The Emperor Waltz


emperor waltz

I’ve always rather liked the (probably apocryphal) idea that film pitches consist of a magic equation.

“Think Reservoir Dogs meets Cinderella.”

“It’s Some like it Hot crossed with Homeward Bound.”

(Just for the record neither are films I’m signing up to see.)

It got me thinking – how would that have gone with some works of fiction?  I wanted to write an amusing list for you.  The trouble is, it proved rather hard.  You have to have a rather encyclopaedic knowledge, along with an understanding which writers typify a certain subject.  (Of course the best books are the ones that are too original for this formula).

But it’s a very easy one for my latest read, The Emperor Waltz.  Algebraically (completely a word, shut up):

The Emperor Waltz = Cloud Atlas + The Line of Beauty

This may mean nothing to you, so let me unpack it:

Cloud Atlas” Pronunciation: /klaʊd /ˈatləs/

A novel made up of a number of brief novellas, interrupted and resumed, stretched along different time periods, up to and including the future.  Apparently separate and only loosely thematically linked.

The Line of Beauty” Pronunciation: /ðə / /lʌɪn/ /ɒv//ˈbjuːti/

Good example of the work of Alan Hollinghurst, writer known for his depiction of gay life in Thatcherite London esp. featuring outsiders entering the world of the privileged upper classes. (Also: The Stranger’s Child, forgive the very ignorant review, written before I understood Hollinghurst’s queer fiction agenda.)

So (I hope you’re following), The Emperor Waltz is a novel made up of different narratives from different time periods, picked up and left, prominently featuring gay life in 1980s  London.  This is in fact only one of five of the sections but occupies a generous proportion of this thick book, and seems to be where Hensher’s heart lies.  It tells the story of Duncan, a young man who establishes London’s first gay bookshop in large part to spite his homophobic father, whose inheritance makes the shop possible.  It’s a witty, informed, eclectic view of emergent gay culture, with its panoply of characters – from the politically motivated, to the high camp, to the rural ingenue, to Duncan himself: the sort of everyman, representative of nothing in particular, who rarely features in literature about the gay scene in my limited experience.  It’s strongly reminiscent of Hollinghurst, but that’s high praise: both he and Hensher are A grade novelists whose reading is always a pleasure.

The other main narrative is set in 1920s Weimar Germany, the tale of a new student of the Bauhaus (one of the most defining creative schools of the twentieth century.) The school is radical, and its boundary-breaking approach is brought into vivid contrast with comfortable 1920s middle class Germany, with its loons and geniuses (Klee and Kandinsky feature as characters) alike.

The other sections are stranger and shorter.  A tale of early Christians being put to death by wild beasts in 4th century Rome; a bizarre interlude of teenagers talking in heavy modern slang and being obsessed with drugs, booze and sex while their parents are downstairs at a painfully conventional middle class dinnerparty, and perhaps most weirdly, quite a lengthy account of Hensher’s recent stay at a hospital, and the aggressive, foul-smelling semi-tramp a few beds down.  ?$*~#%!, right? The good news is that Hensher is such a good storyteller that each section is engaging and interesting in its own right – quite a feat given the hospital visit in particular.  But when it comes to comprehending a whole it’s all more murky.

If you sit and think, as I have, you can identify links with most of them.  The best link is that each section has zealots; advocates, in many shapes and guises, for a new and different way of being, whether that’s being gay, being a Christian, being an adult, being a certain type of artist… (it falls down in Hensher’s hospital section if I’m honest).  There’s an accompanying stream of newcomers joining these causes, both for the good and the bad.  Because it’s not an agenda-driving sort of book: you could say Hensher is for some new causes and against others, though it would be closer to say that the book is neither for nor against any (homosexuality excepted; there’s no sense that the book isn’t a great advocate for homosexuality – Hensher himself, as the hospital section clarifies, is gay.) But Hensher isn’t driving a point home – he’s just laying it out for you; make of it what you will.  If anything, it’s accepting, fond and critical in turn of the whole ragbag of humankind, human belief, human being.


If you wanted a one word answer as to whether this fits together, the answer is no.  But ask if I enjoyed it, and the answer’s a clear yes.  Broad, a bit weird, always readable.  If Cloud Atlas + Alan Hollinghurst = promising for you, don’t delay.


One thought on “The Emperor Waltz

  1. Philip Hensher = Nell’s English professor at Exeter! 🙂 Excellent blog as always 🙂 xxxxx

    P.S. After calculations, we owe you £7.50…!!!! Shall we take you out for drinks soon and keep the tab going?!

    P.P.S (And I shall say this only once) We are watching – and LOVING – Allo Allo 🙂

    On 17 January 2016 at 18:23, Room of Joy wrote:

    > roomofjoy posted: ” I’ve always rather liked the (probably apocryphal) > idea that film pitches consist of a magic equation. “Think Reservoir Dogs > meets Cinderella.” “It’s Some like it Hot crossed with Homeward Bound.” > (Just for the record neither are films I’m si” >

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