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Der Glasraum - The Glass Room by Simon Mawer

The Glass Room by Simon Mawer.

In an interview with The Guardian in the aftermath of being shortlisted for The Booker Prize for The Glass Room, (which went on to be scooped by Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall) Mawer was referred to as a writer’s writer. It’s a curious moniker – like a chef’s chef, but one which says much, like a chef’s chef, one who cooks plain unfussy food at expert level – a welcome to the jadedly fussed-up palates of many a chef. In this regard, the prose style of The Glass Room, the first Mawer I’ve so far read, is unfussy. Each description is precise yet poetic – ‘the wave creaming up the shore’. Yet ‘writer’s writer’ also implies a less than satisfactory readership. Another writer with a crystal clear prose style was the late Richard Yates, and he was often referred to as ‘the writer’s writer’, firstly because he was so admired by the students he taught, as well as his contemporaries. He was, however, largely ignored for a long time by the American reader. His stories, like his prose, was too revealing of the ennui, the crushing disappointments that feature in so many of our lives. He ripped away the facade of the ‘American Dream’. The Glass Room, or Der Glasraum (raum meaning more than room, but space). It is also transparent – revealing the undercurrent of darkness, confusion, detachment, repressed and expressed sexual desire.

There is one scene that conjures perfectly the gradual slide into uncertainty when, in one conversation, Viktor is reading the newspaper and is telling his wife that they must make plans to leave Chekoslovakia for Switzerlad. Yet Liesel is flicking through a fashion magazine, and the model on the page is described by Mawer as flat chested and bored looking, languid, her face all angles – which is a good description of Liesel and her condition – the rich (Aryan) woman living in the glass house with nothing much to do in the run up to the Hitler’s reign than browse fashion magazines that betrays her denial of any life beyond her glass house, whilst her Jewish husband sees the writing on the wall. Mawer also, through the objective correlative of the glass house, based on the Tugendhat House, designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rhoe, in 1930, skilfully proceeds to shatter the facade of the Landauers. Viktor, Liesel, and their hedonistic friend, Hana, and her Jewish husband, Oskar.

I have taken the following summary of the story from the author’s own website:

High on a Czechoslovak hill, the Landauer House shines as a marvel of steel and glass and onyx. Built specially for newlyweds Viktor and Liesel Landauer, a Jew married to a gentile, it is one of the wonders of modernist architecture. But the radiant honesty and idealism of 1930 that the house seems to engender quickly tarnishes as the storm clouds of World War Two gather. Eventually, as Nazi troops enter the country, the family, accompanied by Viktor’s lover Kata and her child Marika, must flee.

Yet the family’s exile does not signify the end of this spectacular building. It slips from hand to hand, from Czech to Nazi to Soviet and finally back to the Czechoslovak state, the crystalline perfection of the Glass Room always exerting a gravitational pull on those who know it. It becomes a laboratory, a shelter from the storm of war, and a place where the broken and the ruined find some kind of comfort, until with the collapse of Communism, the Landauers are finally drawn back to where their story began.

The Glass Room has a life of its own. After the Laundauers flee the authorities sequester it – it is first used as a biometric centre – the cold scientific objectives of the main scientist, Stahl, finding a natural environment in which to survey a conveyor belt of different races as he is charged by Hitler to find common characteristics of Jews. Yet, finding none, the house is closed up, bombed, and then becomes a physiotherapy centre for physically disabled children, before finally being turned into a museum.

It is a poignant, brilliant book written with precise yet poetic prose – expertly paced to gradually reveal the shocks that come, turn by turn, and the excellent characterisation, particularly of Hana. The funny thing is, whist Mantel’s Wolf Hall beat Mawer to the Booker last year, it was Mantel's book that I put to one side (less than a third of the way through, and still intending to return to it) to pick this up.

You can read the first chapter, here.

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