The "glass room" is not a room, but a house designed in 1929 for Viktor and Liesel Landauer, wealthy newlyweds in a fictional city in Czechoslovakia. Sleek, stark, and willfully experimental, the house represents the possibilities of modernity: "it embodies the pure rationality of a Greek classical temple, the austere beauty of a perfect composition[...]There are no disturbing curves to upset the rectilinear austerity of the space. There is nothing convolute, involute, awkward or complex. Here everything can be understood as a matter of proportion and dimension."
The strangeness of the house's symbolism is that it is not only clearly a metaphor for the narrative, but also for the characters within the narrative. Viktor thinks about the house much as the novel seems to: "The whole essence of the Glass Room is reason. That is what Viktor thinks, anyway." And in the first section of The Glass Room, this synchronicity is provocative. The desire for rationality and control that motivates the Landauers seems to echo Mawer's careful construction of the house as metaphor.
The difficulty, though, is that extended metaphors are better suited to poetry and do not, in general, make for compelling stories. So as The Glass Room progresses, with the Landauers, and Europe itself, enveloped in World War II, the metaphor does not hold up; it is quite difficult to be interested in the properties of light in the living room when main characters are being whisked away to Auschwitz.
The subsequent lives of the Glass House, as a Nazi biometric research facility and a clinic for children with polio, explore the colder, more clinical visages of reason. Mawer's complication of rationality, though, seems underdeveloped, as these quasi-vignettes cannot stand up to the history of that Landauer family. It's possible that the conceit might have been more evocative as a series of short stories revolving around the house, but as it is, the discontinuity between the pre- and post-war lives of the house dissipates the novel's force.
And I would be quite ready to call The Glass Room an interesting failure if not for a nagging suspicion that the unsustainability of Mawer's metaphor might itself be a metaphor for the limits of literature and of art. After all, what building, poem, opera, or poem can fortify us against the inexorable materiality of horror? The disullusionment and exile of the Landauers mark the edges of what metaphor can do, leaving open the possibility that Mawer is using metaphor against itself.
My first reaction was to be frustrated by the subjugation of story to structure, but the more I think about it, a remark by Willa Cather prevents me from dismissing The Glass Room entirely. Commenting on her novel The Professor's House (another novel using a habitation as a central symbol), Cather wrote: "the design is the story." I suppose that any work that forces us to be mindful of design, to liberate ourselves from the tyranny of plot, must be considered an achievement. At the very least, it requires that we reconsider our own demands and expand the boundaries of our vision.
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