The roman à clef element of Justin Cartwright's new novel declares itself as early as the second page. Thirty-five year-old Conrad Senior is on his way to Berlin, pursuing his research into the career of "Axel von Gottberg", garrotted on Hitler's orders after his part in the plot of 20 July 1944. When, two pages later, there is a mention of the Oxford philosopher "E A Mendel", the tapping at the window grows unignorable. "Von Gottberg", a glance at the afterword confirms, is Claus von Stauffenberg's Junker henchman Adam von Trott; "Mendel" is the late Isaiah Berlin; The Song Before it is Sung is a projection of their warm but, in the end, fatally ambiguous relationship.
A good many more ambiguous relationships, too. The startled legatee of the 17 boxes of Mendel's papers, Conrad finds himself unravelling both the testimony of the safely dead and the memories of the precariously living. These lead him across pre-war Europe and beyond, to the four-way association between Mendel, von Gottberg and the enticing English cousins Rosamund Bower and Elizabeth Partridge, the letter to The Guardian in which von Gottberg, for all his professed anti-Nazism, is thought to have betrayed himself, and the trip to Washington where he comes to realise that Mendel, with a few choice words dropped in high places, has destroyed his credibility.
Running beneath the clamour of a world in flames is the comparatively humdrum question of Conrad's failing marriage. His medical wife Francine has taken up with a professional colleague. Temporary solace is achieved with spaced-out Emily, a trustafarian waif in the classic Cartwright tradition, whose fourth sentence of dialogue carries the invitation "Do you want to fuck me?" Their sessions in the flat above the bakery are approvingly monitored by its proprietor, Italian Tony, whose presence offers Cartwright several opportunities for his Amis-style phonetic versions of London argot ("You look a bit pale. Keeping your stremf up?" etc).
As the foregoing may indicate, the distinguishing mark of Justin Cartwright's novels is that they resemble other novels by Justin Cartwright - a riot of incidental tics, obsessions and stylings that lead inexorably back to a single source. The warm scent of bread baking beneath the lovers in their flat takes us back to Masai Dreaming (1993). I have lost count of the number of times Cartwright's books make metaphorical use of the habits of bees. Further ghostly cuff-tugging comes in the character names that run on from novel to novel (here a "Miss Trentham" to remind you of the venal barrister in Look At It This Way, 1990).
Then there is the faintly stagey dialogue, in which the vis-à-vis is always addressed - dramatically - by name ("Francine, we are going to have this baby..." "Conrad, you must do whatever it is you think you have to do...") There is the existential questioning ("Can we know anybody else? Other people? Can I know von Gottberg and Mendel, or even Francine?"). Finally there are the immensely plausible yet, inspection reveals, increasingly flakey aphorisms. "After a certain age, a life exists not for what it really was, but for its mythological qualities." Sounds good. "All human activity is reluctant." It is? "Mushrooms are of mysterious origin." They are?
Ultimately, Conrad turns up Herr Fritsch, the 89-year-old assistant cameraman at von Gottberg's execution, who supplies him with a cine-reel and the letter von Gottberg wrote to Mendel a few minutes before his death. He also interviews the 93-year-old Elizabeth, now the widow of an Irish peer, and discovers the truth of her son's parentage. An attempted reconciliation with Francine comes to grief and she aborts his putative child (the sex/death nexus is a bit too strong for comfort here), but back in the Bodleian, cycling home to Emily's cottage in the Oxfordshire verdure each night, Conrad knows that his book will be written.
As for history's winners and losers, it is Mendel's comfy atheism - life having no purpose and the terrible consequences of "spirit" - that wins out. As ever with Justin Cartwright's novels, I was prostrated by the cool authority of the prose - the account of the 20 July plot is particularly good - while wondering whether the effects aren't achieved by sheer sleight of hand, a kind of brilliant foregrounded trickery that blinds the reader to the artifice beyond. To put it starkly, The Song Before it is Sung is either a hugely adroit and imaginative modern novel by one of our great contemporary talents or it is only a highly accomplished imitation of one. Like Conrad and Francine's marriage, a final judgment could go either way.Reuse content