The Glass Pearls by Emeric Pressburger

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Review by Karen Langley

The name of Emeric Pressburger is remembered for his sterling contribution to the world of film during the 20th century. Together with Michael Powell, he was responsible for masterpieces like A Matter of Life and Death, The Red Shoes and The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, with Pressburger being mainly responsible for the original storylines. The collaborators parted company in 1957, with both wanting to try different projects, and Pressburger produced two novels: Killing a Mouse on Sunday, and The Glass Pearls. The latter gained little publicity and sank into obscurity, to be rescued in recent years by Faber and Faber as part of their Faber Finds imprint. Now the publisher has released a shiny new Faber Editions volume of Pressburger’s novel, which frankly is long overdue!

The Glass Pearls was first published in 1966, and it tells the story of one Karl Braun, a German émigré living in London. Karl is a quiet, cultured gentleman who makes his living as a piano tuner and keeps himself to himself. Many of his neighbours are also émigrés and so assume that Karl, like them, came to England to flee Hitler. So Karl goes about his life, meets an attractive married woman called Helen, takes her to classical music concerts and even goes dancing. Money is a bit of an issue, but there are indications that he has funds secreted elsewhere. However, as the narrative goes along, hints appear that all is not what it seems…

Karl is haunted by the loss of his wife and child in an air raid, but also seems on the alert for people who might be following him. Reports in the newspapers about the hunt for Nazi war criminals prey on his mind, and as he fends off a work colleague with romantic interests in him, manages interactions with his fellow lodging house inmates and worries about someone who might be following him, retaining his sanity becomes harder and harder. Just what is Karl’s secret and why is he so afraid?

Without wanting to give too much away, it soon becomes obvious that Karl Braun is actually a Nazi war criminal in hiding, trying to evade not only Nazi-hunters who might be on his trail, but also those of his kind who’ve made new homes in South America and are seeking to recruit his services for their organisation. All Karl wants is safety, a quiet life and to be left alone – but will he get his wish?

When The Glass Pearls was written and published, the Second World War and Nazi atrocities were still relatively recent events; and of course high-profile German officials were actively being tracked down. So the book was very topical in many ways, but also ahead of its time as an early novel to explore the issues it does. Because it has to be said that Pressburger’s narrative is a very clever one which plays with the reader’s emotions all the way through.

“One had to be careful about the deductive powers of the fertile brain. Once trained for critical examination and to present the fullest picture of possible dangers to its master, the brain tended to overdo things when not watched closely. It kept on conducting its scrutiny like a sorcerer’s apprentice, pulling up conclusions, until they had drowned the man instead of saving him.”

From the start, Braun is presented as an ordinary man trying to live an ordinary life, and there is no hysteria or hyperbole in his characterisation; he isn’t presented as a monster, and the reader is invited to feel sympathy for him, with the loss of his family and his having to repatriate to another country. However, gradually the truth is revealed and the reader is left feeling very ambivalent; Braun’s actions were brutal and chilling, and he appears to feel no guilt for them. The fact that he wants to avoid all kinds of pursuers is simply because he’s afraid of being caught; and that fear builds all the way through what is a tense and thrilling narrative. Neither we nor Braun know who is pursuing him, or why; and his fear and flight will have dark consequences. The final revelations as the story reaches its climax are shocking and it’s only in the last pages that the reader comes to really understand Braun’s behaviour.  

The Glass Pearls is a gripping read from start to finish. Pressburger brilliantly captures the period and setting, the world of London 1960s bedsits, having to exist hand to mouth, and the sense of being adrift in another country. It’s quite remarkable that a Jewish man who fled from the Nazis should choose such a protagonist for his book, and even more so that he doesn’t present him in judgemental terms; instead, he gradually allows Braun to reveal his real character and lets the reader judge him for themselves. It’s a stunning piece of writing, and I can’t fathom why it’s been neglected for so long; I held my breath from start to finish, and this combination of thriller and novel of ideas works brilliantly. 

Emeric Pressburger only wrote the two novels and on the strength of this one, that’s a great shame. The Glass Pearls is a masterly piece of storytelling which builds from quiet beginnings to a shattering conclusion, exploring along the way morals, responsibility and retribution. Written at a time when the portrayal of Nazi war criminals was very stereotyped, it offers a nuanced characterisation of what seems like an ordinary man who just happens to be a cold and brutal war criminal. The philosopher Hannah Arendt famously talked about the ‘banality of evil’, and Pressburger’s clever narrative certainly displays that in its depiction of Karl Braun. This is a welcome re-release from Faber, a remarkable piece of writing and an unforgettable story – as well as a timely reminder that evil is not always easy to spot…

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Karen Langley blogs at kaggsysbookishramblings and thinks we definitely need to be on the lookout for the bad guys nowadays…

Emeric Pressburger, The Glass Pearls (Faber and Faber, 2022). ISBN 9780571371044. 288pp, paperback.

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5 comments

  1. wow, sounds so good! Thanks, just added it to my TBR

  2. Really interesting approach, Karen, especially from someone like Pressberger who might well have suffered from a person like Braun if he’d crossed Braun’s path. And I assume the significance of the glass pearls is revealed as you read the novel?

    1. It is – the significance of the pearls is gradually revealed towards the end of the book as we gradually come to find out the reality of Braun’s past. I can’t say much more without giving away anything, but he is very far from the way he portrays himself to others. It’s such a fascinating book.

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