Simon Mawer’s The Glass Room seems to be a popular favourite among those reading the Booker Prize shortlist. Its shortlisting was the tipping point I needed to make me read it after KevinfromCanada offered it early praise, which had lodged it in my mind as one to watch … or read … eventually. However it may have been the high expectations thereby established which made it something of a disappointment for me.
The Glass Room has been described as a book where the central character is a building, the Landauer House in Mesto in the Czech Republic (based on the real Villa Tugendhat in Brno, designed by Mies van der Rohe). It is commissioned by Viktor and Liesel Landauer, a motor magnate and his wife, when they meet architect Rainer von Abt while on honeymoon in Venice. Or, as von Abt prefers to style himself, “a poet of space and structure.” The Landauers, in love with the future, agree to let him build their new home, but von Abt wishes to work not in stone and concrete but in glass and steel.
‘Ever since Man came out of the cave he has been building caves around him,’ he cried. ‘Building caves! But I wish to take Man out of the cave and float him in the air. I wish to give him a glass space to inhabit.’
This glass space (der Glasraum) turns out to be the extraordinary open plan lower level which he designs for this modernist masterpiece. “The impact of the place overwhelms visitors, especially those who are used to riches being expressed in things, possessions, the ornamental bric-a-brac of the wealthy, and instead discover here the ultimate opulence of pure abstraction.” It is an extraordinary creation, but it is beautiful only while the Landauers are happy in it, living full lives and surrounded by family, workers and friends. The most significant friend is Hana, introduced to us in a miraculous four-page scene where her relationship with Liesel Landauer is established: and if the book has a central human character it is her.
Hana’s introduction coincides with discoveries of divisions between the Landauers. They sleep in separate rooms; Hana is disliked by Viktor but loved as a sister by Liesel; while Viktor, a man of energy and appetite, begins to find one kind of satisfaction elsewhere. It is Hana, too, who nods to the reader by reminding Liesel that “it’s too good to last. … The good times. All this. The world we live in.” Sure enough, the 1930s are passing, the Nazis are on their way, and their new laws elsewhere in Europe mean that “Viktor has come to feel his Jewishness.”
When they leave the house, not only does it lose its life (“A house without people has no dimensions. It just is. An enclosed space, a box”) but also its purpose in the book. The Landauers occupy their house for the first half of the book – about 200 pages – and we know them intimately. After this, the house passes through various uses – a laboratory for Nazi racial profiling tests, a therapy space for disabled children – but the characters come and go, are never well established, and all the time I was thinking, “But what about the Landauers?” Fortunately we do return to them regularly, and Hana continues to play a central role, but her relationship with Stahl in Part 2 ends in melodrama which seems out of place. Thereafter the pace steps up too quickly and the book never regains the poise of its first half.
The Glass Room, with its wide time frame, cast of characters, and historical overview, is an ambitious work, but it seems to show above all that books like this are hard to do well. It also seems keen at times to hit the reader over the head, as when highlighting the futility of racial profiling. When Stahl tells Hana that the tests are “very straightforward”, she responds (in the last line of a chapter), “But human beings are not straightforward. They are very complex.” The point is reiterated, in ironic terms, 70 pages later. There are also a couple of coincidences or neatnesses which strain the reader’s credulity.
Mawer has written a workmanlike piece of literary fiction (it even says Literary Fiction above the barcode on the back), but in a Booker shortlist that contains a novel as arresting and original as Coetzee’s Summertime, this doesn’t seem to be quite enough. It is a well done example of its type, and contains plenty to chew on from 20th century politics to the eternal mysteries of the human heart – but it never set my pulse racing, except once, with a risky homage to another writer (“Behind the glass wall snow is falling. It is falling over the whole city, out of a sky as heavy and sombre as a funeral shroud. It is falling on the soldiers in the Sudetenland, and the soldiers in the Czech lands as they try to consolidate the hurriedly improvised border. It is falling on the triumphant and the dispossessed, on those that have and those that have not…”).
While they are exiled from their home, Liesel Landauer occasionally wonders when they can go back. “But you can’t go back, can you?” someone else tells her. “You can only go forward.” I must admit that for the last hundred pages or so, the only thing keeping me going forward through The Glass Room was momentum. It is a book of many aspects, some done well, but as an account of Jewish suffering in Europe under the Nazis, it seemed particularly weak. This might have been because whereas other such books I’ve read were based on experience, Mawer is clear that his work is the result of thorough research. It may have been this that gave the book for me a certain soullessness, as though the cold glass and steel of the Landauer house was what the story was constructed out of too.