THE EMPEROR WALTZ
By Philip Hensher
Reviewed by Graeme Aitken
Paperback edition published July 2015.
Surprisingly Philip Hensher did not make the cut for the 2014 Man Booker Prize, as The Emperor Waltz has enjoyed some spectacular reviews. And Hensher has a track record of Booker success – he was previously Booker shortlisted for The Northern Clemency and longlisted for The Mulberry Empire.
The Emperor Waltz has five distinct parts and several of the narrative strands are united by the theme of following a passion or destiny even when it bucks against the mainstream and leads to scorn, hostility and even violence. A conversion to Christianity ends nastily for aristocratic Perpetua in an African outpost of the Roman Empire in 203AD. But the most expansive storyline follows Duncan, who outwits his dying father’s scheming sisters, snares his inheritance and uses it to open London’s first gay bookshop in the early 1980s. This shop is based on Gay’s the Word bookshop situated in Bloomsbury and real-life gay authors such as Paul Bailey make cameos. The storyline is fictitious and explores the travails of the shop over many years − the sandwich shop owner across the street spits in their lunch orders, the police raid the shop confiscating ‘obscene works’, and gay activists shoplift as they believe they shouldn’t have to pay!
The second major section is set in the 1920s in Weimar and Dessau at the Bauhaus school, and follows a young student Christian. The Bauhaus is viewed as thoroughly peculiar by many of the locals with their outlandish practices and eccentric students and teachers. Klee and Kandinsky appear in this section, while on the sidelines, the Nazis are glimpsed. Late in the novel, Duncan buys a Bauhaus kettle in a Brighton antique shop, which cleverly but subtly links the two narratives.
At over 600 pages, this is a big novel but an immensely readable and satisfying one. 2014 is also a memorable year for Gay’s the Word bookshop appearing not only here but also in the feature film Pride.