- The Glass Room
- Little Brown and Co. (UK), 416 pp.
As Light Becomes Darkness
A cat can look at a king, and Anthony Trollope could work as a postmaster every day while producing superb novels for that crowded literary field, Victorian England. Now, a British biology teacher and part-time novelist working near Rome, Simon Mawer, has been shortlisted for the most prestigious of any British literary award, the Mann Booker Prize, in the company of J.M. Coetzee and A.S. Byatt.
Mawer’s The Glass Room is a genuine intellectual achievement—a breath-taking story of love and its loss, of art and lost art, of wars lost and then won and lost again, of rich gentleman Jews and Jews lost to Nazi madness. His broad canvas covers the decades of Mittel-European horrors that began in Czechoslovakia in the 1930s. The themes are familiar, but treated in a fresh and stimulating, not to say disturbing, way.
When World War One ended in 1918 Czechoslavia, with over 13 million people, became a republic and parliamentary democracy for the first time. The new country under its first president Tomas Masaryk was one of the world’s ten most industrialized nations, and as the story begins the very air is iridescent with hope. Quiet, intense Viktor Landauer, co-owner of the successful Czech auto factory Landauer Motors, proudly entertains trade delegations from Austria, Poland and Germany, who are fascinated by the Landauer company’s car models, the Cabriolet and the Popular, and by its newly developed air-cooled aircraft engine. The world of commerce will conduct the world toward peace, he tells his potential customers, and to the liberation of the working man and his family. The only battles fought will be for market share. “This is the future,” he predicts.
The present is also agreeable, with train rides to the Hotel Sacher in Vienna for chocolate torte and, for Viktor, other treats, some of them forbidden.
His new home typifies the optimistic future. In building their first house, Viktor and his wife, the sensitive, willowy Liesel, reject the Austro-Hungarian predilection for thick walls, small windows, towers and turrets, ornate chandeliers, and the hefty furniture that brings to mind “coffins and pews.” Instead they select a famous Viennese Modernist architect who proposes, for their hillside site overlooking the town and its old castle, a “machine for living” in the manner of Mies van der Rohe. It will not be merely a house to live in, but an entire way of life, the architect informs them proudly. “I am a poet of space and form. Of light.”
The heart of the house was (and is, since—although its town of Mesto is fictional—the house actually exists) the vast Glasraum (glass space), a word at least lexically akin to the word Glastraum, or glass dream. Two of the room’s walls are glass and hence transparent, making of the Glasraum “a palace of light, light bouncing off the chrome pillars, light refulgent on the walls, light glistening on the dew in the garden, light reverberating from the glass. It as though they stood inside a crystal of salt.”
In the center is a grand piano, upon which a brilliant pianist friend plays Janáček for other friends who toast each other with Champagne. The sensation among those within, delighting in the music, is that they stand on the prow of a ship plunging thrillingly into space and the future, a future also of friendship and loves.
At the same time the space of the Glasraum is also visible from without. It is a stage upon which actors enter and exit, some stumbling forward, some dancing, some making love on the cream-colored floor made, daringly in a world of hardwood flooring, of linoleum.
As the lights began to dim, Mawer’s richly drawn characters are swept into the maelstrom of history. Mesto is a crossroads for Germans, Slavs, and Russians, and the future which had been so eagerly awaited resounds no longer with music, but with the “cacaphony of percussion” from explosions, gunfire, war planes. Viktor thinks of his lover, who has disappeared: “She is somewhere there, waiting. He thinks about her, what she knows and what she thinks. She seems a danger to him, a threat to his very existence.”
The actors performing on the Glasraum stage are, besides Viktor and his wife and their children, who finally flee to safety in Switzerland, the bold and unconventional Hana and her Jewish husband, who remain behind; the nanny involved in a painful but tender relationship with Viktor; a sharply defined Nazi doctor conducting a study of Slav and Jewish racial characteristics; and a sly handyman who becomes a contrabander and then a Stalinist party official.
Three currents are intertwined throughout: the arts, particularly music; love and its expressions through sex but not only; and politics. Mawer’s mastery over such complexity is delightful, and he is also a stylish writer. Small matter then that the narrative coincidences occur slightly too frequently for this reader’s taste. However, like the architecture of Vienna versus the arts of Modernism, that remains a matter of opinion, and in the larger sense this ambitious novel is as good as it gets.