The Glass Room is one of the books I’m reading for my Walter Scott Prize project. The novel is inspired by a real house in the Czech Republic designed by Mies van der Rohe. Most of the reviews of the novel, as well as the novel itself, have spent some time describing this house, and although architectural elevations appear before each section of the book, it helps to look at the pictures online when you’re trying to visualize the house.
Liesel and Viktor Landauer are recently married and have decided to build a modern home on a piece of property given to them by Liesel’s parents in the newly formed country of Czechoslovakia. Viktor wants a house that is open and will have no secrets, one of the ironies of a plot with many that I started to think of as mirrors. Viktor is excited at the beginning of what he sees as modern, changing times in the formation of the new country. But of course Czechoslovakia will not be in charge of itself for long, and in fact now no longer exists. Then we have the irony of the house itself, built for no secrets, that harbors many.
Viktor and Liesel’s marriage and day-to-day life are hardly at all the focus of this novel. We see Viktor getting a little annoyed at the depth of Liesel’s involvement with building and decorating the house, but otherwise Mawer actually spends very little time on them together. Instead, he focuses on their relationships with other people, Viktor’s with his mistress Kata and Liesel with her friend Hana. But World War II looms ever closer and eventually the family must leave the country, as Viktor is Jewish.
The book is divided almost exactly in half, the first half devoted to the building of the house and its existence as a family home. The second half explores its use by the different political entities that take it over, when it is never a family home, another mirror. First, it is a Nazi laboratory for attempting to identify physical characteristics of Jews and Slavs. During this time, Hana gets involved in a dangerous affair with one of the scientists. Next, it is a horse stable for Russian cavalry, then a physiotherapy lab for polio victims, and finally a museum.
The huge windowed glass room that makes up the living room, dining area, sitting area, and music room has at its heart a stone wall made of onyx. In the evening sunshine this wall glows and colors the room bright red. I think this is a metaphor—the clean, modern, uncluttered structure, one that may seem cold, is taken over by the unanticipated heart of the house, this red, for passion. I’m saying this clumsily, but one of Mawer’s focuses is the eroticism that is repeatedly evoked in these surroundings, not between Viktor and Liesel, but between other couples. At first, I was confused by why we know almost nothing about Viktor and Liesel together but dwell repeatedly on Viktor’s sexual relationship with Kata. But sex is one of the focuses of this novel, one of its mirrors. For example, in the icy surroundings of the lab designed for the most evil of purposes, Hana makes passionate love with Stahl, who later coldly discards her and even betrays her. Also, there is a tension between the openness of the house and a sense of voyeurism.
This novel was definitely not my favorite of the books I’ve read so far for this project. It is called a novel of ideas, but really it is so detached as to be almost cerebral. Yet, we are repeatedly entertained by descriptions of pubic hair or of how Hana’s labia just show beneath it. I found it unsettling and could understand a bit why the original owners of the house refer to the book as “probably pornography.” It is not pornography, of course, but the family is not buying Mawer’s stance that it’s a fictional story about a real house. They think it’s about them. Or perhaps they are afraid people will think it’s about them.
Despite this detachment from the characters, I still found some scenes toward the end of the novel touching. As for the rest, perhaps Mawer wanted to make readers feel like they were voyeurs. (See? Another mirror—the openness of the house versus voyeurism.) I am not sure, but I could have forgone some of the intense sexuality of this novel. There is another book by Mawer on my list, and I can’t say I’m looking forward to it. (Oh, dear, it just won the Man Booker prize.)