Tuesday, 6 October 2009

The Glass Room by Simon Mawer

The Glass Room is a place of exposure and seclusion, safety and vulnerability, love and evil. The eponymous room is at the heart of the Glass House, the masterpiece of modernist architect Rainer von Abt, built as a family home for newlyweds Liesel and Viktor Landauer in 1920s Czechoslovakia; the room will adapt to use as a place of love, of safety, of joy, of horror and of healing as the novel moves through key eras of Czech history, taking us from the hopeful days of the new nation at the start of the novel through to the consequences of the Velvet Revolution in 1990.

Mawer has cleverly woven his narrative into the history of the country, and the novel has many links with genuine historical figures. The Glass House itself is based on the Tugendhat House designed by Miese van der Rohe (according to Peter Gay, the design and development of the real house was much less harmonious than the version Mawer gives us; van der Rohe took little notice of the desires of his clients); Hedy Lamarr makes a brief appearance, as does the composer Vitěslava Kapràlovà. As soon as we realise that Viktor Landauer is Jewish, we know that twentieth-century history will be driving the plot of this novel. However, the narrative is not predictable or formulaic, and this is partly due to the complex set of human relationships that also inform the plot. Viktor and Liesel's marriage is companionable, but both seek passion elsewhere. Viktor falls in love with a Viennese prostitute, Katalin, who eventually comes to live with the family, a Jewish refugee from the Anschluss; Liesel maintains a complicated relationship with her best friend, the sexually adventurous Hana.

The tone of the novel is infused by the ambiguities of the Glass Room; some parts of the stories are clearly exposed to the reader, others are hidden from us. Large periods of time elapse between the novel's sections; some characters disappear, their narratives lost in the appaling circumstances of Central European history. These ambiguities are often amplified by the frequent play between the languages of the characters: German and Czech, sometimes Russian and English. The Glass Room becomes Glasraum in German; Raum has, as we know, a different meaning, one of space; the Czech pokoj, Mawer tells us, has the double meaning of tranquility or peace. By the time it is known primarily in Czech, it has become a place of healing, a gymnasium where disabled children do their physiotherapy exercises. By playing with language in this way Mawer preserves the ambiguities of his central symbol and ensures the engaging, unexpected quality of the writing.

The historical setting and range of characters reminded me a lot of Die Toten Bleiben Jung (The Dead Stay Young), a novel about Germany at the end of the second world war, and Part 4 of the novel seemed to be a homage to Kundera in its depictions of young lovers in Communist Czechoslovakia. Despite these echoes, the novel is anything but derivative, the writing fresh and crisp and often very beautiful. Mawer may have missed out on the Booker, but hopefully being shortlisted will make more readers aware of this book.

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