Viennese whirl: dancers of Vienna waltz project perform on stage during the Lifeball 2014 in Vienna, Austria, 31 May. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

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?

Show Hide image

Marvel has moved past the post-credits teaser, and it's all the better for it

Individual stories are suddenly taking precedence over franchise building.

The lasting contribution of 2008’s Iron Man to contemporary cinema comes not from the content of the film itself, but in its Avengers-teasing post-credits scene featuring an eyepatch-sporting Samuel L. Jackson. While post-credits scenes were not invented by Marvel, their widespread adoption in other blockbusters is a testament to Marvel using them to titillate and frustrate.

Fast forward nine years and Marvel’s direction has significantly altered. Having moved to a three-film-a-year structure ahead of next year’s climactic Infinity War, their two releases this summer have featured less explicit connective tissue, using post-credits scenes that are, in typical Marvel fashion, self-reflexive and fun – but this time with no teases for films to come.

Where previous Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) films have trailed characters donning superhero mantles, confrontations to come, or more light-hearted team ups, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 decided to lovingly poke fun at Marvel grandmaster Stan Lee, leaving him stranded on a godforsaken space rock in the outer reaches of the stars. Spider-Man: Meanwhile Homecoming targeted filmgoers who had stayed until the end in expectation of a tease, only to receive a Captain America educational video on the virtues of “patience”.

That isn’t to say that connective tissue isn’t there. Marvel seems to be pursuing world building not through post-credits stingers, but through plot and character. In the past, teasing how awful big bad Thanos is ahead of the Avengers battling him in Infinity War would have been done through a menacing post-credits scene, as in both Avengers films to date. Instead Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 uses character as a tool to explore the world at large.

Nebula’s seething rage is, rather than just a weak excuse for an antagonist’s arc, actually grounded in character, explaining to Sean Gunn’s loveable space pirate Kraglin that Thanos would pit his daughters, her and Gamora, against each other, and replace a part of her body with machine each time she failed – and she failed every time. It’s effective. Thanos’ menace is developed, and you feel sympathy for Nebula, something Marvel has historically failed to do well for its antagnoists. Her parting promise – to kill her father – not only foreshadows the events of Infinity War, but also hints at the conclusion of a fully formed arc for her character.

In the high-school-set Spider-Man: Homecoming, the stakes quite rightly feel smaller. The inexperienced wall-crawler gets his chance to save the day not with the galaxy at risk, but with an equipment shipment owned by Iron Man alter-ego and billionaire inventor Tony Stark hanging in the balance. While such a clear metaphor for widespread change in the MCU might be a little on the nose, the set-up is effective at plaing the film at street level while also hinting at overall changes to the structure of the universe.

Stark gifting Peter a new (and oh so shiny) suit is a key set piece at the end of the film, whereas in 2015's Ant-Man’s Hope Pym inheriting her mother’s own miniaturising suit it is relegated to a teaser. Peter’s decision to turn it down not only completes Peter’s transition past seeking the approval of Stark’s unwitting father figure, but it also leaves the Avengers in an as-yet unknown state, still fragmented and incomplete after the events of 2016’s Civil War. To anticipate Spider-Man joining the Avengers proper is to anticipate the forming of the team as a whole – keeping our collective breath held until we stump up for tickets to Infinity War.

With this happy marriage of the macro and the micro, individual stories are suddenly taking precedence in the MCU, rather than being lost in the rush to signpost the foundations for the next instalment in the franchise. It’s a refreshingly filmic approach, and one which is long overdue. To suggest that Marvel is hesitant to overinflate Infinity War too early is supported by their refusal to share the footage of the film screened to audiences at the D23 and San Diego Comic Con events in recent weeks. Instead, the limelight is staying firmly on this November’s Thor: Ragnarok, and next February’s Black Panther.

Stan Lee, at the end of his Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 post credits scene, cries, “I’ve got so many more stories to tell!”, a hopeful counterpoint to a weary Captain America asking “How many more of these are there?” at the end of Homecoming. With Disney having planned-out new MCU releases all the way into 2020, entries in the highest-grossing franchise of all time won’t slow any time soon. We can, at least, hope that they continue their recent trend of combining writerly craft with blockbuster bombast. While the resulting lack of gratuitousness in Marvel’s storytelling might frustrate in the short term, fans would do well to bear in mind Captain America’s call for patience.