The Glass Room
by Simon Mawer
"Liesel's mother examined the house with the disapproving eye of the nineteenth century. 'It's like an office' she said. 'Like a laboratory, like a hospital. Not like a home at all.'
'Mother, it's the future.'
'The future!' the older woman retorted, as though giving vent to a curse. But Viktor and Liesel watched their future world growing around them and they thought that it was a kind of perfection, the finest instrument for living."(p 73)
One of the first things I noticed about this book was that the writing style reminded me of other books I had read that were translated from a language other than English, but this book was written in English, not translated. That Simon Mawer's style mimicked a novel in translation, yet was really tremendously well controlled is just one of the aspects that make this book stand out from other historical novels. For The Glass Room is an historical novel and both the sometimes subtle presence and sometimes ironic impact of historical context is integral to the story.
The story starts simply enough, a Czech couple, the Landauers, on their honeymoon journey to Italy, but before they arrive there they visit the grave of the Bride's brother who died in the Great War. In just a few pages we already have some of the themes: history, endings and beginnings, death and life. But this novel is just as much about the new house that is yet to be built on a plot of land that was a present from the bride's parents. It is this house, designed by the great modern architect Rainer von Abt, that will have as its centerpiece the "Glass Room" of the title, and at the center of the room an onyx wall that is magnificent in its simplicity. The story spans the rest of the twentieth century and involves living, loving, parting, tragedy, and more than one metamorphosis for the "Glass Room" at the heart of the story. While the writing is controlled -- this can be over done and, in our book group discussion, there developed a consensus among the group that there were at least moments in the novel when the style was too controlled, where the irony was too heavy, and where the literary references were too forced. I would compare it too a film where the director is too heavy-handed resulting in the feeling that he is interfering with rather than directing the film. However, this did little to diminish my enjoyment of this novel nor did it deter our book group from unanimous praise of Mawer's literary creation.
In addition to the smooth almost glass-like writing style I was impressed by the structure of the book as the story gathers speed, develops the central characters, provides suspense and deftly links the various subplots. Early in the novel the architect, Rainer von Abt, tells the Landauers that:
"'I am a poet of space and form. Of light' -- it seemed to be no difficulty at all to drag another quality into his aesthetic -- 'of light and space and form. Architects are people who build walls and floors and roofs. I capture and enclose the space within.'"(p 16)
The author is also a poet whose aesthetic provides similar form for this story. Yes, this is the exciting era of modern architecture, of the new era represented by artists like Mondrian and others who were establishing "de stijl". The world is constantly changing and the artists, the architects, and musicians like Janacek and Kapralova are leading the way. The political world of the story is in turmoil with changes, including another war and its aftermath, lead the Landauers to new ventures, places, and loves as the plot unfolds. However, the key to the story remains the haunting spirit of the"Glass Room".
"She dreams. She dreams of cold. She dreams of glass and light, the Glass Room washed with reflection, and the cool view across the city of rooftops, the cold view through the trees, the crack of snow beneath your boots. She dreams of a place that is without form or substance, that exists only in the manner of dreams, shifting and insubstantial, diffuse, diverse;"(p 304)
The Glass Room by Simon Mawer. Other Press, 2009.