‘The Emperor Waltz’ by Philip Hensher

Emperor Waltz book coverReading a novel by Philip Hensher is something to savour and The Emperor Waltz [London: Fourth Estate, 2014] is full of flavour and with plenty to chew on. The reader is offered several interwoven stories melding together more and more as the novel moves to its very satisfying conclusion.

Hensher is a gay writer who writes about gay men with wit and empathy. The main thread of the novel tells us about Duncan who uses his inheritance, from a father who did not intend him to have it, to set up The Big Gay Bookshop. The trials and tribulations of Duncan, his bookshop and the group of gay friends who are both a help and a hindrance to its progress draw the reader in. Another main character is Arthur who has run away from his home up north determined to get a job in the new shop. His temporary job lasts for many years.

A second theme in this symphony of a novel centres round Christian Vogt who could have become a rich lawyer like his father in post WW1 Germany but chooses instead to enrol at the revolutionary art school, the Bauhaus in Weimar. The migration of the Bauhaus from Weimar to Dessau and finally to Berlin is told against the frightening background of the growth of Nazism and the persecution of the Jews. And look out for a silver teapot which manages to migrate across from one strand of the book to the other. Hensher has a knack for picking up hints, remarks, events from earlier in his novels and dropping them again into the mind of the reader as the story progresses.

There are two seemingly free-standing stories: one set in AD203 telling how the daughter of a Roman merchant in a North African garrison town becomes a Christian and shares their fate; the other a delightfully written autobiographical essay which recounts a spell in hospital with diabetic problems and the ‘author’s’ issues with the foul-mouthed, foul smelling patient in the adjacent bed. In forty pages of near-perfect writing, ‘Philip’ reflects on the different rules that apply to moments when staff and others are ‘on-stage’ and ‘off-stage’ and how that relates to life at large.

I came across Hensher’s novels first when I read Kitchen Venom and enjoyed his ambitious Northern Clemency and then The King of the Badgers. In each of his novels Hensher shows a pitch-perfect ability to capture not just the dialogue but the mood of the moment and he has a sharp wit that puts him up there with earlier writers like Kingsley Amis. The Emperor Waltz shows that Hensher gets better with each succeeding novel.

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