Monday, May 31, 2010

The Glass Room by Simon Mawer: The Limits of Metaphor

Metaphor is the salt of literature; in the right amount, it can heighten and enrich. In excess, it becomes flat and bitter, overwhelming  the core experience of the writing. Simon Mawer's 2009 The Glass Room tests this balance with decidedly mixed results.

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.    

Buy books mentioned in this post (or anything else, actually) using the below links, and The Reading Ape gets a small referral fee to defray our nominal operating costs.
Shop Indie BookstoresVisit


  1. I had a mixed reaction to this book too. I was really impressed with the conceit behind it, but I didn't think it help up well all the way through.

  2. Thanks for any other informative website. Where else may just
    I get that kind of info written in such an ideal
    method? I have a venture that I'm just now working on, and I've been at the look out for such information.
    my site > my computer is slow

  3. Its like you read my mind! You appear to know so much about this, like you wrote the
    book in it or something. I think that you can do with a few pics to drive the message home a little bit, but other than that,
    this is fantastic blog. A great read. I will certainly
    be back.
    Also visit my web-site funnymariogames

  4. It is appropriate time to make some plans for the future and it's time to be happy. I've read this post and if I
    could I wish to suggest you some interesting things or
    advice. Maybe you can write next articles referring to this article.
    I desire to read more things about it!
    Feel free to visit my web site ; all about errol denton

  5. Hello there! This post could not be written much better!
    Looking at this article reminds me of my previous roommate!
    He continually kept talking about this. I will send this article to him.
    Pretty sure he'll have a very good read. I appreciate you for sharing!
    my web page - get rid of blackheads

  6. Thanks for some other magnificent article. The place else may anyone get
    that type of information in such an ideal means of writing?

    I have a presentation next week, and I am at the search for such
    Review my page

  7. Howdy! I could have sworn I've been to this website before but after checking through some of the post I realized it's new to me.
    Anyways, I'm definitely happy I found it and I'll be bookmarking and checking back
    Also visit my webpage ::

  8. Hi to every one, it's genuinely a good for me to pay a visit this site, it consists of precious Information.
    My web site > skin rashes