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Book Review: The Glass Room by Simon Mawer

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Glass flows. Hard, transparent, scintillating, fragile, sharp: glass is liquid. In ancient buildings, the window glass thickens toward the bottom of the pane; the top edges gape or are merely molecules thick. Glass is liquid; it flows.

The Glass Room, by Simon Mawer demonstrates all of the properties of glass. Set in Czechoslovakia during the period shortly before and during World War II, The Glass Room flows smoothly through time and the lives of the characters tied to the title house. Through the windows of The Glass Room Mawer reveals the sparkling, delicate, and cutting edges of human love and loyalties. He shows that we all live in glass rooms; we curtain off even that which we declare to be transparent, but, ultimately, when the light shines through the glass in just the right way, everything we do is seen.

In the Afterword, Mawer explains the title. The Glass Room is “a translation of the original German — Der Glasraum.” Mawer goes on to explain that, in German, raum encompasses more than the six sides of a cube. “Raum is an expansive word. It is spacious, vague, precise, conceptual, literal, all those things…There is room to move in Raum.” So, The Glass Room of the title is more than a space; it is space. The room of the novel becomes a touchstone for the characters – a place to which they are drawn and a stage on which the stories of their lives are played. The room highlights the paradox of transparency and concealment within human motivation and emotion.

Newly married, Liesel and Viktor Landauer epitomize the modern esthetic of the newly created Czechoslovakia in the decades following the Great War. With wealth created through the Laundauer automobile company, Viktor and Liesel commission a new house that is as much art as architecture. The clean modernist lines and sleek materials reject the ornate clutter of the pre-war years; the open floor plan rejects old concepts of closed, dark rooms and hidden corridors. The piece de resistance of the Landauer House is The Glass Room, or glass space.

In this room, floor to ceiling window panes lower into the basement with the press of a button; an onyx wall’s gold veins are lit as if from an internal fire by the setting sun. As Liesel returns to the house in old age, she remembers “the slow slide of the pane downwards as though to remove the barrier that exists between reality and fiction, the fabricated world of the living room and the hard fact of snow and vegetation. There is a pause during which the two airs stand fragile and separate, the warmth within shivering, like a jelly against the wall of cold outside. And then this temporary equilibrium collapses so that winter with a cold sigh intrudes, and, presumably, their carefully constructed, carefully warmed interior air is dispersed into the outside world.”

Regardless of the care with which we create our environments, the chill of the outside world can always intrude. The sliding panes of the Glass Room reveal the delicacy of the boundary between the comfortable fictions we invent for ourselves, and the harsh realities of exposure. Even as they create a house of extraordinary beauty and transparency, Viktor and Liesel hide secrets – from each other, and from themselves. Viktor falls in love with a working class woman in Vienna, “a part-time tart” whose unpolished, bitten fingernails give him the impetus to allow the construction of the onyx wall. Onyx, from the Greek for nail, is said to represent the fingernail of Venus, the goddess of love.

As Viktor establishes his affair with Kata, far from the clean light and lines of his glass room, Liesel falls into a deeper involvement with her friend Hana. For several years, the couple balances the overt and hidden aspects of their lives – smoothly keeping each on its own side of the boundary. Then, forces beyond the boundary of their own nation intrude.

Created by the League of Nations as an independent democracy carved from the former Austro-Hungarian Empire following WWI, Czechoslovakia led a tenuous existence, with ethnic Slavs and ethnic Germans co-existing in uneasy harmony. Into the mix are thrown the Jews whose financial successes and religious differences are beginning to attract muttered attentions in dangerous political circles.

In the Glass Room of the Landauer house, the union inside mirrors the delicate mixture beyond the sliding panes. Though non-observant and a fierce rationalist, Viktor is of Jewish heritage. In the cluttered, irrational world beyond his modern home, powerful people are beginning to look with suspicion on institutions such as Viktor’s marriage to the ethnic German Liesel. Yet, for the first few years of their marriage, Viktor and Liesel create their ideal Czechoslovakia within their fish-bowl of a room: Jews, Germans, Slavs, artists, and thinkers of all stripes in a clean, brilliant space uncluttered or contaminated by the fears and ugliness of the past.

Like all utopias, this one is doomed to fail. Germany invades Czechoslovakia, and the Landauers flee to Switzerland, abandoning their transparent modern world. However, in Switzerland, the undercurrents of their marriage, nearly invisible in the light of their glass house, are revealed. In an antique villa where the line between reality and fiction, between indoors and out, consists of heavy, carved wood and dark shadow, Viktor and Liesel can no longer hide from their infidelities or from the careful fiction they have created of a devoted husband, wife, children, and nanny vacationing near an alpine lake. Yes, nanny. Kata, forced to flee Austria as the pogroms began, makes her way to Czechoslovakia and, with a group of refugees, to the Landauer house.

Throughout the years of the novel, Mawer uses the Landauer house and the Glass Room in particular as an axis, a turning point on which the story revolves. The sliding panes of the Glass Room act as a curtain to the stage on which the central dramas of the novel are born and play out. The sense of watching, rather than reading, the story is enhanced by Mawer’s shifts from a novelist’s past tense into a story-teller’s present tense. The present tense brings a visual aspect to the story line as we are shown the characters as actors upon a stage.

Eloquently written without being dense or obscure, The Glass Room delivers a luminous, clean-lined story worthy of its namesake. Skillful point-of-view transitions shine the spotlight on each character in turn. The female characters are richly drawn with emotional lives that are depicted poignantly yet without melodrama. However, Mawer displays a tendency to abandon his male characters before they are complete. We see this first with the architect von Abt. Just as we begin to develop a sense of his internal life, he moves to America. This trend follows with many of the other male characters, most noticeably and irksomely with Viktor. Viktor’s restraint and obfuscation even from himself make him a difficult character with whom to connect, but it feels as if his final scenes of the story take place off stage. Granted, in life, it is common to never truly know people before they leave our lives, but in a novel, my preference is to know the central characters a bit better than I felt I knew Viktor.

Despite the tumultuous setting, The Glass Room is a quiet novel: well paced, but without extremes of suspense. Despite this subtlety, emotional lines are drawn with a restrained tension that binds the story. Finally — and this is perhaps the best thing that can be said of any book — like its characters, I didn’t want to leave The Glass Room.

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About Christy Corp-Minamiji