Stahl, c. 30 y/o, arrives to oversee the takeover of the house.  (This SS rank also applied to Klaus Barbie and Josef Mengele.)  He is there to do biometric research, precise anthropological studies of dimensions, hair, skin color, eye color, mental assessment, and blood tests, applying principles of Nazi racial biology to distinguish Herrenvolk (the putative master Nordic race) from Untermenschen.  Laník is a Catholic. 

Rainer von Abt comes to visit the Landauers in Switzerland.  Feelings stir in L. She is lonely for home. He plans to emigrate to the US in Michigan, despite Albert Speer's urging to collaborate.  Vitulka has died [in real life of miliary TB]. 

Hana encounters Stahl in the Cafe Zeman.  She wants to know what he does at the House and arranges to visit him there and have dinner with him.  He is unmarried.  She is seductive.

Swimming; Examination; Hedy; Concert

It is summer 1941.  Hana writes L. to tell of meeting Stahl, his research, etc.  V. is treating Kata formally.  Kata has swum with the kids.  L. dries her off and feels stirrings of desire.  Kata wants to emigrate with the family.

Hana arrives at the house, meets with Stahl, undergoes the biometric and photo exams.  They are processing gypsies, Jews, Slavs, etc.  She compares him to Doctor Mabuse (character in the movies).  Later he pores over her nude photos.  At a hotel cafe, they discuss his dead wife Hedda, a Nordic violinist, his 1st cousin, who died accidentally (later we learn it was suicide).  They make love, oral sex, he pays her with a "gift", which she expects.

Hana writes L. about her visit to the House, and her date with Stahl.  L. is bored of the tedium.  She writes passionately to Hana.

Stahl speaks of Germanization.  Composer Haas is absent form the concert because he is Jewish.  Hana takes him to the house, displays the onyx wall at sunset.  She prods him to say, he tells of his wife's suicide, his daughter Erika's genetic fatal condition (infantile amaurotic congenital idiocy), her euthanasia.  They make love, but he does not want her to return.

Leaving; Protektor; Leman; Storm; Departure

Oskar must wear the yellow star of David.  Hana writes L.  V. says tickets have arrived for Cuba and that they must prepare.  V. does not understand Liesel's relationship with Hana. 

Reichsprotektor Reinhard Heydrich arrives inspect the Biometric Center. He is measured but demands the records and none are to be left.  So far, no uniquely Jewish feature have been determined.  Stahl thinks of Hana with a mixture of wanting and loathing.

L. and family are preparing to move Westward.  She receives a letter from Hana.

Hana comes to Stahl in a storm.  She interrogates him about what is being done to the Jews, has heard rumors, are they being sent to concentration camps?  He says we have to find a solution.  She tells him her husband is a Jew, and that she is pregnant with his child.  She insults him ("killing babies is in your nature"), he strikes her, soon rapes her.  He takes her home, she needs financial help (her accounts have been frozen), wants to keep the baby.

L. and family hurry to Geneva station, climb aboard a crowded train, panic is in the air.  She has written Hana but cannot mail it.

Decision; Ocean; Dissolution; Laník; Soviets

Jews arrive for biometrics.  Stahl has traces of his attack on Hana cleaned up.  Oskar Hanák is among those brought in.  Stahl calls a contact, says Hana is a subversive and Jew-friendly.  His lusty thoughts have shifted to Elfriede Lange, an attractive perfect Teuton.

The train stops in Bayonne in France.  German soldiers order everyone off the train.  Documents are scrutinized.  V. evades the question, Jew?, saying he is Czech.  They are not satisfied with Kata's passport and remove her, V. protests and is struck by a soldier.  Aboard the train, L. berates V. as he weeps, asks why he did this to her, he says he loved Kata.  The train enters Spain.

The biometric center is closed down for lack of success. Messerschmitt draftsmen move in for a while, then leave the house to slow decay.  Hana & husband are arrested.  Liesel's parents move to Vienna.  V. searches fruitlessly for Kata.  They are in Cuba, getting ready to fly to America.

Laník tends the house in his way.  He is accumulating stuff to barter, hoarding for an uncertain future.  The Red Army is said to be coming.  Bombs fall, glass windows break. The populace is reduced to scavenging for food.

The Soviets arrive with horses in spring 1945.  Vienna has fallen, Budapest, now Město.  Bombs fall, Germans flee, aircraft and pilots scout the terrain.  A Mongol-like woman, Sgt. major   Yevgeniya, arrives leading Soviet troops.  There is drinking, camaraderies at the house, she lusts for Laník, takes him upstairs for sex.

Tomáš; Ondine; Berta; Paris

Tomáš is a pediatrician, has a relationship with Zdenka, a dancer turned physiotherapist.  Their gym is the Glass Room.  She is his rusalka, her Ondine.

Zdenka agrees to dance for Tomáš, enacting Ondine's tale to Ravel's pf composition.  He is aroused by her nymph-like beauty and grace, and they make love in the Glass Room.

Tomáš also has a relationship with Eve, a journalist, his "Berta".  He tells her of Zdenka, and she also has another occasional man she sees.  He worries that he is betraying Zdenka, his Ondine.

Tomáš & Zdenka attend a polio conference in Paris.  It is bright, colorful, free.  They make love a lot.  On returning, he seems cold, is unwilling to commit to a future with her.  She suspects there is another woman, and asks that they break it off for a while.

History; Zdenka; Encounter; Architectural Treasure...

Eve wants to do a story on the Landauer House, and to meet Zdenka.

Z. once broke her ankle, ending en pointe dancing.  A woman, Hana, arrives from the Comm. for Architectural Heritage.  Z. is 3 yrs younger than Martin.  No Jews remain in the city, they are like ghosts.

Hana, Eve, and Comrade Laník arrive to tour the House.  Zdenka wonders how well Tomáš knows Eve.  Tomáš and Zdenka are left together alone to decide whether to resume their relationship.

Eve writes of the House's history, advocating that it be made into a museum for the public.

Confession; Comfort; Contact; Letter; Return; 1990

Hana tells Zdenka of her affair w Stahl, which she did to help Oskar, and of their deportation, him to Theresienstadt and then to Auschwitz, her to Ravensbruck.  Z questions Tomáš about Eve.  They were once engaged, now she know they have sex.  Z. dances for Hana, Hana shows her photos that include T. and Eve, Z. knows T has betrayed her.  H. tells Z she is in love with her, Z. will consider this.  Z. dances to Ondine by herself.

Hana comes to Z., confesses that she had a baby daughter while in the camp, a baby that was taken away and that she never saw again.  Z. comforts her.

In the US, Vesely Jolly from the Czech embassy contacts the Landor family (renamed from Landauer), living near Wood's Hole.  He sees Liesel, Martin, Ottilie, and want L. to come to witness the handover of the house to be a museum.  He brings a letter from Hana.  L. agrees to come, with Ottilie.

H. receives a letter from Liesel (now Elizabeth Landor).  H. tells Z how she loved L.  V. had a boat building business in Falmouth, and died in 1958.  For a while, L. had a younger male lover.  L. recalls the intense love between her and H. 

L. arrives at the House, c. 1969.  She meets Hana, Laník.  There is political unrest, the Russians have come with tanks.  She meets Z., Tomáš.  Tomáš compares Czech. to victims of enceph. lethargica, who awoke and returned to sleep.  Hana is happy now, because of Zdenka.  L. glosses over why Kata "stayed behind" when they emigrated.

In 1990, the museum conversion has been spotty.  Marie (Marika) Delmas arrives and joins a tour of the house with Ottilie and her son Charlie, but does not recognize them.  She recalls her mother Kata, and tells Ottilie she used to live there. The childhood friends finally recognize each other and are reunited in the Glass Room.