Discovering Justin Cartwright

February 16, 2012

I picked up this novel after reading an interview with Sven Birkerts by Robert Birnbaum for The Morning News. The context of the title’s mention in the interview made the difference — Birkerts says, “My best reading experiences are always impulse grabs,” and Birnbaum replies that he discovered Justin Cartwright in that way. He mentions The Song Before It Is Sung, and I couldn’t resist checking out someone else’s impulse grab.

The Song Before It Is Sung became my own discovery of author Justin Cartwright, and the story touched a deep, thoughtful place inside me, thanks to the Rhodes Scholar protagonist, Conrad Senior. Conrad is a thinking character I couldn’t get enough of, admiring his pondering wit and stamina, especially while he gets soaked in the derision of his career-driven wife. Conrad does not earn much of a living from his free-lance writing, and he’s steeped in a project that’s failed to produce the book or film he promised to deliver to publishers and TV producers. He’s dear to my heart because he believes ideas have value in their own right. To his practical wife, Francine, Conrad is unreliable and wastes his time.

The present-day story of Francine and Conrad’s deteriorating six-year marriage runs parallel to this engaging novel’s more demanding other plotline, revealed through Conrad’s aforementioned project that so frustrates Francine: Conrad inherited boxes of letters and papers from his Oxford professor, Elya Mendel, and he’s sifting through them to find a story. Their content reveals Mendel’s friendship at Oxford University during the 1930s with the German Rhodes Scholar Axel von Gottberg. The friendship collapsed, however, when von Gottberg returned to his native land with the idealistic belief he could stop Hitler’s rise to power and restore the “good” Germany. Mendel, a Jew, believed von Gottberg to be delusional and even suspected him to be a Nazi sympathizer. He repudiated the friendship and undermined von Gottberg’s reputation among the Allies.

Justin Cartwright does an excellent job of seamlessly telling the story of the Oxford friends from a variety of sources, including the letters and what Conrad learns from the few who knew von Gottberg. He easily takes us back and forth in time, with the World War II story the darker element balanced by Conrad’s lighter albeit chaotic life of getting on without Francine. Both plotlines, however, reach an oppressive heaviness toward the end. Specifically, Conrad and Francine face a difficult decision for which there are no happy solutions without consequences. Meanwhile, we learn the unbearable details concerning von Gottberg’s brutal death that follows his participation in the historic assassination attempt on Hitler.

In the novel’s Afterword, Cartwright informs us that the Mendel-von Gottberg friendship is based on the true-to-life friendship of Isaiah Berlin and Adam von Trott. Berlin was a British philosopher and scholar, historian of ideas, essayist and political theorist. Von Trott was a Rhodes Scholar hanged for his part in the attempted assassination of Hitler in July, 1944.

The Song Before It Is Sung is an involving, unique story that explores how we deceive ourselves with false hope and ideas, how we love with blind expectation and how we misread our friends. It also explores the concept of what it means to be human. In his letter to Conrad, explaining the gift of his papers, Mendel writes, “It is true that you were not my most brilliant student, but I think, my dear boy, that you are the most human.”

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