The Glass Room — Simon Mawer

The Glass Room is filled with portents, which, given its setting in 1920s Europe relative to its composition in more recent times, might seem unsurprising. But those portents become portentous, as defined by the Oxford American Dictionary built into OS X: “done in a pompously or overly solemn manner so as to impress.” The novel is ceaselessly concerned with tension between old and new, ancient and modern, the way of progress and the way of regression, but it tends to be delivered with the subtlety of a brick through a window:

* “Beneath the calm surface of the new country Viktor felt the tremors of uncertainty.”

* “It’ll be a revolution […] a casting off of the past. A new way of living.” Maybe, but I wouldn’t count on it: there is no such thing as a genuine casting off of the past.

* “I have laboured day and night, to the disadvantage of my current work. But the demands of true love are more powerful than mere artistic patronage.”

* “I’m certainly not going to tell you what I am letting him do. Some things are sacred.”
“My darling, these days nothing is sacred” (emphasis in original).

* “This is the artistic future of our country […] Vitulka and people like her. A young country with so much energy and so much talent.” Until the Nazis and then Soviets roll through, anyway.

And these are only a few obvious moments from the first 80 pages. I counted zero jokes in the same territory.

Have I not mentioned characters yet? There may be a reason for that. Viktor and Liesel Landauer are religiously mismatched (Jew, Gentile—or is it the other way around? Confusion would be easy) and eventually become erotically mismatched, with somewhat predictable affairs sprouting between a couple who cannot yet have read The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Rainer von Abt is the German architect who designs their “upside down” house/metaphor, where the bottom is made of glass, and is fond of pompous pronouncements like the one above regarding true love versus artistic patronage. There is also a pianist, who allows allusions to Dr. Faustus, and other minor characters of artistic bent who positively breathe meaning until they become suffocating.

The Glass Room isn’t a bad novel, but it’s one that I couldn’t get into. Why is it that some short books feel long (Ethan Frome), some long books feel short (Cryptonomicon, The Name of the Rose) and some mid-length to longish books feel longer than they are, like The Glass Room? I doubt I can find a consistent, unified theory regarding objective length and metaphysical length, but books that don’t have enough grab to feel short despite their length often get dropped before they’re finished. The Glass Room might fall into this category because it’s a novel that has aspirations towards being a novel of ideas, but it’s told chiefly through characters whose endless banal observations and cares don’t seem leavened with the promised ideas, and the narrator doesn’t provide them either. So I start skipping pages, waiting, waiting, hoping, hoping, and never finding until, eventually, I wander back toward the congenial fields of Alain de Botton and Francine Prose.

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