Monday, July 14, 2014

Something New

“THE EMPEROR WALTZ” by Philip Hensher (4th Estate / Harper-Collins, $NZ44:99)

In 1914-15, the pioneer American film director D.W.Griffith made a film, The Birth of a Nation, which presented a contentious view of American history. It showed the South in the American Civil War being defeated by a rapacious North, it presented blacks as sub-human and it glorified the Ku Klux Klan in a manner that is widely believed to have revived that defunct terror group. Of course the film was controversial. Many cities banned it. Many local censorship boards demanded cuts. Race riots were feared.
In response, Griffith pleaded that people were being “intolerant” of his film, and wrote a pamphlet about the evils of censorship. He also, in the following year, 1916-17, made his epic film Intolerance, which told, intercut, four parallel stories supposed to represent intolerance through the ages – a story set in modern times, one set in ancient Babylon, one set at the time of the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in France, and one concerning the suffering and crucifixion of Christ. In each case, according to Griffith, “love” was being thwarted by mass prejudice and intolerance. The film was subtitled Love’s Struggle Throughout the Ages.
Now why on earth am I giving you this well-known film history lesson when I am supposed to be reviewing the Englishman Philip Hensher’s 613-page-long new novel The Emperor Waltz?
Quite simply because, once I cottoned on to the novel’s overall structure, I thought that Hensher was doing a Griffith, and I feared that the novel would be a polemical piece of special pleading.
Philip Hensher is an out and open gay, most of whose novels have dealt with explicitly gay themes (although the best of them that I have read – King of the Badgers – was more focused on the issue of public surveillance and the “watched society”). The Emperor Waltz tells a number of different stories, set in different eras. In the 1970s, a youngish man called Duncan, having inherited money off his unpleasant father, decides to set up of bookshop catering to gay tastes in a working class district of London. The locals are hostile. Sometimes bricks come smashing through the bookshop’s window. Later, police harass the owners of the bookshop by sending in plainclothes men to smell out smut and bring a prosecution for selling pornography. Meanwhile, in a story set in Weimar Germany in the 1920s, a young artist called Christian Vogt becomes part of the radical Bauhaus art movement.
Aha!” I thought smugly to myself, “soon we’re going to have Nazi stormtroopers marching into the novel and bashing up homosexuals.” I was assuming that Hensher was going to run his parallel stories as case studies in hostility towards gays, perhaps with the implicit message that anyone now who is uneasy about aspects of modern gay culture must be a closet Nazi.
But, dear reader, I underestimated Hensher. The fact is, his novel is far more subtle than this, and while there is the odd spot of polemic it is not always a work of preachiness.
Being a Germanophile, (as he has made clear in a number of his Guardian columns), Hensher must be aware of how ambiguous the relationship of Nazism to homosexuality was (given the huge homo-erotic appeal of Brownshirt units and the proclivities of some Nazi leaders, despite official persecution of homosexuals). There are a few passing references to homosexual characters in the Weimar sections of novel, and some indications of closeted homosexuals hiding who they really are, but the main characters being persecuted by German reaction are the avant-garde artists, whose chief representative in the novel is heterosexual. Hensher is not only enjoying himself with a critique of Bauhaus art (there are long sections contrasting the artists Paul Klee and Johannes Itten), but he is also suggesting that any radical and world-changing view will at first meet hostility. Bauhaus art then, gay liberation now (or at least in the 1970s and 1980s).
The modern and the 1920s sections take up most of the novel, but there are other historical stories told. Exactly halfway through the novel, one self-contained 40-page section concerns early Christians being persecuted in the reign of the emperor Diocletian. A pagan merchant’s daughter (later martyred and known as St. Perpetua) has the following conversation with her Christian slave:
 “ ‘I have talked much about my religion’, the slave said.
‘Oh, I won’t tell anyone’, the merchant’s daughter said. ‘But is it a secret sort of religion? In caves, in the desert, sacrificing babies to the gods, and it is death to speak of the mysteries?’
‘My religion is not like that,’ the slave said. ‘One day it will live openly and everyone will see everything about it. It is not a religion made for darkness.’
‘Why do you not live it openly now?’ the merchant’s daughter said, but the slave had nothing but a gesture of the hands in response to that. ‘I can see, you would be killed if you did. But you don’t seem to mind being killed in the name of your religion…’ ” (p.318)
I think Hensher’s parallel here is fairly obvious. Early Christianity, like Bauhaus art and gay liberation, was once a movement of the powerless that upset established power structures and provoked a hostile reaction. The Christian slave’s words that her movement will ‘one day … live openly and everyone will see everything about it. It is not … made for darkness’ could really be the epigraph to the whole novel.
At this point we could, of course, ask some hard questions about whether early Christianity, Bauhaus art and modern gay-dom are really comparable. To some extent, Hensher’s structural parallels force the issue.
There are also two sections whose place in the novel is a little murky.
Thirty pages (given the heading “Next Year”) are a scene of obnoxious young middle-class teenagers taking drugs and watching their father’s stash of pornography when they are supposed to be looking after a younger child. I’m not sure what Hensher’s purpose is in including this, except perhaps to show the iniquities of apparently respectable middle-class heterosexual families. Or to show all the wrong ways in which teenagers might be introduced to homosexuality, as they snigger over anal sex.
Far more intriguing – and the part of the novel I found most engaging – is the forty-page section headed “Last Month”. Unlike the rest of the novel, it is told in the first person by a character identified (on p.376) as “Phil”, so it appears to be direct autobiography on Philip Hensher’s part. Phil lies in a hospital bed. He is there for a minor operation. He has to co-exist with people he does not really like (including especially one disgusting and malodorous tramp), but he uses his skills in reading character to get onside with the supervising nurse and thus to get himself moved to a bed with a window view. As I took in this minutely observed episode, I couldn’t help thinking how well it read as an autonomous short story. Where it fits thematically into the rest of the novel I can only guess. Is Hensher’s point that human survival often has to mean peaceful co-existence with people we can’t stand? Or that the skills that go into reading character accurately can also be used to manipulate others?
Having noted these other sections, however, it remains true that the novel’s major preoccupations are with 1920s Germany and with modern homosexuals.
Hensher never falls into the trap of presenting his gay characters as uniformly likeable people. There are some who are satirised or presented in negative terms. One gay character talks arrant nonsense such as “Promiscuity is a radical critique of heteronormative structures that keep everyone in this society in place”. (pp.437-438). As a mature gay man, Hensher adopts a coolly ironical attitude towards this character, perhaps a bit like a feminist who knows that the rhetoric has changed and who now regards with some embarrassment the days of bra-burning. In the Weimar sections, a homosexual couple who talk of “having sodomy” in the interests of “hygiene” are essentially ridiculed. Hensher seems especially hostile to those who attempt to link gayness with left-wing political causes. Again in the Weimar section, leftist people who talk bloody revolution are really depicted as being on the same wavelength as thuggish beer-swilling Brownshirts. In the “modern” section, one tiresome gay politico, who wants to use the gay bookshop for meetings discussing Trotsky, is finally kicked out by other gay men who see him as a dishonest and irritating irrelevance (pp.482-485).
Hensher is on record complaining about left-wing parties which pander to working class prejudices against gays. He is also on record as noting how much more welcoming the English Conservative Party has been to gays than the Labour Party has been, and how large a fan base Margaret Thatcher had among gay men. This brings me very much to the conclusion that, while I heard one radio reviewer laud this novel for being about the power of “outsiders”, it is really showing outsiders craving to be insiders – wielding power and fully accepted by society at large. The trajectory of the “modern” sections of the story is towards a character’s belief (pp.508-509) that the gay bookshop has become redundant because the type of wares it sells are now sold openly in mainstream bookshops anyway.
Why the novel is called The Emperor Waltz is another of those things that readers will have to puzzle out. Strauss’s stately and melodious old dance tune is referenced in most of the novel’s different sections (apart, obviously, from the one set in early Christian days). It is one of the novel’s many verbal links: a rather artificial way of binding diverse materials together – like having persecuted Christians in one section and then calling the main character of another section “Christian”. Hensher equates the tune with happiness, but perhaps also with the inevitable march of history and change. And any number of other things.
How do I personally rate this novel? There are spots of badly self-expository dialogue, as when Duncan spills out hatred for his dying father as he neatly explains how his father mistreated his sister:
I remember. Even in the 1950s, you didn’t just throw small children into the deep end of swimming pools and wait to see if they drowned or not…. Every week… making her walk all the way back to school in the dark of January to make her find a pencil case she had dropped. Do you know, you’ve never once given me any help or advice – you’ve never done anything for me, except once. Mummy made you explain to me how to shave. You couldn’t get out of that. That was it. I’m glad you’re dying.” (pp.110-111) Etc. Etc.
The episodes where a team of enthusiasts set up the gay bookshop, and later where a party is being held to raise funds to fight the police prosecution, have the naïve jolly-hockey-sticks tone of old tales about a bunch of kids putting on a show in the local barn. To give a literary comparison, they reminded me of nothing so much as the assembling of the Dinky-Doo concert party in J.B.Priestley’s The Good Companions. Such enthusiasm. Such simple-mindedness.
On the other hand, the novel is packed densely with interesting detail and is the product of an erudite man who does not want to inhabit a ghetto. While you are reading it, it engages attention. But the artificiality of its central conceit means that the effect quickly wears off.

Pedantic footnotes: As one might expect from this author, there are a number of in-jokes in The Emperor Waltz, and many points at which cultural references are left unexplained so that the literati can have the pleasure of picking them up for themselves. Some historical characters have major roles (such as Paul Klee and Saint Perpetua). Others drop fleetingly into the narrative (such as the novelist Angus Wilson being all campy at the gay bookshop’s fund-raising party). Then there is the totally fictitious character who is dying of AIDS, but who is so in the closet that he pretends he is dying of a “rare Chinese bone disease”. Those in the know will recognise here a reference to a well-known travel writer. A number of times, there are references to meat-eating characters enjoying the “inner organs” of animals, which can only be an echo of a famous passage in James Joyce’s Ulysses.  And when, late in the novel, somebody writes of an aeronautical engineer called Norway, we are not told that this was the chap who wrote a string of pop novels under the pseudonym Nevil Shute. And so on and so on.

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