The Emperor Waltz by Philip Hensher

The Emperor Waltz charts the beginning and end of the first gay bookshop in London. However, true to its musical title, there are several other motifs turning through the story: the history of the Bauhaus in Germany and the story of a Roman merchant’s daughter living in the African Roman Empire. Whilst this is all wonderfully clever the novel takes so many different perspectives that a sense of powerful connection often evades me.

The rise of the Nazi movement in Germany and its anti-Semitism (anti-anything not heterosexual and Aryan) is told next to the characters of the Bauhaus in the same way that Thatcher’s Britain, with its homophobia and capitalism, is told next to the characters of the gay bookshop, and, not to forget a brief foray further into the past, the growth of the Roman Empire, with its joy in throwing Christians to the lions, is told next to the story of one roman girl whose slave turns her to Christianity. How we are meant to compare these journeys and whether Hensher is trying to suggest that the exploration of sexuality, perhaps even the free expression of passion, is at the heart of an individual’s ability to stand against social norms, is very hard to say.

I’m impressed by the epic span of the book, but disappointed by some of its execution. Like a piece of music certain threads are left to dwindle and, though picked up again later, often appear in a different form or as a repetition in a different context. Again I feel the art of this but not its heart.

For me the merchant’s daughter is the most compelling character of the novel. I’m interested in Duncan, the man behind the gay bookshop, but interest doesn’t necessarily evoke empathy. In the end, I wonder if there was something in the novel that I wasn’t hearing, some motif that I wasn’t able to comprehend.

This is a grand novel, one with serious ideas and experimental expression, a novel that many will enjoy with characters and themes that will continue to resonate in my mind. However, for me, the gay bookshop story – the main theme of the waltz – remains the least compelling, the most prosaic. Perhaps that was intentional, but I consider it to be a shame.

I accidentally took a book-reviewing holiday last week but should be back on form next week when reading Gospel Prism by Gerald Weaver.