Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Bridget's Review: The Glass Room

I admit that I picked this book up because it was sitting on the "Free Book" table outside of my office and was persuaded to read it because it was a Booker finalist in 2009 (and thus a candidate for Complete Booker inclusion!). It is another of the seemingly endless stream of books written about World War II and its lead-up and aftermath. Admittedly, this is a time period with amazing narrative potential; nearly every major country in the world has its own story to tell.

This particular book centers around the story of a Czech couple who begin their life together in the late 1920s. I am personally fascinated with this period and the literature produced both within and about it--there is a certain pleasurable omniscient doom that comes with reading about that period before the Second World War went and made a mockery of the First World War's claims to be "Great." Liesel and Viktor Landauer are confident in their future and the improvements that are sure to come, and they make this hope manifest in the designing and building of their dream home. They hire a visionary architect, von Abt, to design a space free of all ornamentation, a house that will liberate them from all of the hindrances of the past. In an early conversation, Viktor and von Abt discuss the value of modern over neo-Gothic architecture. Von Abt says the true ideal is the Japanese house of paper, which does not injure its inhabitants if it happens to fall down. But here is the novel's central problem: how do you move from houses of stone to houses of paper, from the old to the new, without people getting crushed in the process?

Viktor and Liesel see their home as its own revolution. They "watched their future world growing around them and they thought that it was a kind of perfection, the finest instrument for living." But quickly the reader understands that the glass walls of the house give only a false sense of transparency.

They crowd into the space of the Glass Room like passengers on the observation deck of a luxury liner. Some of them maybe peering out through the windows onto the pitching surface of the city, but, in their muddle of Czech and German, almost all of ignorant of the cold outside and the gathering storm clouds, the first sigh of the tempest that is coming.

This counterfeit safety is revealed first in Viktor and Liesel's relationship and then slowly through their entire world. Viktor is Jewish and Liesel Christian, and though Viktor begins to understand their vulnerability as the Nazis cut a wider and wider swath, Liesel maintains her belief in invisible lines. "The story is there, not here" she says, "It is over the border in another country, another world, another universe." Of course, those borders reveal themselves to be as fragile as glass.

Mawer's book convincingly explores these large ideas, though at times his personification of the Glass Room begins to grate. Ultimately, it is the inhumanity of the house that seems significant. Viktor believes that the value of the house lies in the fact that "there are no disturbing curves to upset the rectilinear austerity of the space. There is nothing convolute, involute, awkward, or complex." In other words, there is no life. The house is just an object, a modern statement that becomes a relic by the book's close. The people, the living, continue to struggle on.

*If anyone is interested in seeing the real "Landauer House", actually the Villa Tugendhat in Brno, Czech Republic, click here.

Cross-posted from my blog.


  1. Excellent review, Bridget. This sounds like one I need to keep in mind.

  2. What a great idea for a blog. This book sounds really interesting. I like the idea of telling a story through architecture, so to speak.