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The Song Before It Is Sung: A Novel Hardcover – July 10, 2007
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From Publishers Weekly
Based 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)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
*Starred Review* In July 1944, a serious attempt was made on Adolf Hitler's life. That actual event serves as the basis for a darkly effective fictionalized depiction of one man's participation in the conspiracy, by a prizewinning South African-born novelist. The group members who attempted to take the fuhrer's life were tried and executed in a horrible fashion, among them a young Prussian count, called here Axel von Gottberg, who had been educated at Oxford in the 1930s and there became the close friend of Elya Mendel, an English Jew who eventually became a distinguished professor. In the present day, Mendel has left his collection of letters from Axel to a student, Conrad Senior, whose charge is to organize the papers. Consequently, he is faced with sorting out the dimensions of their relationship. The count caused a rift between himself and Mendel when he returned to Germany in 1934 and published a letter in an English newspaper that made him appear to be a Nazi sympathizer. The twin themes upon which this novel is constructed--personal betrayal and vicarious living (Senior finds himself "living more fully" through Mendel's and the count's lives)--greatly entice readers' interest on political, historical, and intellectual levels. Brad Hooper
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
Top customer reviews
Elya Mendel and Axel von Gottberg meet at Oxford in the 1930s and become friends with differing views on history and its effects. Mendel believes there is no larger purpose to life that the meaning we make in the here and now. He's wary of the ways that big ideas about human perfectibility are used to shape the lives of actual human beings. Axel believes we are carried along by historical imperatives. He sees himself as both the product of and standard bearer for an historical Germanness rooted in the land, the polity and a mystical sense of Teutonic purpose. As Hitler rises to power, Axel's faith in his beloved Germany gets put to the test. Elya sees clearly where Hitler is headed, and the friendship ruptures over Axel's attempt to reconcile the "true" Germany from the one falling in to goosestep behind the Fuhrer.
Long after the war, as he nears the end of his life, Mendel asks one of his former students to take the letters between him and von Gottberg and make something of them. This student, Conrad Senior, gropes his way through the thickets of correspondence, unsure what his beloved teacher actually intended. Conrad has his own problems. His physician wife increasingly views him as an aimless dilettante who lacks the will to bring his thoughts and opinions out of his head into the real world. She tells him she's fallen in love with another doctor and is leaving him.
With his personal life in shambles, Conrad digs deeper into the past, uncovering complex relationships between Elya, Axel and two female cousins. Axel believes you can never lose contact with someone you love, a belief he translates into serial adultery. His unwillingness to let go of anything he loves ultimately leads Axel to tragedy. Even though he believes Hitler is a disastrous evil visited on the German people, he won't abandon Germany. He joins Claus von Stauffenberg's attempt to assassinate the Fuhrer. The plot fails, and von Gottberg is arrested, tortured and hanged. The hanging was filmed for Hitler, and Conrad finds an old German who retains the film. Viewing it becomes a life altering event for Conrad, upending his preconceived notions of Mendel and Von Gottberg, along with his easy assumptions about the life of the mind.
One of the pleasures in reading Cartwright is how he stands at a distance from his characters, seeing the big picture quite clearly, in a way that could be a setup for irony or satire. But then he moves in close, bringing such empathy , compassion and fine-grained detail to the observation that you end up responding emotionally to the characters' plights. This technique allows him to write novels of ideas that propel the reader forward though their warmth and humanity. Cartwright is a major novelist who has been much recognized and rewarded across the pond. He deserves a wider audience here.
A snapshot of Germany/England....
Moving to the present, Conrad Senior (at 35, the same age as von Gottberg at the time of his arrest and trial) has been left the papers of the highly respected Oxford academic Elya Mendel and these include correspondence between Mendel and von Gottberg. Conrad’s wife, Francine, is less than impressed with Conrad’s scholarly attempts to re-create the relationship between the two men and of the events of von Gottberg’s life. However, despite his financial and marital worries, Conrad finds himself driven to carry on his search and follow in the footsteps of von Gottberg – including attempting to find the footage of his execution.
This is very much fiction (or perhaps ‘faction’ is a better word), although the character of Elya Mendel is loosely based upon that of Isaiah Berlin and von Gottberg upon Adam von Trott, one of the true conspirators. However, despite the historical storyline of Operation Valkyrie, the heart of this story lies in the relationship between Mendel and von Gottberg. Mendel repudiated von Gottberg’s attempts to broker peace between Germany and the Allies and, indeed, as you read on, you see that there is a fine line between, “idealism and delusion.” Mendel believes that his friend has a taste for, “high level intrigue,” but, as Conrad becomes more obsessed, you come to realise that von Gottberg is driven by his love for his country and his heroic sacrifice, as well as a wish to justify his actions to his old friend.
Part historical novel, part love story and part an investigation into an intriguing – and poignant – friendship, this is a fascinating novel. I liked the character of Conrad Senior and his struggles to justify his work to his wife. I read this for my reading group and I am sure that it will provide an interesting discussion.
Most recent customer reviews
Justin Cartwright, in THE SONG BEFORE IT IS SUNG, argues, "Nowhere is the answer.Read more
by National Post. Do read this. It's about the War and two friends, one German one English.Read more