Philip Hensher
The Emperor Waltz

Late summer, Weimar, 1922: Christian Vogt has just arrived from Berlin to study at the new Bauhaus school of art, which is upsetting traditional values of German society. He’s living away from home for the first time and finding his way among surprising subcultures (including an angry and growing group of men who wear an insignia that Christian doesn’t recognise) and dealing with appalling inflation, first love and the aftermath of a disastrous war. 

Early summer, London, 1979: Duncan Flannery is (after some finagling) left money in his father’s will that he uses to open London’s first gay bookstore. Duncan and his close friends are “out”, and that means facing revolting homophobia every day. Soon the AIDS crisis will sweep over London and affect them all. There are police raids, brutality and vandalism, but the bookstore is also the start of something. It’s the first outward sign of a community. 

Philip Hensher’s long ninth novel, The Emperor Waltz, is made up of five different narratives centred on different struggling subcultures. Before writers were taught that they must “hook” the reader in the first few pages, novels were fat and absorbing just like this one, and took their own sweet time to show the reader what they were about without contrived tension or gimmicks. At page 50, I settle myself comfortably for the enjoyable long haul. Here is a writer who knows what he’s doing. The writing is wonderful. The prose is poetic and fresh. Hensher’s particular gift is the small, revealing details of life that have me mesmerised. I’m in safe hands. 

A quarter through, I’m not so confident. Everything is wonderful, as far as it goes – fascinating vignettes and character sketches, interesting instances – but nothing seems to mean anything. There is a large cast of well-realised characters, from different times and cultures, all with a point of view, but to what end? Where is he leading us? There’s no story here; or rather, there are dozens.

Less than halfway, we’re beyond meandering. We’re adrift. 

It is dizzying to consider the novel’s scope and ambition. As well as the main parts about the Bauhaus and the bookstore, The Emperor Waltz has three smaller sections that deal with a present-day group of teenagers experimenting with amyl nitrate and cocaine; a young wife in Roman North Africa martyring herself for Christianity in AD203 alongside her slave (she’s unnamed, but identified in a note at the end as St Perpetua); and the novelist Philip Hensher, diabetic and hospitalised with an infected toe, observing his homeless, alcoholic fellow patients and scheming for a private room. This part is in the first person and is especially incongruous. The fictionalised Hensher is a vapid fellow, but he at least attempts an explanation of the structure underpinning The Emperor Waltz. “We exist in society,” he says, “and we make our own societies as we go.” This idea is the link intended to enable all these sections to be reasoned into one work.

It’s Hensher’s rendering of these growing societies that is the strongest part of The Emperor Waltz. Germany between the wars and the burgeoning gay scene in London unfold in vivid, perfect detail and, as a sociological study, it’s glorious. 

In Weimar: the work habits of Klee and Kandinsky; strategies for managing food supplies in a snowstorm when prices increase hourly; and the fury that strange art triggers in disaffected people. 

In London: the renovating, stocking and staffing of a bookshop; the love and connections between a group of gay men negotiating their way through a straight world. Some of the ideas are fascinating, such as the fine line between acceptance and assimilation. These gay men lose something when society broadens to encompass them.

Motifs appear and reappear, such as the songs of blackbirds, the eponymous Strauss waltz and a small silver teapot, and there are ghostly echoes throughout the sections. Various people live above booksellers, Duncan’s friends also use amyl nitrate, Hensher has an African nurse who is also a Christian. A second reading reveals more, such as the telling detail of a woman smoothing her hair with the back of her right hand. 

But some incidents defy attempts to weave them into a greater narrative. What is the significance of Duncan finding his sister’s neighbour’s missing purse? Or of Christian’s brother beating up a man who makes a pass at him on a train? There must be something more that links these people. There must be some reason why Hensher is telling us all this.

The fictional Hensher explains that “in novels, dialogue has emotional freight, and as clever readers we learn to interpret the weight of insinuation and understand what unspoken pressures of plotting, what dissatisfaction and desires lurk beneath the surface of words and gesture”. In The Emperor Waltz, I see all of these but feel none of it. Perhaps I’m prejudiced against the Big-Important-Novel-with-Bird genre, such as Tartt’s The Goldfinch, and or perhaps I hoped that someone with an eye for such thrilling small details would also be a big-picture storyteller. 

Hensher was shortlisted for the Booker in 2008 for his semi-autobiographical novel The Northern Clemency and his class shows in every sentence and every scene. For all his fine observation and intellect, though, this is a cold book. Parallel narratives face particular challenges in submerging readers in the story, and here the intricate strands never come together; this is really a collection of novellas. In a fat book filled with injustices, I’m moved only twice. 

The characters are witnesses to extraordinary revolutions where small groups of people under extraordinary pressure change the world, but they are witnesses indeed: calm and passive observers in a sea of turmoil. They are resigned to their fate, and so am I.  LS

4th Estate, 614pp, $39.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 12, 2014 as "Philip Hensher, The Emperor Waltz".

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