The Emperor Waltz – Philip Hensher

TEW2As with all Hensher’s novels, this is extremely well-written with vivid descriptions of people and places that you can visualise. The author captures atmospheres. It shows the power of books.

Our group felt this book to be more mature than ‘King of Badgers.’ People found it ‘really interesting’ and wanted to find out more about the Bauhaus and to listen to the music.

It starts with the innocence of Christian Vogt in his new surroundings and his encounter withy a group of artists in the Weimar Republic, including Klee, Kandinsky, the Bauhaus school, artists and philosophers, experimenting with form, ideas, spiritual development – Johannes Itten and Mazdaznan. The importance of art in developing ‘humanity’ is set against the destructive, violent background of emerging fascism.

The Bauhaus was far from popular: I am sure that the Bauhaus will chase the love of beauty out of you very quickly, and replace it with a love of steel and sharp corners. I saw a soup plate that one of them had made. It was square. The absurdity!’

I had fond memories of my time in Berlin as different areas are mentioned.

There was a good, brief reference to the hyper-inflation of the time – where you paid for your coffee before drinking it because the price would have doubled by the end of your drinking it.

There was also reference to a man in a village as simply ‘the Jew.’ Later: `That’s an awful Jew,’ Gebhardt said.

`I know him,’ Leitner said. ‘He teaches at the Gymnasium. He teaches my niece mathematics, I believe. A Jew like that, teaching at the Gymnasium.’

`A disgrace,’ Gebhardt said. ‘Where’s he going now?’

`They’ve seen a chance to lisped and whined as he talked, making what he thought of as a Jewish voice. ‘Son of mine, watch how their money flows into our pockets, and stays there. Plot and plan, my son, plot and plan.’

`Most of them know better than to walk down the Bott­chergasse,’ Harbach said.

`If Wolff were here, he’d be explaining about the blood and inheritance that makes the Jew stoop like that, makes him clever,’ Gebhardt said. He and Leitner and Harbach were conceded to be very good fellows. But they were not very sophisticated about their understanding of the world. They understood this fact, too, and were often to be heard referring in respectful, jeering tones to the theorists of the movement, like Wolff. He had read deeply in scientists who understood the difference between the races; he understood in detail what Leitner and Gebhardt and Harbach and their kind, very decent fellows who were the life and soul of the movement grasped through instinctive revulsion.

`It’s the blood of centuries, hawked around half of Europe and half of Asia, by the cosmopolites,’ Leitner said. ‘Look at the cosmopolite. He couldn’t punch a soldier in the face. He wouldn’t have gone to war. He’d have found some clever way out of it.’

`There was a Jew in our battalion, a butcher’s son from Berlin,’ Gebhardt said. ‘How he yelled when he found out that his wife was dead! Dead of the influenza. He yelled and screamed and howled when he got the letter. But the comrades in the battalion, many of them met the same fate. Did he yell then? No. Prob­ably working out ways to sell their uniforms back to the army.’

`You’re letting that Jew get away,’ Harbach said.

`It’s so nice and warm in here,’ Gebhardt said. ‘And it is only one Jew. We could let him go on his way. Oh, very well.’

They hauled themselves to their feet and left the cafe. Leitner let out a hostile shout into the street, and the Jew and his child, now in their effrontery at the end of the Bottchergasse, both looked round. It was as if they were expecting to be greeted by friends who just happened to be sitting in the Cafe Harbach. make some money,’ Harbach said, coming over in his apron to observe.

`Taking his child out, too,’ Gebhardt said. ‘They want their children to learn early how to make money.’

`My little son,’ Leitner said, hunching up his shoulders. He

…..With every five words, the man was throwing a note into the air. Julius did nothing. He knew that to scramble after money would persuade them to put their boot on the back of i his neck. It was so little, the money, so little.

`You love money,’ the fat man said. ‘And we love our country. \That is the difference. That is why we are going to win in the lend. You can’t live on the money that you love so much, can you? Here—’ and he took the money from his comrade. He / took seven or eight notes from the top, screwed them up, and now pushed them into Julius’s face. He would have forced them into his mouth, but Julius would not open it. His teeth were clamped shut. That noise was the noise of Lotte crying, and calling for her mummy. But Mummy could not hear. ‘There, thief,’ the fat man said. He cast the money down to the ground. `You earned it. Enjoy it while you can.’

The trains managed to run during heavy snow.

An older man made a pass at a young man in a railway compartment and was rebuffed, the younger man assuming that this was a medical condition which could be cured.

Unrealistically: Christian’s longing was for the fire of the future, the high-banked and roaring fire that he would insist on once they were married. He observed that, in the coal scuttle, there remained only three pieces of coal. Adele gave the impression of being a good and practical housewife, but her cake was not very good, and her coffee was awful, and surely a good and practical housewife would have made a better estimate of the amount of coal she needed to bring up from the coal cellar.

The callow, new teacher asking questions that get smart alec responses from the teenagers echoes many memories from those of us when we were starting out in teaching.

The second movement is the emergence of gay and lesbian liberation, and movement ‘out of the closet’ from the late 1970s, following the fortunes particularly of one gay man and his circle, who opens a gay bookshop. Literature changes consciousness and is changed by it.

The differing aims of CHE, between those who wanted to campaign and those who sought a social club are well expressed: the confusion with the South American struggle?’ Andrew said. Andrew was the most revolutionary of them or, really, the only one. `It’s being called CHE that does it,’ Nat said. ‘They think it’s something to do with that man they all like so much, the one with the beard and the gaze upwards, you know, Che Guevara. That’s the third time we’ve had that. We should really spell out what we are on the poster, write Campaign for Homosexual Equality, then they wouldn’t come upstairs by mistake.’ `I don’t know,’ Simon said. ‘I don’t mind them coming upstairs. One was quite nice. I was sorry to see him go, to be honest. That one I wasn’t so bothered about.’ `People talk about anal sex as though it’s the be-all and end-all of gay identity,’ Christopher said. He had been trying to revert to what he had been saying before the bearded man came in. `And for me it was very important. But I understand if people don’t want to assert it as important. For me —’ `I don’t think we can really write Campaign for Homosexual Equality on the poster,’ Alan said. ‘The landlord might have views about that.’ `Well, we’ve got nothing to be ashamed of. Honestly!’ Nat said. ‘I thought the point of all of this was to be proud and public. I don’t see anything proud and public about hiding behind initials, in case the landlord doesn’t like it.’

Many of us remember tortuous, idealistic conversations such as: `The shares — they shot up. Doubled in value. Massive profits for private enterprise, off the back of dead people,’ Andrew said. `Every dead gay man means another million in condom sales. Every one. Did you know that?’

`On the other hand,’ Nat said, dropping the package on the floor, `if you use a condom, you’re probably not going to die, fingers crossed.’

`We’re all going to die,’ Andrew said. ‘Capitalism can’t stop people dying. And it can’t stop the progress of progressive working-class thought. Promiscuity is a radical critique of the heteronormative structures of this society,’ he went on, and thoughtfully rolled it round his tongue once more. ‘Promiscuity, Nat, is a deeply — profoundly — radical critique of the heter­onormative structures that keep everyone in this society in place. Surely you can understand that.’

Oh, do shut up, Nat thought. Honestly. You don’t half go on, Nat thought. And it was all too clear how this one would end. He would talk and grouse and then he would say that it was important to get your point across after all, and he would get into the car with his green eyeshadow on and his flowery dress and his Doc Martens. My days, how that Andrew goes on, Nat thought, and there isn’t even a drink in the house apart from parsnip wine and if you were very lucky some organic potato vodka made by Welsh lesbians, which you could have with beetroot juice. And the party would end with Andrew pawing at someone, drunk as a skunk, and still going on about capitalist structures. A bit less energy devoted to grousing, and a bit more to housework, would work miracles with Andrew.

There is an acrimonious deathbed scene between Duncan and his father. The money from his (altered) will goes towards opening a gay bookshop. The other shop owners speculate about the number of business that come, fail and go – you’d think that people did some research before risking their life savings. But I know they don’t because I have seen it happen time and time again where I live: To put a sum of money into a shop was not to submit to the nature of London, where money melts like a wine gum in the mouth, but to transform expenditure into investment, which will grow and grow, and make a man rich.

The description of an uncertain customer rings true to my earlier experience: He had walked past the bookshop three times before entering: he did not give the impres­sion of coming to bookshops much, and had stood for a second on the mat, breathing in the atmosphere of a gay shop, not sure where to start. Arthur liked this sort of customer. He would start by looking at the picture books, hoping for a bit of smut, and then he would circle the shop, finding the Californian academic texts on gay people in the middle ages and the recon­struction of gender a little taxing. Some of them would work to left or right, picking up books in a desultory and undecided way, and would discover a novel with a man on the front — if he was lucky, an American small-press gay thriller; if he was unlucky, the paperback of Querelle de Brest. The speculatively acquired pile would return to Tooting or Cardiff.

After the raid by Customs (police in this book), we all chipped in to support the shop and its staff.

The comment on The Swimming Pool Library by Alan Hollinghurst was fun: `It’s about rich people, isn’t it?’ Andrew said. ‘Rich people fucking poor people. Charming.’

`It’s fantastic,’ Arthur said. ‘Have you read it? Well, you should. Everyone’s reading it. We keep quoting bits of it to each other. The big bookshops only ordered five copies each, if that, and they were caught on the hop, so everyone for a week had to come and get it from us if they wanted a copy. We’ve had all sorts in. They’ve come in for that and then they’ve said, I didn’t know you were here, and they’ve wandered round and bought all sorts. It’s been fantastic. We’ve never had such a fortnight. It’s not just poor people, it’s poor black people that get fucked in it, Andrew.

The frustration of being on a bus, being held up by someone who can’t find the right money, is accurate, at least as far as I am concerned.

The description of an AIDS funeral where the duty priest covers it up by talking of a ‘rare Chinese bone disease’ captures the times well.

Opportunism? : that he’d go over to Freddie’s once a week and take the money and do whatever Freddie wanted him to do. that he’d go over to Freddie’s once a week and take the money and do whatever Freddie wanted him to do.

I had to look up capercaillie – huge woodland grouse

Also Pierrot – not a detective but a sad clown of Commedia dell’Arte.

And bibelot = a small object of curiosity, beauty, or rarity.

Both the Weimar and the London early 80s movements show actions of casual unthinking prejudice that in some ways are more shocking than bloody violence, as in a sense the casual events, the casual low level prejudices, unchecked, are what swell, eventually into violence.

In the future we see a small group of young London boys going through puberty, right in the middle of macho posturing, engaged in metropolitan gangsta speak, experimenting with drugs and getting slowly wasted, whilst, downstairs, their sophisticated cosmopolitan parents, blissfully unaware, discuss education, economics and office etiquette.

The third movement is set in Ancient Rome, and concerns Christianity as a fledgling religion, treated violently by the state. Later, Christianity will itself become an instrument, later in history, of oppression and state control. His account of the trial of Christians by magistrates reflects verbatim accounts of the time and his description of an amphitheatre makes me think he was writing about Carthage in Tunis. Indeed, he describes Perpetua’s dreams which are well documented. He doesn’t name her companion Felicity; then again that would be par for the course for a slave girl.

The movement about the time the author spent in A + E, and later in a medical ward of a London Hospital, as a result of complications linked with his diabetes, shows how the artist himself works, how literature is crafted – and how important connection and community is. There are outcasts in this section – those who live on the margins through poverty, mental health issues and alcohol abuse. Hensher and his supportive community of friends and family are now the golden ones.

The description of the work of the chiropodist rings true, as does he various prescription shoes on offer for free on the NHS.

The title is a reference to the piece of music by Strauss which, with a blackbird’s song recurs throughout.

You wonder how all these different stories, or movements, are connected but gradually everything clicks into place. Teapots and stuffed parrots can travel. There was a powerful connecting up of the threads and a motif going all the way through. Martyrdom runs throughout and one asked if the reference to St. Perpetua hinted at the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence.

It is postmodern – though one suggested that the author had several undeveloped stories and he threw them altogether and made links.

We detected a degree of cynicism because few people came across as authentic, especially women.

One minor gripe – the dust jacket is very unpleasant to hold and leaves fingerprints, like there’s something slippery that has been mixed with the paper.

Examples of the breadth of language:

‘”The fuck up,” Nathan said. “Ain’t amusing, wallad”‘

‘long, laden boats sliding noiselessly over the grey-surfaced river below, with the silent pregnant greatness of the boats in Homer’.

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