Viennese whirl: dancers of Vienna waltz project perform on stage during the Lifeball 2014 in Vienna, Austria, 31 May. Photo: Getty
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Dance to the music of time: The Emperor Waltz by Philip Hensher

An ambitious and extraordinary ninth novel that is haunted by “a familiar piece of music, the old-fashioned sound an orchestra might make for rich ladies and gentlemen to dance to, in the old-fashioned times”.

The Emperor Waltz
Philip Hensher
Fourth Estate, 624pp, £18.99

Listening to “Emperor Waltz” by Johann Strauss II is like being caught in a lovely whirl, spinning through disparate movements that somehow come together to form a complex, intricate whole. It’s an experience echoed by reading Philip Hensher’s ambitious and extraordinary ninth novel, which is haunted by “a familiar piece of music, the old-fashioned sound an orchestra might make for rich ladies and gentlemen to dance to, in the old-fashioned times”.

It is common to find a novel praised for its range and scope but what makes Hensher’s approach remarkable isn’t just the subtle parallels he draws between far-flung eras but also his decision to alight on historical moments that are more threshold than pivot, selecting periods of flux, preludes to some main, more scrutinised event.

The first of these is Weimar Germany, in the city of Weimar itself. A lawyer’s son is about to start studying at the Bauhaus. Despite his artistic tendencies, Christian Vogt is not a natural bohemian and he finds the avant-garde exhibitionism of his fellow students – the shaved heads, home-made purple robes and persistent whiff of garlic – less alluring than a pretty girl he encounters in the market. Elsewhere in town, Paul Klee is experimenting with lines and practical jokes, anti-Semites are parading in the streets and hyperinflation is advancing so swiftly that the price of a cup of coffee goes up by 50,000 marks in the space of an hour.

The problems raised here – of insiders v outsiders, power v resistance, risk v comfort – trouble other time frames, too. In a hospital bed in modern London, one Philip Hensher, a novelist, contemplates the imminent amputation of his toe, engaging in some profoundly middle-class manoeuvring to gain a private room. On the edge of the Roman empire, a merchant’s daughter comes into contact with the strange cult of Christianity, which is spreading among her household slaves. She, it turns out, is the young St Perpetua, one of the earliest Church martyrs, her story told in an appealingly fable-like way, reminiscent of A S Byatt’s “The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye”.

The Perpetua tale’s themes of martyrdom and resistance re-emerge in the more sprawling story of Duncan, a young gay man who in 1979 establishes London’s first gay bookshop with money inherited from his loathsome father. The lively, beleaguered space of the Big Gay Bookshop, populated by an enjoyably argumentative clique, forms the emotional centre of The Emperor Waltz, the heart of a many-chambered piece.

All these people are running counter to the current, inhabiting small pockets of resistance in a largely hostile world. The stakes vary. In Carthage, to stand against the Roman empire is to risk being torn apart by wild beasts, to the amusement of a crowd. In Germany, the cost of nonconformism undergoes a hyperinflation of its own: the ridicule and poverty of 1922 escalate within a decade to beatings, exile and censorship, with far worse punishments to come. In London, the bookshop and its staff are menaced by broken windows, neighbours who spit in sandwiches and children shouting “Got Aids yet?” before running off “like a celebrant in a street fair”. Aids decimates the community, bringing funeral after funeral, one soundtracked by Donna Summer, another in which the vicar speaks euphemistically of a rare Chinese bone disease.

The links between these different periods are lightly wrought, a matter of small echoes rather than hammily wrangled plot lines. A gesture is repeated in multiple centuries, gaining in poignancy on each return. A beautiful silver teapot disappears in one world, only to wash up in an antique shop in another. A small boy re-emerges – delightfully, heartbreakingly – as an elderly man. And the sound of “Emperor Waltz” drifts from doorways and windows, a catchy, persistent reminder of how art works: “It had spread from player to player, from music to memory, and passed on and on, through fashion and neglect making its way in the world . . . a benevolent contagion.”

The central question in all of this is about value, the way it shifts and slips and slides. What is art worth? How do you make a good life? Are principles worth dying for, as Perpetua concludes, or can you abandon them and settle for a secure, if not exactly satisfying, existence? There are no pat answers but it’s hard not to emerge in favour of defiance, of making something that endures, whatever the individual cost.

Duncan, in a tipsy speech at a benefit to save the shop, describes books as going out into the world like little candles. Later, he sums it up even more succinctly, saying of his long, wearying attempt to counteract isolation and invisibility: “I’ve lit a fucking torch.” Something of that same spark illuminates this generous, courageous firework of a novel – a Roman candle, alive and fizzing in the hand.

Olivia Laing is the author of “The Trip to Echo Spring” (Canongate, £10.99)

This article first appeared in the 08 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The end of the red-top era?

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Robert Harris: Some of our great political leaders have crossed the floor. But it takes courage

Jeremy Corbyn is the very opposite of the man the times call for – so progressive politicians need to find new ways to take the fight to the Tories.

The big picture in recent years has been the collapse of the left-wing project across the world. But in Britain, in particular, there are institutional reasons. I can’t quite understand how the members of the Parliamentary Labour Party can sit there day after day, month after month, year after year, knowing that they’re simply heading towards a kind of mincing machine at the next election. It’s like waiting in a prison room, waiting to be taken out and shot one by one, when there are enough of you to overpower the guards.

If you look back over British political history, some of the great political leaders have crossed the floor: Gladstone, Joseph Chamberlain, Churchill – and Jenkins, Owen, Rodgers and Williams in 1981. Whether these people turn out to be right or wrong – and mostly they turn out to be right – there’s a certain courage in the action they took. There seems to be no one with the big vision to do anything comparable in the Labour Party.

It’s not fashionable on the left to say this, but individuals are hugely important. I think if there had been a canny and effective leader in place of Jeremy Corbyn we may well not have had Brexit. But as it is, Labour has provided no rallying point for the nearly half the nation that doesn’t want the course the country is set on, and that is such a colossal failure of leadership that I think history will judge the PLP extremely harshly.

The New Labour project was based on a kind of Crossmanite view that through economic growth you would fund ever-improving social services for the entire country. That worked very well until we had the crash, when the engine broke down. Suddenly there was a wilderness in the leadership of the Labour Party. At the same time, the Liberal Democrats had imploded with their alliance with the Tories. There was no opposition.

Our familiar view of the Labour Party is over. That is not coming back. Scotland is not going to be recaptured. So there can never be a Labour government of the sort we’ve seen in the past. One just has to adjust to that. What I would have liked to have seen is some grouping within Labour in parliament, whether around the Co-operative Party or whatever, that would have been able to take the fight to the Tories. But who would lead such a group? We don’t have a Jenkins or an Owen. There doesn’t seem to be anyone of comparable stature.

We all thought that Europe would smash the Tories but actually Europe has smashed Labour. There has obviously been some sort of fracture between the white-collar workers and intellectuals – that Webb, LSE, New Statesman tradition – and a large section of the working class, particularly in the Midlands, the north and Scotland. It’s an alliance that may be very hard to put back together.

Corbyn is the very opposite of the man the times call for. They call for a politician who can master a brief who is also nimble on his feet: but that is the sort of figure the Corbynites revile. You simply can’t have a leader who doesn’t notice when the Tories abandon a manifesto pledge on tax and can’t ask a couple of questions with a quarter of an hour’s notice. The Tories haven’t really gone to town on him but once they get back on to the IRA support and the views expressed in the past, Labour could easily drop to about 150 seats and we could be looking at a 1931-style wipeout.

The fact is that the extra-parliamentary route is a myth. Brexit is being pushed through in parliament; the battle is there and in the courts, not with rallies. You can have a million people at a rally: it’s not going to alter anything at all. It seems as if there has been a coup d’état and a minority view has suddenly taken control, and, in alliance with the right-wing press, is denouncing anyone who opposes it as an enemy of democracy. It requires a really articulate leadership to fight this and that’s what we’ve not got.

The only possibility is a progressive alliance. These are not great days for the progressives, but even still, they make up a good third of the electorate, with the rest to play for. 

If there was an election tomorrow I’d vote for the Liberal Democrats, and I think an awful lot of Labour people would do the same. The Lib Dems offer a simple, unequivocal slogan. You would have thought the one thing John McDonnell and co would have learned from Trotsky and Lenin – with his “Peace, land, bread” – is that you offer a simple slogan. Who knows what Labour’s position is? It’s just a sort of agonised twist in the wind. 

Robert Harris’s latest novel is “Conclave” (Arrow)
As told to Tom Gatti

This article first appeared in the 30 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: an opposition