Oh yes, we're here. She knew, even after all these years. Something about the slope of the road, the way the trajectory of the car began to curve upwards, a perception of shape and motion that, despite being unused for thirty years, was still engraved on her mind, to be reawakened by the subtle coincidence of movement and inclination.
So begins Simon Mawer's THE GLASS ROOM, a finalist for this year's Man Booker Award and perhaps the most sweeping and compelling novels I read this past year. The story unfurls in Czechoslovakia in the pause between the two World Wars, even as the Nationalist Socialists rumble in neighboring Austria.
Viktor Landauer, Jewish auto tycoon, marries gentile Liesel and together they look to the brighter future of their country by comissioning a glass house to raise their family. Built into the side of a hill sweeping over Mesto, the Glass Room is "a place of balance and reason, an ageless place held in a rectilinear frame that handles light like a substance and volume like a tangible material and denies the very existence of time." Characters enter this space -- Jews and gentiles, Slavs and Germans, musicians and scientists and dancers -- and their interactions reflect the transparency surrounding them.
Mounting political tensions drive the Landauers into exile, where love and loyalties are tested. In their absence, others inhabit the glass house, including Germans who run medical experiments on subjects to elucidate the characteristic to differentiate Jews from all others. Later, under the Communist regime, a rehabilitative hospital for children. Nearly sixty years later, all circles back to the original owners who dreamt their vision of a diverse Czech nation.
This is historical fiction at its finest, mixing fictional characters with real figures. Indeed, the primary 'character', Das Glasraum itself, is based on Villa Tugendhat, which stands in spite of German bombings, Soviet occupation, and other travails of time and history. The Landauers' lives intertwine with the charismatic Hana, the tender Kata, the architect Abt, and others emblematic of the artistic and business communities of the time.
Although THE GLASS ROOM is a book of large ideas of science and architecture, of history and relationship, of war and culture, it never gets preachy. This haunting story has a bittersweetness to it, a tone not unlike that evoked in Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being. It is a sad story, but not a sentimental one; Mawer uses prose with the clean purity of glass. THE GLASS ROOM is a novel I will reach for again -- and again.
The author... SIMON MAWER was born in England and spent his childhood there, in Cyprus, and in Malta. His previous novels include The Fall, The Gosepl of Judas, and Mendel's Dwarf. He lives in Italy with his wife and teaches at St. George's British International School in Rome.
The Press... I've profiled the The Other Press before -- they have an excpetional portfolio of literary fiction, memoir, and non-fiction. Exquisito!