Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The Glass Room by Simon Mawer

I love a novel with a house at its centre, as its core. To the Lighthouse, most books by L.M. Montgomery, Rebecca, Virginia Lee Burton's The Little House, and I mean all that. I love a novel in which the house is the main character, and the rest is just rearrangement of the furniture, and how the house is the constant through history and time, changing and unchanging. The present, the future, and the past.

The house in Simon Mawer's The Glass Room (shortlisted for the 2009 Man-Booker Prize) is Landauer House, built on the eve of the 1930s for wealthy newlyweds Viktor and Liesel Landauer. Set on a hillside overlooking the fictional Czech city of Mesto, Landauer House (which has a real-life precedent; see here) is a stark, modern building without adornment. Designed by an architect who doesn't call himself one: "'I am a poet of space and form. Of light... Architects are people who build walls and floors and roofs. I capture and enclose the space within.'"

To the Landauer's, and to everyone, their house represents modernity, which seems to be synonymous with "the future". In the newly formed Czechoslovakia, with the old order overthrown, to believe that now is the future is not entirely naive. Now is a time of idealism realized, when people live in glass houses, entirely trusting of peace, and live their lives in the open, with nothing to hide. In such an era of freedom and inhibition, the Landauers' marriage bonds begin to unravel early on. Viktor begins an affair with a common seamstress he meets on the streets of Vienna, Liesel's passionate relationship with her best friend Hana grows deeper. In the Glass Room of their house, overlooking the city, these two live a new kind of ordinary life that is without precedent.

History is the culmination of such quotidian details, however, and history eventually arrives to show how precarious their peace has all along been. Viktor Landauer, who is Jewish, pays close attention to political events unfolding in Germany and Austria, and though Liesel has protested that these events have nothing to do with them, Viktor is proven right when the Germans invade Czechoslovakia in 1939. However he's been squirreling money away to Swiss bank accounts and he and his family escape just in time, but they leave Landauer House behind, of course. And so the house continues through history without them to the present day and a satisfying (perhaps too much so?) epilogue.

The story loses some momentum once the Landauers and their associates have parted from it, but the house as an achor is compelling enough. The house is abandoned, used as a labratory by Nazi scientists, and then as a physiotherapy clinic during the 1960s and the Velvet Revolution (and here it begins to read like a Milan Kundera novel, but maybe I'd think that about any narrative containing a Tomas).

The prose is devourable, with smart dialogue, and interesting in that English is used to stand for a hodgepodge of languages and dialects spoken in that part of Europe at that time. Mawer is able to bend English to differentiate between these different ways of speaking, and apart from some conspicuous Britishisms, this is effective. (Or maybe it was only conspicuous because I don't speak British-English myself, but a few "bloodys" and "jolly-well"ish lines read a bit oddly for people who were supposed to be speaking Czech or German.)

I had reservations as I read this book-- initially, its characters seem all too conscious of their places in history. Of course, the personal is political, but never once did the Landauers or their friends have a dinner party conversation that didn't have massive implications. I sincerely doubt that anyone has ever uttered a line like, "Viktor, you are losing your nerve. It was you who wanted a house for the future and now you seem to hanker after the solid ideas of the past." There is no subtlety as to these characters' places in time (and let us just say that James Wood would hate this book). There is also a scene that eroticizes breastfeeding, which I've never seen before, and I just couldn't buy it. But maybe that's just me...

As I read the book, however, I gave up the reservations. Yes, its characters stood for too much, but that's why they're characters and not people, and this is a story after all. A story that sweeps, and it did it to me, and so I was enthralled by all its twists and turns and coincidences as I followed the Landauers through the years, through History:

"The coincidence might seem some kind of predestination but he knows that it is not so-- it is pure caprice. You can call it malicious if you like but in fact it is neutral. Things just happen. One country occupies another; people flee, scatter across the countryside, some here, some there, like thrown dice... What was one chance in a million suddenly becomes a certainty. Because it has happened."