When I was in sixth form, studying for ‘A’ levels, my physics class had two teachers. Let’s call them Mrs M and Miss C. Neither seemed to know how to teach and they each had a technique for dealing with questions from the class. Mrs M, who never moved off her lab-stool, not even when she was trying to demonstrate an ‘experiment’, would suggest you ask another a classmate for an explanation; Miss C would repeat verbatim what she’d already said, only much louder.
(This was an all-girls’ selective school and we were expected to achieve good results. I scraped a ‘D’ grade, another girl got a ‘C’, and everyone else in the class failed. Later, I found out that when our results were published arrangements were hastily made for the year below to finish their physics studies at the all-boys’ school next door.)
The narrator of The Destiny Waltz, Jimmy Merchant, is very much in the Miss C mode, by his own admission “saying the same thing over and over again”. Jimmy, a dance-band leader back in the nineteen twenties and thirties, is trying to ‘teach’ Mirror Productions about Paul Salomon, a friend who died twenty seven years ago and is now recognised as having been a poet “of genius”. Mirror Productions are making a film about Paul.
Actually the main plot interest lies not in Paul’s story nor (by extension) in London-Jewish life in the first half of the 20th century, but in the unlikely ‘triangle’ of Jimmy, Michelle, whose book about Paul’s poetry was the inspiration for the film, and Georges, the film director.
If you’re after a theme then it’s probably (the title’s a bit of a spoiler) “destiny”: Destiny Waltz is the title of a piece of music by Sydney Baynes, a popular band leader in the 1920’s and 1930’s, which resonates with Jimmy’s claim to fame; the title of Paul’s film is The Letters of Destiny; the opening chapter has Jimmy pondering “the small accident of time which had made him an English instead of a Russian Jew…given him a secret sense of destiny”; the closing chapter, with Jimmy on the cusp of “getting (so late! so late!) something miraculously like his heart’s desire,” has him musing on “Destiny…It is an illusion that we bend or shape our fate. It is not amenable to will – only, sometimes, to endurance.”
Ironically, given the filmic subject matter, this is a very talky-talky book. Jimmy acknowledges that in striving to make people understand “the truth (about Paul)” there is the “risk of boring” but he carries on regardless. The obvious drawback of writing this trait into your leading character is that the reader can soon become…well…bored. When the Georges finally snaps and tells Jimmy “we have all heard about Paul and his trials and his character and how awful the world was to him to the point of nausea”, at this stage, although supposedly firmly rooting for team-Jimmy, I felt exactly the same as Georges.
The Destiny Waltz won the very first Whitbread Best Novel Award in 1971. For that, it should be applauded. And there is much to admire in the writing – “(so late! so late!)”. But overall there is too much exposition, too much repetition, and too much that feels outdated. It’s a novel that’s showing its age. Then again, aren’t we all.
Rating: * Not for me (but worth a try)
P.S. Feeling slightly treacherous about the rating, given that Gerda was a fellow Scouser! It seems she was born and brought-up in Liverpool, only moving to London when she was 15.