The Emperor Waltz by Philip Hensher
21 Jul 2014 21:31:53
The other challenge has to do with the common gripe about novels like this: that they're really story collections, mis-sold. Most of The Emperor Waltz's 10 "books" follow two men. First is Christian, an ironically named art student in 1930s Weimar, disturbed but ultimately apathetic about Nazism. Then there's Duncan, who in 1979 swipes capital from his hated father to open London's first gay bookshop in the face of violent homophobia. Flanking their stories are several apparently discrete narratives, including a vivid account of Christian women hacked to death by the Romans, and an arch segment about Philip's stay in hospital after hurting his toe. Does it add up? Some peculiar motifs – blackbirds, parsnips, women baring their necks – tantalise us that it might. Another title for the book might have been Persuasion. Most threads feature zealots of some sort, whether sexual, political, religious or aesthetic, for good or ill. A short passage written from the perspective of a speech-writing Nazi (he thinks change "could only happen little by little, one person at a time") echoes precisely Duncan's hopes for what he might achieve with the shop. A mark of Hensher's success is that you may not care about any pattern pulsing beneath the surface. There is enough local drama in the novel's continual reversals – notably the horrifying climax to the part about the lead-up to Duncan's opening night, as he discovers what's been happening to his regular order at a neighbouring greasy spoon. Here, as elsewhere, chewy characterisation complicates judgment (an odd exception is the sour caricature of a theory-spouting gay activist who eventually does away with himself). In the German sections, antisemitism is not the preserve of unsympathetic characters; Hensher's cast lives in the moment, without hindsight, where the moral stakes are highest. Taken as a whole, though, this is a mighty riddling performance, one that stayed on my mind long after reading. The St Thomas's episode, in which Hensher guys himself as an ice-veined schemer wangling a private bed away from an alcoholic ward-mate: what's that about? Maybe it's to show that even though society has improved since Duncan's heyday – no one bats an eyelid when Philip's husband joins him at his bedside – any fight between "lauded novelist" and "incontinent vagrant" won't ever be fair: class rules. That sequence is titled "Last Month". There's also a "Next Year", a comic interlude that cuts between the talk at a London dinner party (divorce, business deals and "Chiswick Pizza Express") and what the guests' teenage children get up to upstairs. "I can't believe you've brought some poppers … That is like so gay," Anita Khan tells 13-year-old twins Nick and Nathan, who trade insults in Jamaican patois as she shows them where her dad hides his cocaine and lesbian porn. The episode comes early in the novel, so it's easy to forget that this is where Hensher's historical panorama ends: in the all-consuming maw of the middle class, mashing up once-contested subcultures as rich white kids play gangsta, goggling at anal sex over a chicken samosa.