In the latest issue:

Real Men Go to Tehran

Adam Shatz

What Trump doesn’t know about Iran

Patrick Cockburn

Kaiser Karl V

Thomas Penn

The Hostile Environment

Catherine Hall

Social Mobilities

Adam Swift

Short Cuts: So much for England

Tariq Ali

What the jihadis left behind

Nelly Lahoud

Ray Strachey

Francesca Wade

C.J. Sansom

Malcolm Gaskill

At the British Museum: ‘Troy: Myth and Reality’

James Davidson

Poem: ‘The Lion Tree’

Jamie McKendrick


Jenny Turner

Boys in Motion

Nicholas Penny

‘Trick Mirror’

Lauren Oyler

Diary: What really happened in Yancheng?

Long Ling

Count Waller’s StoryGabriele Annan

Terms and Conditions

These terms and conditions of use refer to the London Review of Books and the London Review Bookshop website ( — hereafter ‘LRB Website’). These terms and conditions apply to all users of the LRB Website ("you"), including individual subscribers to the print edition of the LRB who wish to take advantage of our free 'subscriber only' access to archived material ("individual users") and users who are authorised to access the LRB Website by subscribing institutions ("institutional users").

Each time you use the LRB Website you signify your acceptance of these terms and conditions. If you do not agree, or are not comfortable with any part of this document, your only remedy is not to use the LRB Website.

  1. By registering for access to the LRB Website and/or entering the LRB Website by whatever route of access, you agree to be bound by the terms and conditions currently prevailing.
  2. The London Review of Books ("LRB") reserves the right to change these terms and conditions at any time and you should check for any alterations regularly. Continued usage of the LRB Website subsequent to a change in the terms and conditions constitutes acceptance of the current terms and conditions.
  3. The terms and conditions of any subscription agreements which educational and other institutions have entered into with the LRB apply in addition to these terms and conditions.
  4. You undertake to indemnify the LRB fully for all losses damages and costs incurred as a result of your breaching these terms and conditions.
  5. The information you supply on registration to the LRB Website shall be accurate and complete. You will notify the LRB promptly of any changes of relevant details by emailing the registrar. You will not assist a non-registered person to gain access to the LRB Website by supplying them with your password. In the event that the LRB considers that you have breached the requirements governing registration, that you are in breach of these terms and conditions or that your or your institution's subscription to the LRB lapses, your registration to the LRB Website will be terminated.
  6. Each individual subscriber to the LRB (whether a person or organisation) is entitled to the registration of one person to use the 'subscriber only' content on the web site. This user is an 'individual user'.
  7. The London Review of Books operates a ‘no questions asked’ cancellation policy in accordance with UK legislation. Please contact us to cancel your subscription and receive a full refund for the cost of all unposted issues.
  8. Use of the 'subscriber only' content on the LRB Website is strictly for the personal use of each individual user who may read the content on the screen, download, store or print single copies for their own personal private non-commercial use only, and is not to be made available to or used by any other person for any purpose.
  9. Each institution which subscribes to the LRB is entitled to grant access to persons to register on and use the 'subscriber only' content on the web site under the terms and conditions of its subscription agreement with the LRB. These users are 'institutional users'.
  10. Each institutional user of the LRB may access and search the LRB database and view its entire contents, and may also reproduce insubstantial extracts from individual articles or other works in the database to which their institution's subscription provides access, including in academic assignments and theses, online and/or in print. All quotations must be credited to the author and the LRB. Institutional users are not permitted to reproduce any entire article or other work, or to make any commercial use of any LRB material (including sale, licensing or publication) without the LRB's prior written permission. Institutions may notify institutional users of any additional or different conditions of use which they have agreed with the LRB.
  11. Users may use any one computer to access the LRB web site 'subscriber only' content at any time, so long as that connection does not allow any other computer, networked or otherwise connected, to access 'subscriber only' content.
  12. The LRB Website and its contents are protected by copyright and other intellectual property rights. You acknowledge that all intellectual property rights including copyright in the LRB Website and its contents belong to or have been licensed to the LRB or are otherwise used by the LRB as permitted by applicable law.
  13. All intellectual property rights in articles, reviews and essays originally published in the print edition of the LRB and subsequently included on the LRB Website belong to or have been licensed to the LRB. This material is made available to you for use as set out in paragraph 8 (if you are an individual user) or paragraph 10 (if you are an institutional user) only. Save for such permitted use, you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, post, reproduce, translate or adapt such material in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the LRB. To obtain such permission and the terms and conditions applying, contact the Rights and Permissions department.
  14. All intellectual property rights in images on the LRB Website are owned by the LRB except where another copyright holder is specifically attributed or credited. Save for such material taken for permitted use set out above, you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, post, reproduce, translate or adapt LRB’s images in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the LRB. To obtain such permission and the terms and conditions applying, contact the Rights and Permissions department. Where another copyright holder is specifically attributed or credited you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, reproduce or translate such images in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the copyright holder. The LRB will not undertake to supply contact details of any attributed or credited copyright holder.
  15. The LRB Website is provided on an 'as is' basis and the LRB gives no warranty that the LRB Website will be accessible by any particular browser, operating system or device.
  16. The LRB makes no express or implied representation and gives no warranty of any kind in relation to any content available on the LRB Website including as to the accuracy or reliability of any information either in its articles, essays and reviews or in the letters printed in its letter page or material supplied by third parties. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability of any kind (including liability for any losses, damages or costs) arising from the publication of any materials on the LRB Website or incurred as a consequence of using or relying on such materials.
  17. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability of any kind (including liability for any losses, damages or costs) for any legal or other consequences (including infringement of third party rights) of any links made to the LRB Website.
  18. The LRB is not responsible for the content of any material you encounter after leaving the LRB Website site via a link in it or otherwise. The LRB gives no warranty as to the accuracy or reliability of any such material and to the fullest extent permitted by law excludes all liability that may arise in respect of or as a consequence of using or relying on such material.
  19. This site may be used only for lawful purposes and in a manner which does not infringe the rights of, or restrict the use and enjoyment of the site by, any third party. In the event of a chat room, message board, forum and/or news group being set up on the LRB Website, the LRB will not undertake to monitor any material supplied and will give no warranty as to its accuracy, reliability, originality or decency. By posting any material you agree that you are solely responsible for ensuring that it is accurate and not obscene, defamatory, plagiarised or in breach of copyright, confidentiality or any other right of any person, and you undertake to indemnify the LRB against all claims, losses, damages and costs incurred in consequence of your posting of such material. The LRB will reserve the right to remove any such material posted at any time and without notice or explanation. The LRB will reserve the right to disclose the provenance of such material, republish it in any form it deems fit or edit or censor it. The LRB will reserve the right to terminate the registration of any person it considers to abuse access to any chat room, message board, forum or news group provided by the LRB.
  20. Any e-mail services supplied via the LRB Website are subject to these terms and conditions.
  21. You will not knowingly transmit any virus, malware, trojan or other harmful matter to the LRB Website. The LRB gives no warranty that the LRB Website is free from contaminating matter, viruses or other malicious software and to the fullest extent permitted by law disclaims all liability of any kind including liability for any damages, losses or costs resulting from damage to your computer or other property arising from access to the LRB Website, use of it or downloading material from it.
  22. The LRB does not warrant that the use of the LRB Website will be uninterrupted, and disclaims all liability to the fullest extent permitted by law for any damages, losses or costs incurred as a result of access to the LRB Website being interrupted, modified or discontinued.
  23. The LRB Website contains advertisements and promotional links to websites and other resources operated by third parties. While we would never knowingly link to a site which we believed to be trading in bad faith, the LRB makes no express or implied representations or warranties of any kind in respect of any third party websites or resources or their contents, and we take no responsibility for the content, privacy practices, goods or services offered by these websites and resources. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability for any damages or losses arising from access to such websites and resources. Any transaction effected with such a third party contacted via the LRB Website are subject to the terms and conditions imposed by the third party involved and the LRB accepts no responsibility or liability resulting from such transactions.
  24. The LRB disclaims liability to the fullest extent permitted by law for any damages, losses or costs incurred for unauthorised access or alterations of transmissions or data by third parties as consequence of visit to the LRB Website.
  25. While 'subscriber only' content on the LRB Website is currently provided free to subscribers to the print edition of the LRB, the LRB reserves the right to impose a charge for access to some or all areas of the LRB Website without notice.
  26. These terms and conditions are governed by and will be interpreted in accordance with English law and any disputes relating to these terms and conditions will be subject to the non-exclusive jurisdiction of the courts of England and Wales.
  27. The various provisions of these terms and conditions are severable and if any provision is held to be invalid or unenforceable by any court of competent jurisdiction then such invalidity or unenforceability shall not affect the remaining provisions.
  28. If these terms and conditions are not accepted in full, use of the LRB Website must be terminated immediately.
Sad Strains of a Gay Waltz 
by Irene Dische.
Bloomsbury, 147 pp., £14.99, October 1994, 0 7475 0835 6
Show More
Show More

The hero of Irene Dische’s first novel was Adolf Hitler, alive and well and living in New Jersey. The hero of her second is Benedikt August Anton Cecil August Count Waller von Wallerstein. As a boy, he was obsessed with drawing.

He always drew the same thing: stick figures battling each other with swords, spears, truncheons, whips. He held the pencil in his fist, and pressed so hard that the point pierced through the paper. He clasped his tongue between his teeth, and sometimes he had blood on his lips afterwards. His teacher had observed that he was awkward with his hands, and he could not draw realistically, but he was master of the thick choppy line, and the exploding circle.

Dische’s writing is like Benedikt’s drawing: abrupt, explosive, aggressive; and her characters, too, are non-realistic grotesques, only larger and lumpier than life instead of smaller and thinner – distorted, jerky marionettes in a macabre Teutonic Punch and Judy show. Dische is an American living in Berlin with a German husband. Her parents were German Jews who emigrated, and she grew up speaking German in Washington Heights, a German-Jewish area of Manhattan known as the Fourth Reich. Most of her writing is what she, in her German-infiltrated English, might call an Ausein-andersetzung – a debate – with these strains in her biography.

Sad Strains of a Gay Waltz is set in the summer of 1990, partly in Berlin, where Benedikt works as a mathematical physicist; and partly in his family schloss near Lake Constance. A dictatorial grandmother rules it from her bed, consulting the tarot cards, the Bible, and astrology guides for gambling tips ‘and the social, register for hard facts’. There is a large staff known by its functions as Chauffeur, Hunter, Dogkeeper, Maid – all with capitals but no articles, which is disconcerting. Chauffeur is married to Cook. His proper name is Alfred von Biesterfeld. He is a cousin of the Wallers from an impoverished line, a hunchback, and highly sexed. It all seems conventionally gothic, but slightly out of true.

Benedikt is tall and beautiful, gentle, shy, withdrawn and very clever. He worships Einstein and it is not surprising that his research project is the study of solitrons, particles that never bond with others, or alter through contact with them. Sometimes he has sex with other men, enjoying the physical sensation, as long as his partner does not smell. He is exceptionally fastidious, and the only person he loves is his sister Dolly. Their parents died in a car crash when they were children. Dolly married a hearty neighbour called Count Sieseby and has a large family. She is warm-hearted, but practical and devastatingly unsentimental. In the prologue (called ‘Waltz’), she visits Benedikt in his small modern flat in Berlin. He has contracted a mortal disease that sounds like Aids. Dolly makes him some soup and advises him to adopt a child in order to learn about love. ‘You’ll be able to die with your feelings informed, you’ll know what you missed.’ So Benedikt places an advertisement in the paper: ‘Unmarried Man With Terminal Disease Seeks Child, Preferably Toddler, For Purposes Of Adoption.’

The advertisement produces a nine-year-old Russian refugee, glued to a dumpling shaped mother who settles in with him in Benedikt’s spare room. Marja is demanding, mannerless, slovenly, sometimes aggressive, and exudes an East European smell of unwashed polyester. The boy, Valerie, is hostile and silent. He slobbers and has a runny nose, but his singing voice ravishes even the tough old countess when Benedikt brings the Russians to stay at Schloss Biederstein. Then the old countess dies – a weird set-piece – and Benedikt decides to marry Marja, undeterred by the fact that she has a husband back in Russia. He feels he owes the Wallers a proper heir. So he suborns the local registrar and priest, and organises another weird set-piece, a grand wedding in the family chapel, attended by half the Almanach de Gotha as well as Benedikt’s discarded lover from Berlin, and his colleagues from the scientific research institute there. Dische refers to the Berlin contingent collectively as the ‘Berliner’, as in ‘the Berliner kept to themselves.’ In German ‘Berliner’ is both singular and plural, but in English the use of the singular form for the plural is as disconcerting as ‘Maid’ and ‘Hunter’ without articles. In any case, it ought to be ‘Keeper’, not ‘Hunter’, if Dische is making a Mitford point, as she seems to be, about ‘class self-consciousness’ – a neat term invented by Benedikt’s Jewish colleague Dr Graf. Another stylistic oddity is that all flower names are in German. Perhaps they are meant to evoke the lyrical side of the German character, whereas the gruff absence of articles symbolises its barbarian crudity. This aspect surfaces in numerous meals described with anorexic distaste, and in episodes like Valerie having his snotty face washed in a lavatory bowl by Einstein’s form er housekeeper. She is another of Benedikt’s protégés. Her role in the story is particularly obscure, though one can see how she got there.

The wedding has no immediate effect on Benedikt’s relations with his new wife and son, but when they disappear, apparently for good, Benedikt feels existentially bereft in his Berlin flat, and neglects himself until he smells worse than Marja. He doesn’t mind that, but the ‘seas of sadness that had been frozen in his eyes suddenly melted, rose and poured over his face.’ His illness progresses. He gets weaker and weaker. Then Marja reappears, tidier and friendlier than she used to be, and starts looking after him. Valerie, too, becomes more affectionate. The ending is not quite what you would expect, though, after several pages of nascent cosiness and sentiment: Marja’s husband turns up, moves in with the other three, and shares the spare room with Marja. The values being preached are evidently not traditional family values, just warmth, togetherness, humanity. The ultimate sin seems to be squeamishness. And why not? It is the one St Julian was canonised for overcoming when he lay down with the leper. And in case the message is not clear, an American scientist disproves Benedikt’s theory about solitrons: far from being unaffected by other solitrons, when they collided ‘they grew tails, wavy lines; they became complicated, and some became beautiful.’

There are a number of eccentric sub-plots: Benedikt’s married lover in Berlin has an affair with Dolly’s daughter; Chauffeur fails to be unfaithful to Cook; and several of Benedikt’s wedding guests die a few weeks afterwards from salmonella poisoning contracted in a Berlin restaurant: a light-hearted episode that reminds one of Le Roman d’ un tricheur and rounds things off perfectly, because the restaurant proprietor is the man who, at the beginning of the novel, hired Marja as a piano teacher for his daughter, got rid of her in a fit of parsimony, and thereby drove her to answer Benedikt’s advertisement.

A lot of big subjects get an airing. Besides Germanness and Jewishness, they include blood sports, relativity, number theory, refugees, the development of reciprocal relations between human beings, the connection between the body and its functions, on the one hand, and the mind and emotions, on the other: the most brilliant of all Dische’s startling setpieces is a practical dissection of the heart and veinous system. On German reunification she takes the Günter Grass line: ‘Moral malnutrition had produced this calamity,’ says Benedikt. ‘The German reunion was a hunger oedema.’ Clever aphorisms abound, and Dische’s insights can take one aback by their unexpected sensitivity: as he watches Benedikt go upstairs, Chauffeur ‘tried to banish his feeling of sad-superiority ... as if my gaze is a weapon ... and the object, merely by being unaware, is my victim.’ Her humour tends towards slapstick, but there are slyer and funnier jokes as well; a stream of consciousness, for instance, shared by a group of wives as they wait for their husbands to return from a shoot; they hear thunder brewing, and

thought about their hair, and then their husbands. Perhaps they’d get struck by lightning. Their married lives passed in a second before their eyes, and then the long minutes of fantasy about their widowhood. They felt their grief. They wondered which dress to wear at the funeral. There was a rumble of thunder. They thought about their hair again.

Dische isn’t often as kind as this to her readers. She complicates things by cranky epigraphs to each chapter (‘Binding: Benedikt and Marja re-enact the pietà. Einstein is watching. He is not impressed’) and by even crankier footnotes. Her message may be cuddly, but the reader gets pushed around. She is always jumping out at him from the thickets of her strange imagination and eccentric prose and giving him frights – or else lectures. The lectures are annoying, but Sad Strains of a Gay Waltz is still an unusual and exhilarating piece of work that leaves one curious to see what Dische will do next.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.