Intertwining wheels and spirals
Philip Hensher’s hefty 600 page novel, despite being set in 4 distinct time frames, and following 5 sets of characters (including the author himself), with a couple of recurring musical themes, one provided by a blackbird’s song, one the Strauss Waltz of the title, is actually almost a traditionally well-crafted narrative journey, with attention given to plot, character development, repeating motifs and beautifully constructed links which work like smooth dovetailed joints.
This is consummately CRAFTED writing and story-telling
There is a recurring theme of what it is to be an outsider, the glorious, lively eccentricity of humanity is celebrated, as something with soul and heart, set against the forces which are afraid of individual human messiness and personal connection, and which operate to conform and stultify.
These themes are clearly shown in the major narrative strands. The first of these is a group of artists in the Weimar Republic, including the appearance of known artists, Klee, Kandinsky, the Bauhaus school, artists and philosophers, experimenting with form, ideas, spiritual development – Johannes Itten and Mazdaznan. The importance of art in developing ‘humanity’ is set against the destructive, violent background of emerging fascism. The second major strand is the emergence of gay and lesbian liberation, and movement ‘out of the closet’ from the late 70s, following the fortunes particularly of one gay man and his circle, who opens a gay bookshop. Literature changes consciousness and is changed by it.
Both the Weimar set sections and the London early 80s have sections where there are actions of casual unthinking prejudice that in some ways are more shocking than bloody violence, as in a sense the casual events, the casual low level prejudices, unchecked, are what swell, eventually into violence.
The third strand is set in Ancient Rome, and concerns Christianity as a fledgling religion, treated violently by the state. Later, of course, Christianity will itself become an instrument, later in history, of oppression and state control.
There are two other sections, one of which I could not quite set within the structure, though I suspect there is a meaning I have missed, in this – very slightly in the future we have a small group of young London boys going through puberty, right in the middle of macho posturing, engaged in metropolitan gangsta speak, experimenting with drugs, whilst, downstairs, their sophisticated cosmopolitan parents, blissfully unaware, discuss education, economics and office etiquette. Above stairs the beloved children are getting slowly wasted. This section is very funny.
Hensher, in a section about the time he spent in A + E, and later in a medical ward of a London Hospital recently, as a result of complications linked with his diabetes, shows how the artist himself works, how literature is crafted – and also, how important connection and community is. There are outcasts in this section – those who live on the margins through poverty, mental health issues and alcohol abuse. Hensher and his supportive community of friends and family are now the golden ones.
Until the very end of the book, I thought my review was to be 4 star, but there is a very satisfying tying up of threads, repetition of images, symbols, artefacts, so that the tapestry of the book as a whole, works, and there is the sense of a good journey completed
4 ½ rounded up to five. I received this as an ARC from Amazon Vine UK.