The Emperor Waltz by Philip Hensher

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Reviewed by Denise Kong

The Emperor Waltz is a long (over 600 pages), complex and astonishing read. If you like David Mitchell, Alan Hollinghurst or Donna Tartt, you’ll probably like The Emperor Waltz.  Philip Hensher brings elements of all three writers to his newest book, and adds something quite distinctive.

The novel is set over various periods, but the three main storylines follow: early Christians in the Roman Empire; the Bauhaus School of Art, set against a background of rising of anti-Semitism in the 1922 Weimar Republic; and the idealistic beginnings of a gay bookstore in 1979 Notting Hill.

The interlinked structure is reminiscent of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas.  Cloud Atlas explored the relationship between the individual and the structure of society across different eras, and The Emperor Waltz makes a similar exploration of the cycle of prejudice and oppression.  It also uses the theme of Beethoven’s Emperor Waltz in a similar way to Cloud Atlas‘s fragment of musical composition, and the way Philip Hensher directs his cast reminded me of a conductor arranging his full strength orchestra into something cohesive.  The two books both have enormous scopes, which are exhilarating to experience, although I found that this was actually more pronounced with The Emperor Waltz, because instead of being just moments in time, it follows quite a few of the characters over a number of years, giving me the chance to appreciate change wrought on both a historical and a human scale.

A group of characters I particularly appreciated seeing Hensher portray was those in the gay scene of the 1970s and 80s.  I’ve grown tired of seeing gay characters in novels sitting around being Oppressed and Deprived, and generally symbolising the way the world behaves Terribly to people who don’t Fit In.  It makes a refreshing change to see Hensher’s irreverent take on such characters as the campaigner desperate to keep his Gay Men’s Protest Group going long after its membership has evaporated, or the group of men who hang around a garrison, all pretending to be squaddies.  It was like reading Alan Hollinghurst’s The Swimming Pool Library, but with less of the unrequited longing and more of a sense of humour.

The aspect that struck me most, and which I most immediately enjoyed about The Emperor Waltz was its descriptive power.  As in Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, scenes build up slowly, with layers of detail, which are aptly painterly, given that a large part of  The Emperor Waltz is about protecting the creation of art from the proscriptions of the growing fascist movement.

The effect is to draw the reader elegantly into the atmosphere and right into the lives and heads of the characters, without explicitly stating too much.  For example, a character in the 1922 Weimar republic sees hyperinflation thus: “Money was behaving like a Bauhaus student… it leapt up, it shrieked madly and ran through the streets… Words for panelled rooms… were bandied around for children to overhear… Words like ‘billion.’” And this same character’s reaction to the way her suitor is romantically “trying to see her heart” is to reflect that “a heart was just a fat organ with tubes… very nutritious… very cheap and easy to obtain.”

This is extracted from one small section, about one relatively minor character, somewhere in the middle of the book.  The descriptive power is maintained throughout, but is never overpowering, and is always to the end of the reader being better able to understand the circumstances of the societies in question and their characteristic.

The special ingredient for me developed from this; the way in which time after time, Hensher intercuts his beautifully set scenes with moments of shock.  A son returning to his dying father’s house quietly remembers the parental cruelty that drove his sister away.  A young man is amazed by the whirling snow, which freezes, leaving somewhere else in town, a hungry old couple breaking up one of the three chairs that they own for firewood.  I loved the way Hensher makes us see both sides things – the house, both valuable and ugly; the snow, beautiful and deadly.

Ultimately, we know what is round the corner.  We know how things panned out or are panning out for the causes in the novel, and perhaps it is too easy to forget the pain behind past developments that led to our current rights to religious, sexual and artistic expression.

When I was at school, we studied the fate of early Christian, and we all wanted to know, “Why?”  Why face fear, hate, torture and death when you could keep your head down and live a quiet life?

Perhaps there is no explaining the passion inspired by pure love of a cause.  But to convey it, as here, is quite an achievement.

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Denise blogs at ListenWatchReadShare.

Philip Hensher, The Emperor Waltz (Fourth Estate: London, 2014). 978-0007459575, 624pp, hardback.

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