Justin Cartwright’s The Song Before It Is Sung is a fictionalized retelling of the relationship between the great political philosopher and Oxford professor Sir Isaiah Berlin and the German diplomat Adam von Trott zu Solz, who was executed for his part in the July 1944 plot to overthrow Hitler spearheaded by Claus von Stauffenberg.
In this version, Berlin becomes Elya Mendel and Adam von Trott zu Solz is called Axel von Gottberg, who is given a (as far as I know, entirely fictional!) English mistress in addition to his long-suffering German wife. Mendel, who was sceptical about the officers’ plot, has felt guilty about his own potential role in Gottberg’s death, and when he himself dies, he leaves his papers to Conrad Senior because of his “human qualities” (which may possibly mean Senior’s striking physical resemblance to Gottberg.) Senior himself doesn’t really know what he’s supposed to do with the papers or why Mendel chose him to tell the story, but he spends the novel searching for a missing film of Gottberg’s execution (and along the way, his own marriage breaks up and other, rather uninteresting, things happen to him.)
Although parts of The Song Before It is Sung were very moving and well-written enough that I want to find out more about Mr. Cartwright’s writing, the story of Conrad Senior in no way approached the power of Axel von Gottberg’s journey. And because of this, I spent all the pages dealing with Senior’s tedious love-life wishing we could back to whatever was going on with Axel, even though it was clear from the beginning that Axel wouldn’t have a happy ending. I wish Cartwright had eliminated Senior entirely and written more about Mendl, actually, but perhaps he didn’t want to tread on anyone’s toes with a too-close portrait of Sir Isaiah Berlin.
(Read on April 16, 2010)