Sad Strains of a Gay Waltz

Irene Dische, Author
Irene Dische, Author Metropolitan Books $23 (288p) ISBN 978-0-8050-5357-9
Reviewed on: 12/01/1970
Release date: 12/01/1941
When is it too late to love? That's the question posed by this unflaggingly arch, if unimaginatively plotted second novel by Dische (Pious Secrets and the short-story collection Strange Traffic). It chronicles the slow ensoulment of one Benedikt Waller, an unmarried, 41-year-old mathematical physicist living in post-reunification Berlin. Waller--actually Benedikt August Anton Cecil August Count Waller von Wallerstein--garnered from his lonely childhood a love of science, a horror of his aristocratic origins and a distaste for human society so strong it verges on emotional autism. But when he contracts a terminal illness (possibly AIDS, although it's never specified), Waller heeds his sister's urgings to open his heart to others: ""You'd be able to die with your feelings informed, you'd know what you missed,"" she says. He advertises in the paper for a child to adopt and is soon sharing his apartment with a shy, suspicious young boy named Valerie and his mother, Marja, a disheveled, strong-minded former pianist, both refugees from the Soviet Union. The chronicle of Waller's frustrated attempts to win Valerie's affection--and to puzzle out the increasingly appealing Marja--is larded with innumerable subplots involving Waller's housekeeper, his assorted colleagues and relatives and the staff at the 14th-century ancestral castle to which he eventually decamps with his charges. Dische, an American filmmaker and Berlin resident, is a highly accomplished, unsentimental satirist with a sharp eye for human quirks and for the class conflicts and petty xenophobia of contemporary Germany. But her vivisectional flair can't compensate for characters that never fully come to life or for a story that inches along to a pedestrian, conventionally bittersweet conclusion. (Aug.)
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