Sunday, May 6, 2012
The Glass Room by Simon Mawer
Europe between the wars is heady in its mix of optimism and foreboding, and both impel the reader’s involvement in this story of the unlikely meeting between a Czech Jewish capitalist and his wife in Venice to a brash and forward-looking minimalist Austrian architect. The result is the Landauer House of the story with its famed der Glasraum. The author adds a note that ”raum” in German means much more than “room”: it also encompasses “space,” “volume,” and “zone” in its expansive meanings. And this is literally what the architect of the novel intended: that outside is in and inside is out and the space and light he captured are the art he intended to achieve.
The novel mirrors the architecture: magnificent and sprawling, yet contained, the expansive room with glass sides reveals all. The motivations of the characters are not hidden; flaws and beauty are apparent. If this book were a piece of music, it might be a piano sonata in several movements, for music rings throughout the house and this book. Special note is made of a young composer, Vitezslava Kaprálová, who died at 25 years of age the day France fell to the Germans in the world-encompassing European conflict of the 20th century.
But the book is more than the house, or the glass room. It is the intimate history of several intersecting lives of that period, and later, when they meet again. It is compulsive reading, for its revelations were shocking then, and even to us now. The european-ness of the novel is strong, like a flavor, a color, or a sound. We become reacquainted with the Czech word lίtost, the unbearable sadness of being, and are reminded of the deep and now ghostly scars of war.
A bravo performance by Mawer, whose other works I shall follow with avidity.
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