Ian McEwan recently came under fire in The Guardian for his comment that he often felt the need to use his “blue pencil” on the big books that are being produced today.
He could, perhaps, have been talking about Philip Hensher’s latest, The Emperor Waltz (Fourth Estate, London, 2014). McEwan’s blue pencil might have struck out the entire section dealing with the martyrdom of St Perpetua in 203 and lashed out at the apparently autobiographical section dealing with a stay in hospital for an infected toe.
Martyrdoms and toes aside, the novel swings and swoops from Germany between the wars, the time of monstrous hyperinflation, rising Nazi nationalism with its accompanying anti-semitism, and the artistic revolution symbolised by the Bauhaus, so outrageous to bourgeois sensibilities, to London in the 1970’s where Duncan opens the first gay bookshop in the city with an inheritance from his mean and vindictive old father. Duncan and his out-there friends are an attack on bourgeois morality comparable to the attack of Klee and his Bauhaus colleagues, and they too are under attack, not only from people who spit in their sandwiches and throw bricks through the shop window, but from AIDS. This is the underlying dialogue of the book, between bourgeois morality, ranging from stifling to calculating to vicious, and the extreme personal risk involved in confronting it, between the comfort of fellowship and personal loneliness and deracination. This makes it sound heavy; it’s not, or not often. Hensher is intensely dramatic and often very funny. The book is worth reading for the second section alone, the section dealing with the death of Duncan’s father and the setting-up of the shop.
The serious critics have almost universally admired and even loved the book. The Australian critic Peter Craven goes so far as to compare Hensher to Thomas Mann. Here’s a difference: Thomas Mann’s books aren’t about being Thomas Mann. At its heart, The Emperor Waltz is about being Philip Hensher.
Hensher has talent to burn and gorgeous technique. He is a brilliant and untroubled observer of human behaviour, the brilliance given its edge, as Peter Craven says, by his unusually cold eye. Perhaps it’s this cold eye that gives the book something of a tricksy feel. One of the characters is a master puppet-maker. For all its rich texture, its close observation and its wonderful creation of life’s messy and grand detail, the puppet-maker is always there.
Peter Craven’s review is here: