I took this away on holiday to read for the Love-a-Book group. I’m really enjoying having books I ‘have’ to read each month. It has been another good way of stretching my limits. Next year, when I’m released from trying to read 60 different authors (looking a tad optimistic tbh) I can go back and pick up more from the people I have enjoyed this year. After several years of sticking within a very few authors, this is good for me 🙂 I’m tempted to try to read my way through the Book or Orange Prize short lists or something too, just to make myself become properly well read. Chick Lit really doesn’t cut the mustard these days.
Anyway, The Glass Room is a fictionalised account of the history of this house in Czechoslovakia (as was). It describes the relationship of a couple (who the author says are fictional rather than a description of the real versions) who build the house in a fictional town, in the run up to the second world war. The book itself is a study in the ideas of contemporary art, relationships between people governed by ideals, the concept of a sort of non spiritually based asceticism, architecture, family and friendship ties, marriage, politics – the themes are a bit endless to be honest. It’s all done through a kind of frosted glass filter of this minimalist house designed to strip away all ornament and fafferery, all nods to the past and all romance. The story at it’s most basic level is how this house, an actual representation of the ideals they say they aim to live by, actually affect themselves and their friends and the way they interact.
In a nutshell, the story follows this group of people through pre-war, occupation, wartime, two Czech revolutions and into the present, with the house as a touch stone (a cold and unemotional one!) for them all. There is the story of a Jewish family, the Nazi’s, scientific and genetic idealism, capitalism and communism, rebirth in terms of the house and also how they all survive such turbulent times. It’s complicated, long and one of the problems I had with it was that he so successfully infuses the novel with the artistic ideal of the theme, that it is really hard to care about that characters. He almost too successfully makes the cold people cold, the hardened indifferent and the colourful loveable. They all feel real, but I didn’t feel much like I cared if any of them made it. This was no Charlotte Grey; I didn’t weep for even the deserving Kata, much less some of the more central characters.
I spent a bit of time wondering why this was. In fact, I think it comes down to very personal affiliations and likes. For one, I am not fond of that style of architecture or art, nor really people who admire it and live by it. For another, I had the great fortune to travel a lot in Europe as a teenager and I must admit I found the ageing, rotting carcasses of such buildings to be a bit of a landscape blot. They do nothing for me; I’m all about beauty and ornament and history and passion. I spent a few week in Germany when I was 14, living with a family and attending a school; both home and school had the sculpted, simplistic, artistic thing going on and I found it cold and uninspiring. I’ll say many things about my school, but it was warm and beautiful and far more inspiring than any rectangle of glass and concrete ever could be for me.
Part of those trips abroad – and indeed my childhood – had much to do with Czechoslovakia. Through his work my dad knew several people living there during Russian occupation, was indeed asked to help people escape. We went to stay there for a week when the last revolution was only over by 6 months. I watched the daughter of our host, 8 years old, spit in the road at a Russian soldier. I saw my host stare across the field at the back of his home and claim not to be able to see the war planes taking off there. I saw the empty shops, the beautiful buildings of Prague held up with wooden scaffolding and with concrete flyovers built through them to humiliate ornate squares and historical architecture. I was asked to sell my trainers and saw Emmanuel XXX on at the cinema, capitalism seeping back in.
They were not a passionless people; they were not people who shrugged at history and beauty. They were not even a people worn flat by Communism, as the books younger characters seem to be by the end. I think the fictional builders of the glass house were perhaps a minority and in my head I think I felt they were rather betraying their wonderful heritage by dismissing it. It made them hard to like, hard to care for and hard to mind about what befalls them all.
That said, though I initially gave the book 3/5, I upgraded it to 4/5. I might not quite have liked it, but it was a good book. It was well written, interesting, something I would recommend. It just did what it set out to do a little too well, a little too coldly. I like to weep for my characters and to be honest, by the end of this, I could barely remember their names.