THE GLASS ROOM
By Simon Mawer
Other Press, 405 pages, $14.95
A rich young couple hire a star architect to build them a dream house with a living room made of glass. High on newlywed bliss and the envy of their neighbors, they view their home as “a kind of perfection, the finest instrument for living.” So far, so good — only he’s Jewish, she’s Gentile and they live in Czechoslovakia on the eve of World War II.
“The Glass Room,” a finalist for the 2009 Booker Prize, is the saga of a family and a nation at war. The protagonists, Viktor and Liesel Landauer, live in style, throw parties in their modern house, and send their bilingual children to Montessori School to be global citizens. The Landauers want a secular, cosmopolitan life, free from the perils of national, religious and ethnic tribalism. But the dream shatters when the Nazis seize power, annex Austria and invade Czechoslovakia. Soon Viktor and Liesel flee the country, only to face domestic strife that threatens to destroy their family.
With his tenth book, British writer Simon Mawer once again enlists history as a muse. His novels have treated the legacy of war in Europe, as well as such famous and infamous figures as Gregor Mendel and Judas Iscariot.
In “The Glass Room,” Viktor doesn’t practice Judaism, but stoically embraces his heritage to oppose the Third Reich, where his marriage to a Christian was a crime and his “mixed-race” children denigrated. “I’m a Jew,” he says. “Whether I like it or not.” With his wealth and influence, he aids refugees and spirits his family to safety.
What sets the novel apart from stories about this era is the glass room itself: a temple of beauty and eeriness that reflects the characters’ hopes and fears. The first glimpse comes from Liesel, who returns home after years in exile.
A faint sigh, organic, almost sexual, came from somewhere deep in her. She could feel the volume as though it had physical substance, as though her face were immersed in it. Space made manifest. She could feel the light from the expanse of plate glass that made up the south wall, smell the Macassar wood, sense the people standing there between the glass and the onyx wall, between the plain white ceiling and the ivory white floor…her brother there, although he had never known the place, her friends, her parents, all of them there.
While she and Viktor live in the house for nearly a decade before they flee Czechoslovakia, world events and family strife undermine their dream of happiness. For the Landauers and characters who inhabit the house after their exile, glass is a metaphor for sterility and warmth, transparency and deception, love and violence. Paradoxically, the room is both a prison and a sanctuary.
The room also embodies the battle of the sexes at the heart of the novel, which is packed with love triangles and trysts. Mawer depicts the Landauer house as a hermaphrodite, with masculine angles and edges offset by feminine touches, such as a statue of a pregnant woman and an onyx wall that glows when penetrated by the sun.
More broadly, the glass room speaks to the triumphs and horrors of modernity. As war looms, the utopian, futuristic vision of the glass room starts to sound like Third Reich propaganda. And when the Landauers flee for their lives, the house built as a temple of peace becomes a lab for Nazi hatred. Throughout, the novel dramatizes the clash between ideals of tradition and progress. As characters assert reverence for the past and thirst for the future, the reader sees the limits and dangers of such extremes.
Born in 1948, Mawer writes about World War II with the confidence and realism of his contemporary and compatriot, Ian McEwan, who was born the same year. In contrast with the scope and breadth of “The Glass Room,” its chapters are compact, with signpost titles such as “Honeymoon,” “Commitment” and “Conception.”
Mawer moves with grace among multiple points of view and establishes sympathy for characters with competing interests. In particular, he captures the warmth buried within men, like Viktor, who tend toward coldness and rationality.
Still, the heat of the novel comes from the female characters such as Liesel and Hana, her soul mate, and their parallel and overlapping quests for survival and love.
Both the glass house and its fictional location of Město (Czech for “city”) are based on real places. And besides the proverb about throwing stones, the setting owes a nod to André Breton’s 1928 novel “Nadja,” which Viktor quotes at a party.
I shall live in my glass house where you can always see who comes to call, where everything hanging from the ceiling and on the walls stays where it is as if by magic, where I sleep nights in a glass bed under glass sheets, where the words who I am will sooner or later appear etched by a diamond.
While far from the bliss that Breton and the Landauers imagine, the glass room testifies to both the fragility and resilience of people, families and nations.
Keith Meatto recently completed a residency at the Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts in Nebraska. He is writing a collection of short fiction.