Creating a song by singing it

This is my review of The Song Before it is Sung by Justin Cartwright.

This unusual novel was inspired by the friendship, strained by the outbreak of World War 2, between the Oxford-based Jewish philosopher Isaiah Berlin and the German aristocrat Adam Von Trott who took part in Von Stauffenberg's abortive assassination attempt against Hitler in 1944.

Cartwright has changed the names of the main characters, which gives him more freedom to fictionalise events, omitting some and altering others.

In the prologue, we learn that Mendel, based on Berlin, is haunted by guilt over the hanging of Von Gottberg (Von Trott), suspecting that, if he hadn't portrayed the German as a Nazi with delusions of restoring Germany's dignity and greatness, admittedly without Hitler, the Allies might have given more support to the July plotters. There is also a question of Mendel's motivation in undermining Von Gottberg – possible sexual jealousy over his ability to charm women. Mendel bequeaths his papers concerning Von Gottberg to a former student, Conrad Senior, described as "not my most brilliant student… but the most human". Conrad comes across as highly sensitive, possibly mentally unstable, his marriage on the rocks.

The story does not follow a conventional linear narrative, but flips back and forth in time, providing fragments of incidents from the various characters' lives, extracts from old letters and conversations to piece together "what really happened". The result is quite disjointed, with some aspects foreshadowed and repeated too often, but others left a little confusing and underdeveloped. For instance, Conrad seems deeply affected over some act of betrayal by his father against Mandela and the ANC in South Africa. Perhaps understanding the Mendel-Von Gottberg drama will help Conrad to come to terms with this, but this plot strand is never made clear. Similarly, Von Gottberg's love affairs (in particular with Rosamund) are not as strongly drawn and moving as perhaps intended. Most lacking is a sufficiently deep exploration of Von Gottberg's and Mendel's motivations.

This novel often seems primarily an opportunity for Cartwright to use philosophical insights or descriptions he has noted down for use, as writers often do – the Oxford college chairs "so battered over the years that they can be sat in from any direction" – Von Gottberg's lake, "shimmering like the wings of a dragonfly" – "Why did evolution find that it was more effective to have an individual mind?" – "life is created by those who live it step by step" and so on. These show why Cartwright is so highly regarded, but are not always enough to compensate for the inchoate plot which left me feeling that some promising ingredients have been stirred up into a rather disappointing recipe.

In the Afterword, Cartwright expresses the aim of shedding light on the riddle of how Nazism could have taken hold so quickly and deeply in such a civilised country as Germany, but the novel does achieve this.

Overall, the book seems to me to lack the power and humour of some of his other works, like "To Heaven by Water".

⭐⭐⭐ 3 Stars

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