“Don’t be fooled by the Glass Room. It is only as rational as the people who inhabit it.” [pg. 360]
Simon Mawer’s The Glass Room received some excited reviews from bloggers – take, for instance, Kevin from Canada‘s. The premise certainly sounded intriguing: it is the story of a building, a Modernist masterpiece built to house a Czech couple, the Landauers, in the 1920s. The house as Mawer describes it exists, but the Landauers and the rest of the novel’s characters never did. This doesn’t prevent Mawer, however, from taking as his subject the sweep of central European history from the moment the house and its Glass Room are first dreamt of until its opening as a museum in a finally free Czech Republic.
This is his first mistake. In the Landauers, Viktor and Liesel, he has a compelling central couple – like their home they are frosty and formal, imposing upon themselves an artificial discipline, and their relationship, at first optimistic and hopeful, is soon reduced to a figurative sterility. Yet Mawer’s decision to make the house a metaphor – for quite what remains unclear, but its symbolic power is explicit – and to keep his focus on it, rather than his characters, as the sad history of Europe’s twentieth century parades around it, makes the novel something of a curate’s egg. For every evocative moment – the blasé parties of the early 1930s, for instance – there are bald, even hackneyed passages – the diluted life of Soviet Czechoslovakia is particularly crudely drawn.
The emotional life of his characters, too, seems painted in broad brush at times: though the Landauer’s share an intriguing connection, Viktor’s relationship with his mistress never quite convinces, with fatal consequences for the novel’s momentum. Likewise, his habit of too obviously joining the dots renders the novel far less universal than its over-long timeline seeks to be. “After the war,” one character opines, “we – that is the poor benighted inhabitants of this country – thought ourselves to be at the culmination of some historical process. But we were wrong. Actually we find ourselves in the middle of a process with no idea what the end will be.” [pg. 159] This specifity, this insistence on providing the interpretation, is simply unecessary – the novel shows us all this (and without the imposed contexts, possibly more) perfectly well on its own. It’s a sign of a lack of confidence, and pulls the reader out of the story on too many occassions.
Ultimately, The Glass Room is a potboiler – an at times melodramatic mini-saga which in at its best in the smaller moments. Had it restricted itself to the early chapters, the Modernist project which we know without all the ironic foreboding is doomed (all that’s missing at times on this front is a soundtrack of echoing timpani), Mawer could have written a very fine novel. As it is, The Glass Room is an enjoyable read which cannot capture all its too-many moments. After its earliest sections, everything else in the novel has been done better elsewhere, and by the final 100 pages the whole affair seems, alas, a little perfunctory.