cover image The Song Before It Is Sung

The Song Before It Is Sung

Justin Cartwright, . . Bloomsbury, $24.95 (276pp) ISBN 978-1-59691-268-7

B ased on the lives of Adam von Trott and Isaiah Berlin, Cartwright's unsttling 12th novel follows Axel von Gottberg, a German, and his friend Elya Mendel, a British Jew, both Rhodes scholars at idyllic 1930s Oxford. Gottberg returns to Germany in 1934, ostensibly to rally opposition to Hitler, but Mendel publicly denounces him as a Nazi. Sixty years after Gottberg was executed for his role in the failed German coup of 1944, a dying Mendel entrusts his papers to a former student, Conrad Senior, and bids him to discover whether he had unjustly condemned his late friend. Senior, an insouciant writer whose life is a shambles, is transfixed by Gottberg, a “man of courage and action,” a womanizer with an “operatic” flair and a love for Hegel. Cartwright's treatment of the unsuccessful attempt on Hitler's life in 1944 is gripping. Conrad fails to see what an ambiguous figure Gottberg was—diffident about the fate of the Jews and finally concerned less about his country than his own achievements. The prose can be surprisingly hackneyed, while the characters rarely rise above caricature. It is difficult to discern whether the novel's sophistry, soap opera dialogue and lionizing of the ineffective German resistance are ironic. (July)