10 June 2010
The Glass Room by Simon Mawer
Thoughts and Reflections:
What kept me reading this novel was the fact that it was shortlisted for the Man Booker Award. The beginning was slow. I felt no particular interest or attachment to any of the characters, but was interested to discover what about this book caught the attention of the Award committee. However, I never developed affinity for any of the character. I found them flat and uninteresting. I felt little empathy for their trials and didn't even have enough interest to dislike them. However, the attempts to enlighten the reader in forms of aestheticism fell short. In my mind, many of the events were unrealistic or, as historical events, were tinged with current ideas, understandings, and parameters on the issues of the novel.
There were some interesting images and themes. The glass room as representative of space, both closed and open was the most consistent image and the most convincing. The glass room, intended to provide a transparency to the modern world and the lives of the Landauer family, also hid great secrets, moments of intimacy, and moments of destruction. However, these were superficially discussed and I craved a greater depth that the novel never seemed to achieve.
The novel is set in the before and during World War II. After their wedding, Viktor Laundaur, who is Jewish, and his wife, Leisel who is German, build their home, embracing the modern age, architecture, and ideals of aestheticism. Eventually, the family decide to flee first to Switzerland then to America to escape the rising dangers of the Nazis. Prior to leaving Czechoslovakia, however, Viktor begins a ongoing affair with Kata, who had a daughter, Marika. Kata, also Jewish, first flees from Vienna in an attempt to escape the Nazi's, only to reunite with Viktor and become nanny to his children. Viktor's wife, Leisel, is German and eventually becomes aware of the affair, yet does nothing to stop it. Her closest friend, Hana, a Czech woman, is a seductress, yet supportive wife to her husband, a good friend of Viktor's and also Jewish. Hana and her husband stay even when the Landauers flee. All the characters are connected to the house. Decades later, those who were still alive, one way or another, make their way back to the house for an informal and unplanned reunion.
One aspect that I found the most frustrating as I read the novel was that I could not fully trust the facts. The novel is set in Czechoslovakia during World War II for the most part. I in no way claim to be an expert on these events or this place, however something, either the style of presenting the facts or the facts themselves, prevented me from fully believing their accuracy.
Finally, there were a number of story lines that I simply did not see the purpose. Themes of infidelity were rampant, yet only seemed to emphasise the open-closed nature of the glass room. My only conclusion is that Mawer was modeling his work after Milan Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Unfortunately, the author fails completely in portraying the themes of Kundera. Another plot line that made little sense to me was that of Viktor and Kata. Their story lasted nearly the duration of the novel, yet contributed nothing. I was frustrated to have read so long about the lovers for no apparent reason other than that their children could meet again decades later in the glass room.
Over all, I found the novel to be predictable, especially the ending. For some reason, it was interesting enough to continue reading. I wonder if I have missed something, yet the language, style, characters, and events seemed so simple. Perhaps this is the deception. There were many interesting themes: displacement, race, the chaos of changing political regimes, modernity, adaption, space, love and destruction. However, they seemed inadequately discussed and often just abandoned mid-story. Please, if I have missed something, some secret to the novel or understanding structure and characters, do let me know.
Simon Mawer was born in England in 1948 and spent his childhood between England, Cyprus, and Malta. After receiving a degree in zoology from Brasenose College, Oxford, England, he began working as a biology teacher. He entered the world of authorship relatively late, at the age of 39 with Chimera in 1989. From that point, he has produced a number of award winning novels, his latest work being The Glass Room, which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Award in 2009. He currently lives in Rome, Italy.
Things I Liked About This Novel:
1) I enjoyed the difference in reaction regarding encroaching Nazism between Victor as a Jew and Leisel, his German, non-Jewish wife.
2) The brief commentary on the futility of attempting to establish characteristics of race.
3) The theme of place entwined in the transparency and enclosure of a room such as the glass room.