Philip Hensher’s writing has always trailed the vices of its extraordinary virtues. But in his recent work, the balance seems to have tipped. Discipline has disappeared. Vice reigns. The garrulous and relaxed has become the merely loping and loquacious. Fertile invention yields far too rich a load.
His latest novel, A Small Revolution in Germany, resembles the “vomit-out” that most writers can’t bring themselves to call a first draft. There are so many ideas and impressions, too many highlights and half-thoughts, too many epiphanies and enormities – enough material, really, to furnish a handful of novels. At times it feels as if we’re being taken on a tour of favoured Hensher landscapes and scenarios: party politics during the Thatcher years (Kitchen Venom), Berlin in the last days of the Wall (Pleasured), smart-alec kids in post-industrial Yorkshire (The Northern Clemency), the fine-grained recollections of a political awakening (Scenes from Early Life). I wouldn’t go quite so far as the film critic Pauline Kael who, after watching the original 280-minute version of Heaven’s Gate, said it was easier to see what to cut than what to keep. But there were occasions, reading this portentous and bemusing novel, when I thought that every other sentence might have gone.
The narrator Spike, a middle-aged lecturer, recalls the series of events that began in 1982 when his charismatic friend Ogden confronted a visiting army officer at a special school assembly. A miserable only child, Spike proceeds to join Ogden’s so-called band of Sparticists and spends his evenings and free periods talking about anarcho-syndicalism and proletarian revolution. It appears at first that Hensher wants to explore questions of hypocrisy and authenticity. During a post-graduation trip to Berlin, Spike, still a radical, recognises that Ogden is personally ambitious – not disdainful of power, merely resentful of those who have it. But then the novel’s centre shifts again. A Bavarian walking holiday in the present day becomes the scene of an “extraordinary coincidence”, prompting Spike to reflect on the personal and political odyssey of a different member of his long-disbanded boyhood gang.
It becomes apparent early on that the novel’s “now” is April 2020, but Hensher exploits none of the local advantages – foreshortening, selective emphasis – enabled by hindsight narration. There’s a moment when Spike recalls that before leaving for Berlin he had forgotten to return a book to the university library. He explains that he “considered sharing this with Ogden” before deciding not to. Yet here he is, more than 30 years later, sharing it with us.
This seems like the keystone for the novel’s have-it-all approach. Evoking a bad breakfast in the GDR, Spike tells us about the salami, the bread, the salmon, the hard-boiled eggs. An apparatchik’s Leipzig flat is described as being “heavy with past glories”, and then we hear about the glass cabinet (plus its contents and their origin), the wallpaper, the watercolours, the bookshelf. A riff on his boyfriend Joaquin’s laughter gets five sentences when the best of them would have done. And every bull’s-eye is coupled with at least one miss. You have the puffed-up headmaster explaining that on his annual trip to Spain the “fisherfolk treat us like natives”, but also the tame description of “an English teacher, deep in Keats and Yeats”. Children are defined by both “their habit of trying to explain every detail and rule of each game and encounter without quite having the words to do so” (vivid) and “their swift and intense friendships and fallings out” (vanilla).
The reader is denied various basic coordinates, along with any clarity as to why. We never learn Spike’s real name or the identity of his home town. Even when an East German police officer is grilling him, he says he lives in the place where he “grew up.” Also unnamed is the “writer I have come to love best”, though a spot of guesswork – or googling – reveals him as José Saramago. As in Julian Barnes’s novel of schooldays-and-after, The Sense of an Ending, in which the heroised Larkin appears simply as “the poet”, it’s hard to know exactly what you’re being told. Surely Spike’s taste for generalisation, like that of Tony in Barnes’s book, is proof that he’s a bore? Yet the novel seems to approve his chosen track, his status as the only member of his peer group who wasn’t changed by Oxford or seduced by the establishment.
The closest we get to any hand-holding is a sentence near the start that announces “a story about politics, and how some people are drawn to the political life”. It’s frustratingly possible to glimpse a shadow-novel that maintained its focus on the relationship between temperament and creed, psychology and world-view – the social-realist cousin to Deborah Levy’s recent The Man Who Saw Everything, which approaches similar conceptual terrain, and also moves between Berlin in the late 1980s and Britain with a Brexit backdrop.
You would need to modify the bit on page 266 where, flying in the face of everything he stands for, Spike contrasts “personal matters” with “ideological differences”. And you might want to bulk up – perhaps by repurposing the brilliant evocation of the minor character Kate – the passage in which Ogden, the thrusting turncoat, is casually diagnosed as a “narcissist”.
But you could retain, without embellishment, the moment when Joaquin, on first encountering Spike, asks “What happened to you?”, meaning the human experiences that had made him a radical, and then dismisses the answer that he read Karl Marx. And you’d keep Spike’s observation that political culture, being preoccupied with socioeconomic markers, would have nothing to say about his comfortable but emotionally starved childhood. Then there are Spike’s trenchant notes about the primitive basis of our so-called convictions – how our early whingeing about things being unfair mutates into “demand for social justice”, or his admission that whereas he loathed his Conservative father for opposing nuclear disarmament, he embraced the teenage Ogden’s adoption of the same stance, despite not knowing any of the reasons why.
Yet this shadow-novel remains unrealised, and the evidence of Hensher’s light-touch wisdom, ample though it is, becomes all but lost amid the idle verbiage, the reflexive logging of quirky detail, and the yards of plot in the version of the book that exists.
A Small Revolution in Germany
Fourth Estate, 336pp, £14.99
This article appears in the 05 Feb 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Europe after Brexit