This book is on a much smaller scale than some of Hensher’s previous novels, such as The Emperor Waltz or The Mulberry Empire, but the decades-long sweep of the narrative gives a historical perspective to events, suggesting that ultimately humanity’s strivings are insignificant and true revolutions elusive. Yet for Hensher, the triviality might be the very point, the driver of personal transformation. ‘It is not the fundamental nature of things that matters,’ Spike says early on. ‘It is the superficial things of the world that we notice, and that shape our lives.’
The question of how people change opinions and their way of life is certainly a good subject for a novel. Hensher’s ability to examine it is, however, limited by his choice of narrator. Spike and Joaquin may congratulate themselves on their steadfast loyalty to the old cause and their refusal to cut their cloth to suit the fashions of the day. Some readers will be with Hensher in admiring them. Others may simply see them as incapable of self-examination. Undying loyalty to the idea of revolution is not very difficult if you refuse to engage with the world as it actually is. It may even be a cop-out which enables you to live in self-admiring complacency. Moreover, Hensher loads the dice against the former comrades who have turned careerists. The suggestion that one of them may have smoothed his path to the top by murder when still a very young man is a novelettish idea, all the more so because the suggested motive seems inadequate; it is unworthy of a novelist as intelligent as Hensher.
Hensher’s previous fiction suggests that he has thought hard about these questions. He has been caustic about Left-wing cluelessness before – in The Northern Clemency, a character takes a swipe at the urban socialist whose contribution to the miners’ strike was to donate a can of chickpeas. But he has always had time for dissidents, the odd men out: the gay couple who run extremely well-catered orgies for the “bears” of Devon and Somerset (King of the Badgers), Bengali nationalists in the Seventies (The Friendly Ones and Scenes from Early Life), and the Bauhaus artists, who are depicted with such sharp sympathy in The Emperor Waltz. The tone this time is more ambivalent, a little darker, as if the novelist is looking for a way to love the radicalism without loving the radical.
One feature of the book which is worthy of notice is its treatment of sexuality. Spike does not conform to the ‘gradual realisation of who I am’ narrative: when love arrives, it arrives as a lightning bolt. Nor does he, as the years pass, become part of a hedonistic culture. He is faithful. It might be possible to have written the novel with a female lover, with no obvious difference; and that is the point — there is no difference. It would, however, mean losing a comical scene in which Spike’s partner punches a self-identifying male lesbian with two children at an LGBT group meeting.
Within the interrogation of the political lives of the characters, Hensher is exquisite at deconstructing friendship. Spike, too, declares himself “interested in the processes of friendship” and recalls Dr Johnson’s thinking on the necessity of these relationships needing constant maintenance and repair. Spike wonders if the foundations had been laid properly at the outset, would there be need for all of these subsequent patchworks? The misplaced loyalties, casual cruelties, competitive rivalries and unconditional love that is demonstrated by Spike and his cohort is meticulously drawn and so the novel is as much about interpersonal dynamics in our lives as it is about the political forces at play – although these are not mutually exclusive, of course.
This book is bound to be seen as a satire on the left. But in fact its keynote is a deep anger and disillusionment with politics, a lack of faith in all systems. Whether tragedy or farce, history, as Spike realises, “is what most people succeed in ignoring”, to their cost. Positioning his story within the frame of current events is a clever move on Hensher’s part. We’re reminded that “this year, the island on which we were born or made our home tried to extricate itself from the continent. Went sailing westwards, to borrow a metaphor, like a raft of stone.”
Hensher’s novel reads easily and has a controlled, rueful atmosphere — a cautionary tale with a moral muted by awareness that anyone to whom it might apply will not be cautioned by it. At the close, the reader comes to doubt the nobility, the splendid isolation of Spike’s example of militant faithfulness whose narrative role is complacent and self-congratulating throughout.
Not everything in A Small Revolution in Germany is entirely convincing, not least the haute-stylization of some of its dialogue. To balance this are some wonderful moments of off-kilter comedy – Spike, for example, arriving for the first time chez Frinton and meeting his Eartha Kitt-fixated mother whose remarks “bore no real relation to the actual or possible world”. In the end, as Spike leaves Frinton’s bar bearing the latter’s assurance that “My brother thinks about other people more than you might imagine”, we realize that Hensher has spent most of the novel’s 300 pages quietly confuting most of Spike’s various bromides about humankind. What distinguishes the people who pass beneath his lens is not their resemblance to each other but their quiddity.
His latest novel, A Small Revolution in Germany, resembles the “vomit-out” that most writers can’t bring themselves to call a first draft. There are so many ideas and impressions, too many highlights and half-thoughts, too many epiphanies and enormities – enough material, really, to furnish a handful of novels. At times it feels as if we’re being taken on a tour of favoured Hensher landscapes and scenarios: party politics during the Thatcher years (Kitchen Venom), Berlin in the last days of the Wall (Pleasured), smart-alec kids in post-industrial Yorkshire (The Northern Clemency), the fine-grained recollections of a political awakening (Scenes from Early Life).
It’s sometimes hard not to picture Philip Hensher’s non-writing hand stroking a cat as he comes up with sly ways to throw shade. Here’s Spike, the narrator of his new novel, who has nothing to read on holiday: “The only books on the hotel’s meagre bookshelf were tawdry German thrillers and the equivalent of joke books for children, and the teenage love story someone had left on the reception desk, the book that was everywhere this year.” So much for Sally Rooney, but let’s not get distracted, despite Hensher’s evident fondness for drive-by scorn... Asking hard questions of what it might mean to “grow up”, politically speaking, ought to be fertile ground for fiction, especially with the left currently on the floor. But you sense ideas matter less here than score-settling – which may be the last thing any of us needs right now.
The narrative moves slowly, and the prose is unremarkable, characterised by its magisterial tone and a few ill-fated attempts at flair. There are interrogation scenes in which all the full stops have been removed, and dream sequences littered with line breaks (“the death ray is coming I hear its hot scream /I hear its hot scream / I hear its hot / scream I hear / its hot / scream”). But, although Hensher is a Booker shortlistee, he is no James Joyce. And signing off the novel “Champel-Battersea, October 2018” to emulate Ulysses (which ended “Trieste-Zürich-Paris, 1914-1921”) will not make him Joyce, either.