Thursday 27 August 2009

'I'll always forgive your mistakes'

The Glass Room
by Simon Mawer

A while ago I worked in a photographic studio. Amongst one of the more mundane tasks was making flat copies of art works for print. As we all know a flat copy of an art work is no substitute for seeing the work itself. In a similar way a bad scan of a book jacket is no substitute for the pure oracular and tactile pleasure of this volume from Little Brown. I should thank them for sending me a review copy at a time when the book had become almost impossible to find, the first printing having sold out after a Booker longlisting and a second printing still on its way (now thankfully available). Thanks also to Kevin From Canada, whose fine review drew my attention to the novel and also made it possible for me to say that the cover image is a detail from Roger de La Fresnaye’s The Seated Man, or The Architect. It is an architect that provides the centre of this novel in the form of The Landauer House, a building which Mawer acknowledges is far from fictional (the UNESCO World Heritage Centre Villa Tugendhat in Brno in the Czech Republic). Mawer cleverly uses this fixed point to show the shifting political tides in continental Europe from the 1930's through the Second World War and beyond. I say clever because not only does the fixed point show most effectively the movement of people characteristic of this period of turmoil but this particular building, so daring in its modernism, so political in its very construction and in spite of being a solid and immovable thing is shown to be as malleable as the politics and the people who live and pass through it, each different person finding some new quality in it.

The house is constructed by Viktor and Liesel Landauer whom we meet on their honeymoon at the beginning of the book. Whilst in Venice they meet the architect Rainer von Abt, although he considers himself rather 'a poet of space and form. Of light...Architects are people who build walls and floors and roofs. I capture and enclose the space within.' He is attracted to the couple partly because of Liesel herself but also because this wealthy family will provide him with the backing and opportunity to create his greatest domestic project. At the centre of his vision is The Glass Room:

For the moment it was without form or substance, yet it existed, diffuse, diverse, in their minds and in the mind of Rainer von Abt. It existed in the manner that ideas and ideals, shifting and insubstantial, may exist. Space, light, glass; some spare furniture; windows looking out on a garden; a sweep of shining floor, travertine, perhaps; white and ivory and the gleam of chrome. The elements moved, evolved, transformed, metamorphosed in the way that they do in dreams, changing shape and form and yet, to the dreamer, remaining what they always were: der Glausraum, der Glastraum, a single letter change metamorphosing one into the other, the Glass Space becoming the Glass Dream, a dream that went with the spirit of the brand new country in which they found themselves, 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.

But this is the Czechoslovakia of the 1930's and the storm that is so often hinted at will force Viktor, as a Jew, to leave the building that he helps to create and make a life for himself and his family elsewhere. When Nazi troops have invaded, this same building of hope and democracy will find its perfect dimensions and logic perverted by that political ideology, recast as a centre for eugenic study in an attempt to classify and separate humans into Herrenvolk and Untermenschen. But before we get there Mawer first has to breathe life into the bricks and mortar (or rather the concrete and plate-glass), which he does in two ways. Firstly through an infectious enthusiasm for the architecture. The straight lines, the precision, the vision, the light; all of these are used to great effect in using the building as a metaphor for many of the books themes. As Viktor muses at one point: 'The possibilities of metaphor are almost limitless.' To make a building live in and of itself is quite an achievement. One of house's standout features is the wall constructed of onyx. A happy accident means that at certain times of year in the evening the setting sun fills the room with light that seems to make the stone glow from inside, to burn with an elemental fire that is deeply symbolic of the passions that surround it. Mawer gets great mileage from contrasting the desire for perfection expressed by the precision of the house with the deeply flawed human characters who strive with no less energy but cannot possibly succeed because they are, of course, human.

Mawer's second device to bring life into the house are the increasingly complicated human relationships. The glass allows us to observe what we aren't supposed to see, the building's neutrality somehow giving those within it the confidence to speak honestly to one another and act on their impulses. It is difficult to say too much about this without spoiling the book but perhaps if I just introduce some of the characters. Liesel's 'intimate friend' Hana is possibly the book's most memorable character. Her bisexuality and progressive views make her quite a force as the book progresses. Mawer could be accused of using her sexuality to rather too neatly connect some of the book's points but what he is careful to do is make sure that there is a psychological justification for her actions. In fact the female characters are far more rounded in this book than their male counterparts. Viktor is a man of his time and his class so his wife isn't the only woman in his life. With the same efficiency he brings to his dealings in business as the head of Landauer Motors he marshalls his assignations. His belief in 'reason' being the very essence of the Glass Room is shaken at its very foundations when that space is invaded.

Kevin pointed out in his review the danger of how these relationships are pitched, coming close to melodrama in places, which is a fair point. It will always be down to personal taste. I personally was relishing some out and out passion, was in fact surprised by it in a novel which had begun with such reserve and order. However when the various plots begin to come together at the close I began to feel as Kevin did that coincidence was being taken to its furthest reaches. I also couldn't help but feel that the detail and space given to the first two thirds of the book wasn't matched by the slightly sketchier and episodic final third. But all of these criticisms only come about because of being allowed that indulgence by a novel which is so good in so many ways it only highlights its small imperfections. Remember that it is the flaws in the onyx that allow it to burn with sunlight; generosity from the reader is more than rewarded. It is a book so filled with thought and imagery, complexity and heart that it would be hard for me to begin to replicate that in a 'flat-copy' of a review. It is the kind of book that will surely deliver when read again and again (something that may help it with the Booker judges), and not only deliver but show something new each time like any piece of art worthy of the name. When Hana asks her friend Liesel to play on the piano that sits in the glass room she hesitates, fearing mistakes. Love is what allows Hana to reply 'I'll forgive your mistakes. I'll always forgive your mistakes.'


John Self 27 August 2009 at 09:06  

I'm glad to see your positive response to this, William. I have it down as one to look forward to and am hoping it makes the shortlist (based on the fact that I've seen nothing but praise for it so far, it must surely be able to steal a march on Ed O'Loughlin, James Lever and the like).

I read my own favourite (of only three so far) from the Booker list recently: Coetzee's Summertime. Wonderful to feel yourself in the hands of such a consummate artist.

William Rycroft 27 August 2009 at 09:38  

I really want to read some Coetzee but am now so intimidated by the body of work, the obvious development of his writing that I fear that in order to do him justice I had would have to start so far back that I would never catch up. I'd welcome any comments about where to start or how to begin.

Anonymous,  27 August 2009 at 15:39  

Thanks for the kind words about my review and your own excellent thoughts -- it has been some months since I read The Glass Room and it was nice to have such an appropriate and complete reminder. I am looking forward to a reread of this book -- one hopes it will be coming soon when it is named to the Booker shortlist. I only have Summertime to go on the longlist and The Glass Room is still my personal choice by some lengths.

William Rycroft 27 August 2009 at 19:54  

Ah, so only Summertime left and that's John's favourite. I'd love to know how you feel once you've read it, and also once you've read The Glass Room again.

Anonymous,  27 August 2009 at 21:11  

I will definitely be posting on Summertime within 10 days. I don't much like memoirs and I don't much like writers writing about writing, which makes the book a bit of an uphill climb for me. I am engaging in a rigorous self-criticism session to remove my preconceptions before I start it. Part of which is promising myself that I can reread The Glass Room once I am done. I have liked a number of Coetzee's previous books, so suspending pre-judgment is not really that hard.

John Self 27 August 2009 at 22:07  

...Whereas I do like writers writing about writing (on the theory that if reading writing is interesting, then reading writing about writing must be interest doubled, or interest squared. For others it would halved).

I'm afraid I don't know enough about Coetzee's work to recommend much, Will, as I've only read this one, Disgrace and Diary of a Bad Year (and I absolutely don't trust my judgement on the last, as I read it at a 'difficult' time). However everyone seems to like Disgrace, so you could do worse than to start there.

Anonymous,  27 August 2009 at 23:12  

I'm pretty sure my hesitancy about writers writing about writing comes from my career in the journalism business -- so many colleagues thought they should write a book, many found a publisher and copies (of not very good books) kept arriving on my desk. I'm certainly not implying that that is what Coetzee is up to in this book -- it does explain why there is a need for a little bit of self-correction to go on before I open it.

As for Coetzee, I still like The Life and Times of Michael K the best of what I have read, with Disgrace probably next best. I haven't read all of his work -- of that I have I have tended to prefer his outward-looking to his introspective work, but Summertime could change that.

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