Whatever else it is, Philip Hensher's latest novel is an immensely enjoyable read; and that's no little achievement for one of these patchwork creations, like David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas or Nicole Krauss's Great House, that flit between characters, settings and times, leaving the reader to do a lot of puzzling as he or she tries to fit the pieces together. I'm not very good at these sort of puzzles, and I'm sure I've missed many of the subtle connections that Hensher weaves between his three major stories: Christian persecution in a third-century settlement at the edge of the Roman empire, avant-garde artists at the Bauhaus in Weimar in the 1920s, and the network of customers at London's first gay bookshop in the 1980s. However, even defining these three as the key plot threads is a bit of a misrepresentation. The Christians, especially, don't get any more page-time than a manipulative hospital patient who analyses the subculture of the ward he's on, or a group of pre-teens and teenagers getting high on 'poppers' and booze at some unspecified time in the twenty-first century (the mention of Facebook gives it away, although Hensher confusingly titles this section 'Next Year').
Despite the disconnection of the chapters, The Emperor Waltz is certainly more than a collection of short stories. Firstly, the effect of fragmenting each narrative into sections and interweaving it with other stories forces the reader, at the most basic level, to think more closely about the themes of each story, and how they are reflected in other disparate times and places. Secondly, the narratives are thematically similar in a number of different ways. The blurb on the back of the book wants to tell us that 'In each story, the larger world regards the small coterie and its passionately-held beliefs with suspicion and hostility' and that the novel is 'a magnificent story of eccentricity'. While you could fit all of Hensher's stories into this mould, I'm not sure this is what the novel is trying to tell us. It seems a bit of a stretch to treat a ward of patients and a group of disaffected youth in the same way as gay men in the 1980s or Jews in inter-war Germany.
More interestingly, I think, Hensher is exploring the way that groups work, and how they define who is 'in' and 'out'. Rather than focusing solely on radical subcultures, he seems to be suggesting that every group has its own arcane rules and customs, and while some groups are figured as 'normal' and others as 'eccentric', that depends on where you are standing. He also depicts how the definition of a certain group as 'not like us' affects our perceptions of them; in Weimar in the 1920s, an young woman, Adele, sees Julius, a Jew, struggling to pick up a small amount of money after being the victim of anti-semitic abuse. Although Adele has not previously been depicted as bigoted, she can only interpret the scene in one way: '[she] looked for a moment at the sight of a Jew scrabbling around in the snow for money… The Jew had had his pockets stuffed full… she had seen the Jew's money scattered all about, and him wanting to do nothing but count it up'.
However, for me, the most original elements of Hensher's mediation on group behaviour were not these morally charged observations, but his consideration of how groups form in certain situations where there is no overarching conflict. Because of this, the section of the book set in a hospital, which seems unrelated to the rest of the text, was one of the most interesting for me. Our unnamed narrator (I suspect a careful re-read would enable me to work out who he is, as he clearly has interconnections to the London group) is a sharp observer, and uses that skill to win himself a private room. The entreaties of the other long-stay patients are catalogued as 'how not to do it'. He reflects that the nurses 'existed between an onstage and an offstage set of indicators' and that the patients fell into these modes as well, referring to them as 'Nurse' when onstage and assuming 'a facial expression of terrible sweetness' when staff were nearby. The key to getting what one wants, he realises, is to find a way to connect to the nurse in 'offstage' mood, which is difficult, because trying to adopt an informal 'offstage' persona to encourage this 'only created a responding chilly formality'. He eventually connects with the Nigerian ward sister, Desdemona, by pretending he is interested in religious conversion. Hensher's attention to 'in-group' and 'out-group' language is also displayed in a very different setting; the twenty-first century teenagers hanging out, each with their own particular and 'trendy' diction - except Basil, who is hopelessly posh. Their language styles continually clash; Nick has no idea what Basil's 'pie-crust promise' is, Basil can't understand why white Nick has adopted Jamaican slang, and Nathan makes fun of Anita for inserting 'like' into all her sentences. It's a brilliantly observed and surprisingly convincing scene.
This is the first of Hensher's novels I've read, and I got the sense that he is really playing to his strengths; he is obviously an excellent observer of social detail, and has the ability to depict any coterie as if he were an insider. The novel is also very funny. As a prose writer, he's less impressive - his descriptions are workable, rather than memorable - but that's less important when the characterisation and situations are as interesting as these are. I'm looking forward to reading more from his back catalogue.