The central character of Simon Mawer’s 2009 Man Booker shortlisted novel The Glass Room is a building, or indeed the eponymous Glass Room, the distinctive feature of the building in question. In 1929 the newly-wed Landauers meet Rainer von Abt, a modernist architect, whom they subsequently commission to build them a modern family home on a hillside ouside a small town in the present day Czech Republic. The building, with its distinctive glass room and wide open spaces, is an expression of modernity in post First World War Europe and the novel tells the story not only of the Landauer family, but of the house itself up until the present day, although the bulk of the narrative takes place in the 1930s as the dark cloud of fascism spreads throughout Europe and threatens the Jewish patriarch Viktor Landauer. The house is, of course, a symbol for Europe from its beginnings as a marriage home for Viktor, the Jew and Liesl, the Catholic, through to its ocupation by the Nazis and the Communists respectively, culminating in its Americanisation.
But what struck me particularly about the novel is how Mawer not only uses modernism as a backdrop to the story, but how redolent the novel is of the German modernist literature I myself studied more than twenty-five years ago and which now (much to my shame) I have largely forgotten the details of. The epic nature of the narrative, crosing countries, continents, generations and political and social change very much reminded me of novels like Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks. But The Glass Room is not a modernist pastiche. It is far better than that and Mawer’s ability to write a novel about modernism in a modernist form, reflecting the sense of light and space which is a feature of the fictional, symbolic Landauer House (even the name Landauer, combining as it does the two German words Land and Dauer, is suggestive of the enduring history of mainland Europe), is a measure of this understated, yet complex and highly impressive achievement.