The Song Before It Is Sung

Justin Cartwright
  • Review
By – February 24, 2012

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.”

Malv­ina D. Engel­berg, an inde­pen­dent schol­ar, has taught com­po­si­tion and lit­er­a­ture at the uni­ver­si­ty lev­el for the past fif­teen years. She is a Ph.D. can­di­date at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Miami.

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