Book review: Vigour and a robust wit

By John Gardner

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British author Philip Hensher. Photo / AP
British author Philip Hensher. Photo / AP

To say that Philip Hensher's 10th novel is multifaceted is something of an understatement. Its nine sections plus an epilogue range from AD203 to the present and the characters include Saint Perpetua, Paul Klee, Paul Bailey and Hensher himself.

But, unlike many an inflated blockbuster, the interest rarely flags, with the book driven by Hensher's characteristic vigour underpinned by a robust sense of humour.

A summary of a book of more than 600 pages in a 600-word review is almost bound to be inadequate but the principal narratives are set in Germany in the years that saw the rise of the Nazi Party and in Britain during the period that brought the first successes in the campaign for gay liberation.

The first is built around the life of young art student Christian Vogt and his experiences with Bauhaus, the pioneering modernist academy, as it attempts to adjust to a changing political climate.

The second is structured around the history of a London gay bookshop from its beginnings at a time of institutionalised discrimination to the present when gay literature has become commonplace in mainstream bookshops and libraries.

Along the way Hensher introduces a huge cast of real and fictional characters who are rarely less than fascinating and few readers will emerge without some favourites.

Unsurprisingly, his dialogues from the gay men involved in the bookshop project are captured with totally convincing accuracy but the characters in the German passages are equally compelling and the redoubtable matrons Frau Scherbatsky and Frau Steuer will linger long in my memory.

Hensher is the main character in a first-person account of his experiences in hospital, a narrative again rich in character, from the cheerful Dr Arsehole to the incontinent and irascible Joe. This section is a revealing insight into how a writer's mind works as Hensher spends his hospital days in keen observation of the social and internal political relationships that make up the world of the medical staff and the patients.

In another episode, Hensher's acute ear picks up the speech patterns of middle-class London teens and their parents as the youngsters take drugs and watch pornography while their elders dine.

The least successful section of the book tells of the martyrdom of St Perpetua, killed for her faith in the arena in Carthage. He captures the courage of the martyrs but fails to convince in conveying why they were so completely absorbed by their beliefs.

The novel's structure may be unusual, although readers of David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas will be undaunted and may find here echoes of that work, and there's plenty of enjoyment in treating it as a series of separate pieces. Part of the fascination, however, in such episodic books is working out how the whole hangs together.

It is entertaining to spot the obvious recurrences such as the Johann Strauss composition of the title and the Bauhaus silver teapot made by Vogt's sister-in-law. As Perpetua prepares to die she brushes her hair away from her neck, a gesture repeated by a student when fascist thugs break into the Bauhaus.

The heart of the work, however, seems to be Hensher's view that in any age truth and justice cannot be indefinitely suppressed. The word will eventually get out into the world. The executioner of Perpetua is liberated. The gays' books reach an ever-growing audience.

Hensher's optimism may be hard to justify in the world of today but his latest novel, energetic and lively, makes a thoroughly appealing read.

The Emperor Waltz by Philip Hensher (Fourth Estate $44.99).

- NZ Herald

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