“A Place of Reason”: Simon Mawer, The Glass Room

mawer1She stands for a moment, one last moment, looking at the Glass Room. Rain runs down the windows like tears from her eyes. The light is diffused, refracted, blurred by the water; just so are memories distorted by time and mood. This is no place for sentiment. It is a place of reason. And yet sentiment is what she feels, the anguish of departure, the exquisite pain of remembering, the fragility of being. When will she be here again?

I picked up The Glass Room at the most recent Women For Music book sale because of the posts at Café Society about Mawer’s The Girl Who Fell From the Sky. This is one of the books I almost bought on my summer trip to England; in the end it lost out to other choices, but Mawer went on my mental list of writers to keep an eye out for. I didn’t love The Glass Room, but it was certainly good enough to keep him on that list.

The Glass Room is at once an intimate family story and, albeit mostly in the background, a sweeping saga about the rise and fall of the First Czechosloval Republic and the Second World War. Its central device is the architectural wonder of a house built for the wealthy Landauer family, featuring its spectacular glass room, a marvel of openness and light:

Finally they laid the linoleum, linoleum the colour of ivory, as lucid as spilled milk. During the day the light from the windows flooded over it and rendered it almost translucent, as though a shallow pool lay between the entrance and the glass; during the evening the ceiling lights–petalled blooms of frosted glass–threw reflections down into the depths. On the upper floor there were rooms, zimmer, boxes with walls and doors; but down here there was room, raum, space.

“Raum is an expansive word,” Mawer remarks in his ‘Afterword’; “It is spacious, vague, precise, conceptual, literal, all those things.” I could see, reading the novel, how he set out to use the Landauers’ room to evoke other kinds of room or space, especially through the different things people do there: they make music, they dance, they have sex, they seek or offer shelter.

mawer2The room itself is beautiful, especially its onyx wall, which reflects the setting sun in an astonishing flare of colour. But not all of its uses are benign: the novel’s historical setting inevitably reminds us of the term ‘Lebensraum,‘ and that anticipates the way the house changes hands and uses when the Landauers flee to Switzerland–Viktor is Jewish, and that puts him and his family at risk. Their house is taken over by German “scientists,” who use it as a laboratory for their research into racial differences:

In the measurement areas the staff work in pairs, a recorder and an examiner, the one positioning the subject at the stadiometer–legs fractionally apart, heels, buttocks and shoulder blades in contact with the back board, heads held in a grip . . . Measurements are taken: total height, hip diameter, chest diamter. Then sitting: leg measurements, arm measurements. Then the dentist’s chair: head dimensions, the callipers holding the different crania in their cool jaws . . . Stahl watches, enthralled by the systematic measurements of what defines human and subhuman, of what makes Herrenvolk and Undermenschen.

Later, when the Czech city is “liberated” by the Red Army, the house changes hands again; eventually it is declared the property of the state, and finally restored and opened as a museum.

In the meantime, the Landauers have had to leave their house, their memories, their lives behind. They move on, settling eventually in America as the Landors. Some of their friends are not so lucky; Mawer avoids direct representations of the horrors of the camps, but it is quietly chilling when the Landauer’s travelling companions are pulled off the train in Occupied France by Germans unmoved by their papers, or when we hear Stahl placing a call we know will bring devastation to the Landauers’ closest friends. As these stories unfold, the Glass Room seems like a manifestation of the chaos and pain:

The great plate-glass windows of the Glass Room shake and shudder in the gales. During one storm, suddenly and with a sharp crack that no one hears, the pane at the furthest end near the conservatory is fractured right across, creating a diagonal line of reflection like a cataract in a cornea.

When people who knew the room as a beacon of grace and beauty return to it during and after the war, it is a reminder of what has been lost, but also a sign that something still endures.

mawer3Overall, this works well: it’s a good concept, and Mawer comes across as an extremely competent novelist. If that sounds like damning with faint praise, though, it sort of is. I am surprised that The Glass Room was shortlisted for the Booker Prize (in 2009): to me it was a well-executed concept but not an exhilarating accomplishment. At times, it seemed to me to be trying too hard to be great and profound. Its symbolism and its prose both felt heavy-handed, as here:

History is here and now, in the beautiful and austere face of Hana Hanáková. There in the Glass Room of the Landauer House, feeling as helpless as a person at the scene of an accident who doesn’t know how to staunch the bleeding. Zdenka goes round the table and puts her arms around the older woman and tries to comfort her. And all around them is the past, frozen into a construct of glass and concrete and chrome, the Glass Room with its onyx wall and its partitions of tropical hardwood and the milky petals of its ceiling lights, a space, a Raum so modern when Rainer von Abt designed it, yet now, as Hana Hanáková sits and weeps, so imbued with the past.

Or here:

And all around them is the Glass Room, a place of balance and reason, an ageless place held in a rectilinear frame that handles light like a substance and volume like a tangible material and denies the very existence of time.

(Or in the quotation I chose for my epigraph.) Was Mawer afraid his readers would not be able to read any of this into the Glass Room on our own? My irritation at these overwrought moments made The Glass Room a near miss for me–but I would still like to read The Girl Who Fell From the Sky, or maybe Prague Spring, which seems to be the only one of Mawer’s books currently stocked by any local bookstores.

As a side note, the Landauer House is based on the  Vila Tugendhat in the Czech town of Brno. Here’s one of the photos from their site, taken by David Židlický, showing the glass room and the onyx wall.

tugendhat_villa_f1635