The Glass Room by Simon Mawer – Seeing Through Motive and Behaviour

In his novel, The Glass Room, Simon Mawer starts with a picture of privilege. Through that he explores human relationships, families, history, sexuality and change, to list just a few of the elements and themes that feature. Not only does he blend these and other penetrating ideas, he also consistently and utterly engages the reader, draws the observer in so effectively that sometimes the experience is participatory. The Glass Room is a novel that succeeds on so many levels that it becomes hard to review. The only comment is that you should read it.
So why start with a shortcoming? Well, the start is as good a place as any to record The Glass Room’s only weakness, which relates to the identity of the family that forms the book’s focus, the Landauers. Victor has married Liesel. He is a rich man, an industrialist, an owner of a firm that makes cars. One would expect such a person to live and breathe his work rather more than he does. Consequently, he always seems less of a character than he surely ought to have been, rather aloof, something of a vehicle for the women involved. So the main criticism of a multi-themed, multi-layered book is that it could have pursued one more idea!
But The Glass Room’s real focus seems to be on the lives of its women. There are three central female characters that form the book’s backbone. Much of the book’s success is to see events separately, from their different individual perspectives.
Liesel is a German speaker, married to the car-maker, Viktor, who is Jewish and Czech. They are rich, unapologetically so, and commission a famous architect to design and build a house to be their family home near Prague. It is to be a house to end all houses. The Glass Room is the result, al ultra-modern, modernist, Bauhaus house with more light than can be imagined. Significantly, its areas of glass make it open to the world, a transparency within which a marriage grows gradually murkier towards the opaque.
Hana – let’s use a shortened version of her name – is a family friend. She is rather off-beat compared to the apparently conventional Landauers. Initially we know little of her own domestic life, circumstances that become highly significant later on. Hana becomes Liesel’s confidante, her closest friend. Her economic status is not that of the Landauers, but this does not seem to create a barrier.
Kata is a different kind of twentieth century heroine. She creates a life for herself with apparent pragmatism beneath the protecting umbrella of Viktor Landauer’s wealth and power. It may appear that he retains the upper hand, that he always writes the rules, but this story is more subtle than that.
When war comes the Glass Room is left behind. It changes. A deranged fascist project occupies its space. (Does that sentence contain a tautology?) A self-deceiving but damaged psychopath exploits an ideologically-driven, self-justifying search for a science of race. At least these scientists know what they are looking for. It’s a pity they must remain blind to the results. What they found they sought to enjoy, but it wasn’t knowledge.
The war affects each character differently and we follow them and their fortunes across Europe and across continents. Interestingly, it’s the economically advantaged who have the best chances. As in history, the poor just disappear. And by the end we have lived the characters’ lives almost alongside them. We have sensed the joy, the terror, the suffering and, most acutely, the deception and duplicity. The author’s footnote states that Der Glasraum does not necessarily translate to The Glass Room, since “raum” means something less defined, something more, like space or environment. The book captivates, its characters confide in us, but paradoxically the image of The Glass Room only rarely suggests transparency.

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