My alternate night-time reading is The Emperor Waltz by Philip Hensher. If you have never read any books by Mr Hensher then this would be as good a place to start as any. It bears many of his characteristics. Fluent, liquid prose which steadies and entices the reader, interesting and engaging people and an historical/modern setting that is believable and imaginatively real.
The Emperor Waltz by Strauss is one leitmotif in this book, though there are many. Blackbirds and a teapot also appear throughout. The book ranges across many ages, there is even one chapter set in AD 203, clearly there will be no Emperor Waltz here, nor a blackbird, nor a teapot but there is a woman with red hair…
With a gesture of grooming, her good hand smoothed back her red hair, a confident, flattering gesture, and brought it away from the side of her neck for the executioner to strike more easily.
Thus, the writer describes the death of Saint Perpetua. The message, though, in this chapter is another leitmotif: how one action, or thought, or book, or idea gets spread from the people who witnessed it and never forgot, mentioned it to their friends and neighbours, who passed on the message so that is spread beyond the two thousand who were there that day: when Perpetua, the noble wife of a wealthy merchant in Carthage was killed for being a Christian, along with her slave girl, Felicity, and several others.
There are two other important locations in this book. The Bauhaus School of Art and Design in Weimar and then Dessau, and finally scattered, and London. The Bauhaus sections are mostly in the years between the two wars, at the height of the Weimar Republic super-inflation when bank notes lost their value between one cup of coffee and the next. All through these pages there is the threat, unnamed, of men who wear strange quasi-military uniforms and have a distinctive lapel badge – never described. And at the end, before the diaspora of talent, a group of Bauhaus students are drinking in a beerhall when a group of these truncheon bearing men arrive and break down the door…
The red-haired girl on the table held her position for a moment. She felt like a statue of resistance, but nobody there was observing her. Still, as the thugs in uniform crashed into the room, their truncheons raised, she held her arms up; the small soft drawing pencil in her hand indicating the ceiling. With a nervous gesture, she smoothed her hair again, pulling it away from her neck. She was alone, indomitable, angry and, for a few last moments, free.
Just moments before this, the same girl has said..
“This [the pencil] is ours, and we know how to use it. Remember that they can smash our minds. They can smash one pencil, but they cannot destroy every pencil”.
In these sections, we meet Klee, Kandinsky and others, our main plot line follows the lives of Christian and Dolphus Vogt. Christian is newly arrived in Wiemar to study at The Bauhaus, which has opened recently and is recruiting students, his younger brother Dolphus visits him, meets his bride to be and is dismayed, for he perceives a truth about his brother which he has not taken into account before.
In the London sections we follow the adventures of a quite different group, also one running against the tide. Duncan comes into money when his father dies and opens a Gay Bookshop, not entirely popular with the neighbours, and the glaziers’ phone number is readily at hand. He struggles on with his assistant, Arthur, who turned up even before the shop was opened and demanded to be employed. Here we meet an engaging group of gay men, friends of Duncan and others. Many of them real life authors of gay novels and writings. They come in their own ways and under their own names (a refreshing aspect of all Philip Hensher’s books.) AIDS has struck and there are funerals to attend, parties, flop houses and occasional loving, lusting encounters. Here again the leitmotif of spreading the word comes up…
“Books are like that. They go out into the world. They’re like us. We’ve got to go into the world. We’ve got to go even though there aren’t many of us and even though most of the world hates us and would put us in gaol and wants us to die of this disease. A book can go out into the world. It’s like a ten-pound note, it’s like a virus, it’s like an idea, it’s like a brilliant joke, it’s like a tune, it goes from one person to another. It never stops. It goes out into the world and it changes things a little bit even if people hate it, they don’t want it, they want to go and read something better or they start thinking that it’s all wrong. I’m not going to agree with any of that, and they talk to someone about what they think, and that other person listens. Do you see what I am saying?”
And then there is The Emperor Waltz by Strauss, a popular, well-loved and known tune. Known by the people in Austria and Germany, and played during The Euclidean Ballet put on at The Bauhaus, and known and played in London by Arthur, who has picked up an assortment of tapes for a party, heard on and off throughout the book, familiar and beautiful and comforting.
These are all people that you get to know fully, and are saddened if they die or walk off stage and you greet again eagerly when they reappear. If you can read and have imagination, it is impossible to be lonely or bored with a book like this to hand.
These ideas may possibly seem a little dated, but remember: it is difference that makes us fearful, and it doesn’t matter much whether that is new ideas in art, or sexual behaviour, or religion, history has shown us forcibly and often that this fear of the unknown and the unwelcome can easily become destructive, virulent and deadly.