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.