The Glass Room

glass-room

The whole essence of the Glass Room is reason. That is what Viktor thinks, anyway. For him it embodies the pure rationality of a Greek classical temple, the austere beauty of a perfect composition, the grace and balance of a painting by Mondrian. There are no disturbing curves to upset the rectilinear austerity of the space. There is nothing convolute, involute, awkward or complex. Here everything can be understood as a matter of proportion and dimension.

Viktor and Liesel Landauer believe that they, with the help of their architect Rainer von Abt, have created the perfect home. Set on a hillside of a Czech town, their house is itself a work of art, and its most arresting feature is a glass room that serves as the primary living space. It may seem like an unusual choice to live in such a home, but Liesel defends her choice with  passion:

Living inside a work of art is an experience of sublime delight—the tranquility of the large living room and the intimacy of the smaller rooms on the upper floor combined together give her family the most remarkable experience of modern living.

What Viktor and Liesel do not realize is that modern living cannot be an experience of sublime delight when your home is in 1930s Czechoslovakia and especially not when one of you is a Jew. It doesn’t take long after the house is built for the new reality of modernity that is National Socialism to start nibbling away at the corners of their uncomplicated existence. No amount of planning and design can keep such irrational evil from disrupting one’s life, and it does disrupt Viktor and Liesel’s life, forcing them to abandon not only their illusions that they can create a perfect place, but also the place itself.  But even before that, Viktor and Liesel’s own affections and disloyalties create disorder. The essence of the Glass Room may be reason, but it doesn’t prove to be the essence of life, not for Viktor and Liesel, and not for the others who take up residence in the Glass Room over the years.

Simon Mawer’s The Glass Room begins as a story of a house and a marriage, but even after the couple the leaves the house, the house remains the central story. Others come to occupy the house and make their own attempts to create some sort of perfect place. But they find that nothing ever quite works out as they intend.

There’s a lot about this book to admire. Mawer is wonderful with words, as you can see from the excerpts above; his prose only rarely seems overblown. The sections on the building of the Landauer’s house (which is based on the Villa Tugendhat, designed by Mies Van Der Rohe) were very interesting. And I think Mawer brings out some interesting ideas about our sometimes misguided efforts to organize our environments and to shed the supposedly unnecessary ornaments of the past. The truth is, it can’t be done, and the question is, should we even attempt it?

Even though I admired these ideas, I think they’re too easily hidden in what seem to me to be predictable tropes common to so much literary fiction today. Almost every central relationship is sexual, whether consummated or not, and characters are far more accepting of unusual choices in that arena than I believe they would have been at that time. I just couldn’t quite buy it, and I couldn’t pin down whether Mawer was celebrating libertinism or whether he’s using sexuality to show how difficult it is for us to control ourselves, much less the world around us. If it’s the former—well, that’s a big yawner. However, I think he’s trying to get at the latter point, which is much more interesting, but it would have been helpful to find some other appetites or obsessions to round out the picture more. Sexual risk taking is not really narrative risk taking in this day and age. And for the most part, the novel just doesn’t take many risks.

The Glass Room got a lot of positive buzz as part of the Booker shortlist, but as I was reading I couldn’t help but feel a little disappointed. It’s good—very good, but it’s also ordinary. It never quite becomes more than an excellent piece of high-end literary fiction. It’s still excellent, more elegant and complex than a lot of “book club bait” that gets classed as literary fiction. But the other shortlisted books that I read stretched the form somehow. This didn’t. I liked it, but as a Booker contender, it didn’t quite live up to the extraordinarily high standard set by its competitors.

See other reviews at KevinfromCanada, dovegreyreader scribbles, Farm Lane Books, Paperback Reader, Asylum, and Lizzy’s Literary Life.

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11 Responses to The Glass Room

  1. Ann says:

    This is the only one of the short list that I haven’t as yet managed to get hold of, although after last night’s decision it may well prove to be easier to reserve from the library. I know it was the surprise on the list and from what you say here I would certainly think that there were others on the long list that I read that were better. However, I will read it when it arrives and reserve judgment until then.

  2. Claire says:

    I don’t think that The Glass Room was at all ordinary and it was my favourite from the shortlist (favourites from the longlist are reserved for The Wilderness, How to Paint a Dead Man and Heliopolis). Granted it did not have the sophistication of the meta-narrative of Summertime and may have been a little predictable and neatly tied-up but it had a plot that propelled it forward and engaged me unlike The Children’s Book. Both the Byatt and sadly the Waters were too dry for me.

  3. diane says:

    This book sounds amazing, but our libraries do not have it.

  4. Steph says:

    I think you offered a really interesting perspective here, Teresa. Of the various books on the short list, this is one that I’m more interested in reading than others, but to this point I had only read raves! I find the concept really interesting, as well as some of the ideas it explores – it may not have won the Booker, but I will still seek it out, I think. After all, high-end literary fiction is worth my time (far more so than book club bait! ;) ).

  5. Teresa says:

    Ann: It is a very good book and deserving of much praise, but I’m not sure it’ll stick with me. Overall, I liked Brooklyn and The Wilderness from the long list more.

    Claire: I did like it quite a bit, but it didn’t measure up to the Coetzee, Waters, or Mantel. And it did read well–it just seemed too predictable. And I didn’t find the Waters dry at all, which just shows how subjective these kinds of things are :-)

    Diane: That’s the trouble with following the Booker–so many of the books are only available via the Book Depository but not yet at the library. I think the U.S. release is in December, and I’m guessing a lot of libraries here will order it.

    Steph: I too had heard pretty much nothing but raves and although I liked this, I didn’t think it was quite as special as the raves led me to expect. But it is worth seeking out.

  6. I really want to read this book, and fancy grabbing a copy in the next few days. I’ve heard loads of amazing things about it, but maybe, your review’s reduced my expectations a tad.

    Hope I enjoy it (Sorry – don’t want to make this all about me).

  7. anokatony says:

    I haven’t read “The Glass Room”, but I do have a review of Simon Mawer’s “The Fall” at :
    http://anokatony.wordpress.com/2009/09/29/the-fall-by-simon-mawer/

  8. litlove says:

    I’m still waiting for my cut-price set of shortlisted Booker books to arrive and these posts are making me salivate! I think it was an excellent line-up this year, and I’m looking forward to reading all the titles – this one included. I’m intrigued by the use of sexuality and would like to see how it plays out for myself.

  9. Teresa says:

    uncertainprinciples: I hope you do enjoy it! It is a good book, but it just didn’t stir me the way some of the others on the shortlist did.

    anokatony: Thanks for the link! I think I liked this more than you did The Fall, but yes, the tendency to being a too facile and well-constructed is evident here. A little more derring-do in his storytelling, though, and Mawer could reach the summit, I think.

    litlove: Yes, it was an excellent line-up this year. Even the weaker books were great. And for what it’s worth, my main issue with the sexuality is that so much lit fic these days seems to use sex as shorthand for something else–for being morally conflicted, or ahead of one’s time, or adventurous and not bound by tradition, for being open to love. It starts to feel like lazy characterization.

  10. rebeccareid says:

    I’m so sad to read that it focuses on the sexual relationships! Overly sexual books are why I started steering clear of modern fiction in the first place, so I’m really sad to say this sounds like a book I’ll probably pass on. The entire premise of the story of the house sounded so wonderful!!

  11. Teresa says:

    rebecca: For what it’s worth, it never gets particularly graphic about the sexuality. It’s just that almost every single close relationship has a sexual element. I don’t mind frank sexual discussions, but it gets tiresome when every modern author seems to go there.

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