By Ron Charles
Wednesday, November 11, 2009
THE GLASS ROOM
By Simon Mawer
Other. 405 pp. Paperback, $14.95
During the pause between world wars, a Jewish businessman and his new wife commissioned a startlingly modern house for themselves in Czechoslovakia. They hired the German architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and gave him free rein to design an avant-garde structure that looks like a Mondrian painting in three dimensions: a long, low building of dramatic straight lines, marked by a large room with floor-to-ceiling glass walls. Unbelievably, this elegant house survived the dismemberment of the First Republic of Czechoslovakia, German bombing, Soviet invasion and the natural forces that conspire against a neglected building. The Villa Tugendhat, which has been a public museum since the mid-1990s, remains a masterpiece of minimalist architecture, and now it's the evocative setting for a stirring new novel that almost won this year's Booker Prize.
The author, Simon Mawer, moves through six decades of European history, much of it unspeakably tragic, using the glass house as a window on the hopes and fears of its various inhabitants and the conflicts that rip Europe apart. Pianists and Nazis, doctors and servants, everyone is drawn to the living room's extraordinary vista and feels aroused by the promise of such clarity: This is "a place of balance and reason," Mawer writes, "an ageless place held in a rectilinear frame that handles light like a substance and volume like a tangible material and denies the very existence of time." But the architecture proves purer than the human spirit. Again and again, the residents of this glass house find they can't tolerate the light of full disclosure even as they're attracted to it.
Mawer has recast the original owner of the house as a sophisticated automobile magnate named Viktor Landauer. An idealist determined to throw off the trappings of religion, aristocracy and nationalism, he's prone to grand slogans about the future and eager to enlist a mesmerizing young architect from Germany, "a poet of space and structure" who shares his sense of the exciting new world. "Ever since Man came out of the cave he has been building caves around him," Mies tells Viktor. "But I wish to take Man out of the cave and float him in the air. I wish to give him a glass space to inhabit." Viktor finds these ideas captivating, no matter how expensive. This is the "dream that went with the spirit of a brand new country in which they found themselves," he thinks, "a state in which being Czech or German or Jew would not matter, in which democracy would prevail and art and science would combine to bring happiness to all people."
Mawer spreads the dramatic irony pretty thick here in the first part of the novel. With trouble already smoldering in Germany, two or three toasts to the gloriously peaceful future would have been plenty. Fortunately, he's more interesting and subtle in bringing out the small, private ways in which these characters fail to live up to their ideals. The Landauers' glass house has the effect "of liberating people from the strictures and conventions of the ordinary, of making them transparent," but that turns out to be a Foucauldian nightmare, more problematic than anyone realizes. Honestly, could you live in a place "where there will be no secrets"?
While the architect insists his clients don't need walls, Viktor discovers that, in fact, parts of his life must remain cloistered. His wife, Liesel, announces to a curious public that "living inside a work of art is an experience of sublime delight," but she doesn't know what Viktor is doing in the back streets of Vienna. And soon their happy marriage becomes a kind of stage performance, free for all to see but deeply deceptive.
"The Glass Room" works so effectively because Mawer embeds these provocative aesthetic and moral issues in a war-torn adventure story that's eerily erotic and tremendously exciting. No matter how transparent and luminescent their architecture, the Landauers still ride the murky currents of history. The house endures, "plain, balanced, perfect; and indifferent," but the family is swept aside by the battles that tear through Czechoslovakia.
In the second half of the novel, Mawer rotates several different casts through the Landauers' home, using the glass room to examine people entirely unlike the original owners. In one of the most chilling sections, a German geneticist sets up his laboratory in the abandoned house and hopes the light of science will confirm Hitler's racial propaganda. His work is peaceful -- lots of careful measuring and photographing, "the cool gaze of scientific objectivity" -- but that only renders the whole enterprise more obscene. And like everyone else who lives in this glass room, he finds that such bright exposure makes him more determined to conceal the darkest aspects of his life.
Mawer, an Englishman living in Italy, has written this novel as though it were a translation, endowing his prose with a patina of Old World formality that sounds all the more romantic. He claims he doesn't know Czech or German, but his characters speak both fluently, and his attention to foreign languages enriches every episode. These are, after all, people caught in the violent confluence of political upheaval; choosing to speak Czech or German or English becomes a matter of resistance or collusion or hope. And at crucial moments, certain foreign words illuminate the story in poignant ways, as when a Czech resident of the Landauers' old house realizes that "the word he used for room, pokoj, can also mean peace, tranquillity, quiet. So when he said 'the glass room' he was also saying 'the glass tranquillity.' "
In chapter after chapter, era after era, the house miraculously continues, working as a talisman, "its spirit of transparency percolating the human beings who stand within it, rendering them as translucent as the glass itself." Like this gorgeous novel, that's an irresistible promise, though far more troubling than it first appears.
Charles is the fiction editor of Book World. You can follow him on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/roncharles.