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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Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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