Philip Hensher’s 10th novel, The Emperor Waltz, isn’t really just one novel at all. It’s composed of three distinct yet interwoven stories, with a couple of isolated vignettes thrown in for good measure. The most entertaining and moving strand tells the story of Duncan, a young man who spites his father by using his inheritance to open the “Big Gay bookshop”. “That’s what you were working towards, all your life, without knowing it,” he tells his dying dad; “you were working towards a bookshop celebrating sexual perversion.” The bookshop is only a muted success: Duncan is persecuted by his neighbours and by the police, and taken advantage of by publishers and his more politically radical friends. He keeps a glazier on speed dial.

A second narrative is set in 1920s Germany, when a young man travels to Weimar to study at the Bauhaus against a backdrop of burgeoning Nazism. Hensher has a lot of fun with the art students – all angular haircuts and faux-letarian fashion sense. There are cameos from Wassily Kandinsky and Paul Klee, who take their lines for walks. The Bauhausers too, Hensher suggests, are a maligned minority. “They wish to make things new,” a blustering old architect says, “and turn our lives upside down; to ask us to sit on tetrahedrons, and to live in houses made of glass, like tomatoes.”

The least satisfying section of the book focuses on a group of Christians recruiting to their sect in a 3rd-century Roman outpost. It’s competently done, with a stylistic neutrality that owes something to Kafka. But ultimately the Roman passages feel rather slight and disconnected from the rest.

With The Mulberry Empire, (2002) a novel written in a dizzying array of different literary styles, Hensher showed himself to be a master ventriloquist. Here the tone is generally straighter: The Emperor Waltz is historical fiction stripped of its more blatant identifiers, and is the better for it. The Bauhaus sections in particular are astonishing – dripping with dramatic irony but never sentimental. Though Nazis haunt the Weimar coffee shops and characters reflect on the madness of hyperinflation – with potatoes doubling in price from one hour to the next – the focus is always on people: how they think, feel and behave.

Hensher writes about his characters with real affection. The most sensitively drawn are the failures – Johannes Itten, a contemporary of Klee who remains forever in his master’s shadow, or Freddie Sempill, a man who can’t face the fact of his homosexuality and who (in a nod to the sad death of Bruce Chatwin) claims that the Aids he’s dying from is in fact a “rare Chinese bone disease”.

This affection is manifested in the effort made to get their dialogue, and behavioural tics and idiosyncrasies, just right. Hensher has always been sensitive to the way people present themselves to the world. And at the level of the sentence, his writing is as wonderful as ever. Stethoscopes are “avant-garde necklaces of rubber and steel”; people collapse their umbrellas “like black herons opening their wings and shutting them after a fishing plunge”. Hensher does this kind of thing effortlessly. But the larger structure left me unsatisfied. The organising principle, loose as it is, depends on leitmotif, but Strauss’s “Kaiser-Walzer”, which echoes through the book, doesn’t do quite enough to tie it all together.

The Emperor Waltz, by Philip Hensher, Fourth Estate, RRP£18.99, 624 pages

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2023. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window) CommentsJump to comments section

Follow the topics in this article