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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.

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