Justin Cartwright’s novel, The Song Before it is Sung, is a complex work of pseudohistorical fiction drawn from the failed attempted assassination of Adolf Hitler by a group of German aristocrats. The story is a tangled one — full of intrigue, romance, and mystery, but at its root is the philosophical discussion of the difference between the idea and the actuality and the realization that the song before it is sung is nowhere: “One creates a song by singing it.”
Conrad Senior, the protagonist, is a former Rhodes Scholar who believes that “ideas have value in their own right.” Elya Mendel, Senior’s professor while at Oxford, has commissioned him to detail his friendship with Axel Von Gottberg, an Oxford colleague. Their friendship is based on mutual respect, even though the two could not be more different: Mendel is a Jewish atheist who believes in the “preservation of Jewish culture,” and Von Gottberg is a German attorney, a non-practicing Christian who believes in Christian values. While Mendel is fascinated with the history of ideas and “the forces behind history and philosophy,” Von Gottberg believes that “the idea of restoring Germany’s honour” can only be accomplished by “killing Hitler.” Their clash between action and reaction causes a breach in their friendship when, in 1934, Von Gottberg writes a letter to the Manchester Guardian in which he defends the Germans’ treatment of the Jews.
For Senior, the task is daunting, but his obsession with details is motivated by Mendel’s faith in him as “the most human.” To get to the truth, Senior becomes involved in a multitude of triangular relationships that, on the surface, appear appropriate to the text; however, given Cartwright’s consideration of the “idea,” are eventually revealed as a study of the elements of language and/or other systems of communication and a powerful reminder that “life is made, day by day, as best you can.”