Roger Brunyate's Reviews > The Emperor Waltz

The Emperor Waltz by Philip Hensher
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really liked it
bookshelves: history, gay-lesbian

Cliques, Cults, and Cataclysms

First, let me try to explain what we have here. The book (I won't call it a novel) consists of nine parts and an epilogue. The two main interwoven strands of three sections each could be viewed as separate novels of 200 pages or so. One of these is set in Germany between 1922 and 1933, the other in London between 1979 and 1998; the epilogue brings both of these to a conclusion of sorts, though in other respects they remain unconnected. In addition, there are three standalone pieces, which are more puzzling. One features a group of young teenagers in an upstairs room in contemporary London, experimenting with drinks and poppers while their parents are having dinner downstairs; their dialogue is so loaded with slang (world like "nang," "wagwarn," and "piff") as to be almost incomprehensible. Another has the author recounting in his own voice a recent stay in a hospital ward next to an Irish wino with poor bowel control. And the third is an account of a Third Century Christian martyr in a Roman colony in North Africa. Five different ingredients at least, with no obvious connection between them other than occasional mention of the Strauss waltz of the title. What is going on?

My guess is that the later of the two longer threads is the key. I surmise that Hensher wanted, primarily, to write about his own subculture: gay men. Perhaps he also wanted to write historically, looking at the period when English gays moved from being an underground culture to a more or less open one. This is already historical fiction; he was born in 1965, so would have only entered the wider gay world in the 1980s, when the transformation was already under way. (There is an analogy here to what he was doing in Scenes from Early Life, writing about the Bangladesh war of independence apparently through the eyes of his husband, Zaved Mahmood, who would similarly only just have been born at the time.) He has a central character, Duncan Flannery, who uses an inheritance from his father to open the first gay bookshop in London. But he needs a background out of which the movement can emerge into relative acceptance. This requires a feat of the imagination. I think he took the more extreme forms of gay behavior as he sees it today, and transposed it to a time when promiscuity and general cattiness was the name of the game, the kind of incivility bred by the then-recent legislation of male homosexuality, but not yet normalized by some measure of acceptance in society. It did not ring true to me because it seemed a caricature, the kind of writing that, from the pen of a straight author, would be condemned as homophobic stereotyping.

But he wants to open it too, make it less parochial. You can almost hear him brainstorming: What other kinds of in-groups are there that have started as off-beat semi-underground movements and have turned around to change society for better or worse? The clandestine early Christians are an obvious choice. The idea of Weimar in 1922 is an inspired one, offering several fanatical groups: art students at the radical Bauhaus, a Hari-Krishna-type subgroup of these (the Mazdaznan) who go about with shaven heads and purple robes, and in the background of course Hitler's Brownshirts. Somewhere along the line, he must also have realized that if everything was going to look like the early Christians—sweetness and light, self-immolation, and the triumph of the good—it would all be pretty sappy. So he decided to put in a dark side. Actually, there is something dark in each thread: the unsympathetic portrayal of Duncan's character in the first part, the storm troopers in Weimar, the incontinent man in the hospital (offsetting an essay that is really about the value of friendship), and the substance-abusing teens. The latter are a closed group too (and how!), with nothing much to be said for them—except that they will eventually grow up and take responsible positions in society. As indeed does Duncan and gay culture generally. Which may be the point.

So if you take the Duncan thread as the main one, and see it as a coming-of-age story (of a movement, not an individual), you can then range all the other elements around it. The obnoxious teens are an analogy to its uncivilized beginning stage. The essay about hospital visitors marks the opposite end: an arrival at human warmth and commitment. The Weimar thread is a complex parallel 50 years earlier. And the early Christian one hangs over the whole as a kind of presiding deity.

Those last two give me pause, however. I felt the story of the young Roman woman who converts to Christianity was just too simple, saying little about the internal dynamics of the conversion experience. And although the bits of the book I actually loved were all in the German thread (especially a brilliant freshman class taught by Paul Klee), I was also disappointed that it was so inconclusive. We know, alas, what happens with the Brownshirts, but the rest of the story goes nowhere much. I wondered, for instance, if we were meant to see Christian Vogt, the young protagonist of this section, as homosexual without knowing it? Yes, he courts the sister of one of his classmates, but it seems mostly a romantic whim. I think if this were a standalone novel (as it almost could have been), he would have had to have done more with it. As it is, we have to be content with the tentative threads we draw between the sections in our own minds.

In a first (and shorter) attempt at this review, I took Hensher to task for perpetrating a mishmash of inconclusive and disconnected parts, as well as for the predominantly nasty tone of much of the London gay story. Thinking about it some more, however, I believe I see the boldness of his experiment and his intent behind it. It does not quite come off, but I am rounding my original three stars up to four.
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Reading Progress

August 22, 2014 – Started Reading
August 25, 2014 – Finished Reading
June 9, 2016 – Shelved
June 9, 2016 – Shelved as: history
August 3, 2017 – Shelved as: gay-lesbian

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