It is a reviewer’s cliché to say that you felt sorry for the blurb-writer. Nonetheless, having waded through the 200,000 or so words of Philip Hensher’s new novel, attended gamely to its sprawling digressions, smiled at its neat ventriloquist’s touch and puzzled over its exact significance, my heart went out to whichever harassed employee of Fourth Estate came up with ‘a magnificent story of eccentricity, its struggle, its triumph, its influence’. It is not that this description isn’t broadly accurate – in the same way that Tono-Bungay is a novel about patent medicines or A Question of Upbringing a book about going to Eton – merely that no twenty-word summary can quite do justice to the spectacle of Hensher in full, uninhibited flight: preening himself, indulging himself, patting himself on the back, meandering all over the place and yet, against very considerable odds, managing to emerge with the punter wholeheartedly on his side.
Part of The Emperor Waltz’s problem, at any rate for the reader who likes his fiction to take a conventional tack, is its diffuse and at times apparently random form. Like David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas – a comparison that Hensher could probably do without, but which demands to be made