Tuesday, 20 January 2009

Book of the Month: The song Before It Is Sung (Justin Cartwright)

I will crush and destroy the criminals who have dared to oppose themselves to Providence and to me. These traitors to their own people deserve ignominious death, and this is what they shall have. This time the full price will be paid by all those who are involved, and by their families, and by all those who have helped them. This nest of vipers who have tried to sabotage the grandeur of my Germany will be exterminated once and for all.
Adolf Hitler to Joachim von Ribentrop (20th July 1944)

On 20 July 1944 a bomb inside a briefcase went off in Adolf Hitler’s ‘Wolf’s Lair’—his command post for the Eastern Front in Rastenburg, Prussia. The bomb was placed by Major Claus von Stauffenberg. The intent was to assassinate Hitler and overthrow the Nazis. Hitler was not killed; he sustained injuries to his forearms and lost hearing permanently in his right ear. Stauffenberg, who had returned to Berlin, planning to seize the city, believing that Hitler was dead, was arrested and shot at midnight on the same day by a firing squad. Within days almost all the fellow conspirators of Stauffenberg were rounded up, and after a show trial in the People’s Court (set up to judge political crimes), presided over by the rabid Nazi Roland Freisler (who was to die a few months later during an air raid on Berlin), executed. The executions were carried out by hanging the conspirators slowly from meat-hooks; their death agonies were filmed and shown to the Fuhrer.

One of the co-conspirators of von Stauffenberg was Adam von Trott. Born into a wealthy, aristocratic Prussian family, von Trott came to the UK in 1931 as a Rhodes scholar and studied at the Balliol College, Oxford. While in Oxford, von Trott became friends with a Jewish philosopher the same age as he, who had come to the UK a decade earlier, from Russia. The young philosopher’s name was Isaiah Berlin. von Trott returned to Germany and trained as a lawyer. He visited England on a few occasions in the thirties. In 1940, von Trott joined the Nazi party and became the legation counsellor in the German foreign office. Charged with complicity in the July 20, 1944 plot, he was hanged a month later. His three young children were taken by the Gestapo, following Hitler’s decision to introduce Sippenhaft—‘Absolute responsibility of kin . . . a very old custom practised among out forefathers’ as Heinrich Himmler declared. von Trott was thirty five when he died. Berlin outlived his friend by decades, and went on to become one of the most influential liberal philosopher and historian of ideas of the twentieth century. He died in 1997, at the age of eighty eight.

The conspirators involved in the July 1944 plot joined the resistance movement by different routes. Stauffenberg, apparently, was appalled by the atrocities committed by the SS (Schutz Staffeinel) during Operation Barbarossa. von Trott’s path to resistance was as long as it was tortuous. After spending a year at the Balliol, where he formed a friendship not only with Berlin, but also with David Astor (who edited The Observer for well over two decades with great distinction) von Trott returned to Germany and worked as a public prosecutor in Hesse. While working in Hesse, von Trott wrote a letter to Manchester Guardian (in response to a report in it that Jews were denied justice in Germany). In the letter von Trott claimed that no anti-Semitism existed in the courts of Hesse. This letter, at the very least a grotesque distortion of what was going on in Germany at the time, incensed Berlin and put their friendship under severe strain. Whether it was irrevocably breached or whether it healed with the passage of time is a matter of opinion. David Astor, close to both men, asserted, in a letter to New York Book Reviews in 1998, a year after Berlin’s death, that after the temporary strain in the relationship following von Trott’s ill-advised letter to the Manchester Guardian, the two men renewed their friendship. Certainly, Berlin, in later life, spoke of and wrote about von Trott in glowing terms. In 1997, the year he died, Berlin invited von Trott’s widow and two daughters to visit him, and, later, wrote to his friends, ‘I enjoyed the visit of the Trotts very much. I did indeed talk about Adam as they wished me to, and said everything I felt and thought.’ However, all of this was after von Trott had redeemed himself with his martyrdom. It is not known whether in von Trott’s life (which was to end on a meat-hook at Ploetzwnsee Prison ten years after his letter) the two men—one an erudite, witty, liberal thinker; the other an admirer of Hegel and German idealism— managed to rediscover their friendship. On the eve of the Second World War, von Trott visited England, and later America, to shore up support against the Nazis. He had secret meetings with Lord Halifex, who arranged for him to meet the British prime-minister, Neville Chamberlain. He also met Felix Frankfurter in America. While in England, he briefly met Berlin and requested a letter of introduction to Fankfurter, which Berlin duly supplied. However, what did Berlin, and others in Oxford, really think of von Trott at this time? History tells us that von Trott’s efforts did not come to fruition; the allies did not support the anti-Nazi conspirators. Ignoring his friends’ advice von Trott returned to Germany. In 1940 (relatively late, it has to be said) he joined the Nazi party (what did Berlin make of it?) and, while serving as the legation officer, he also became a member of the Kreisau Circle—a group of intellectuals opposed to the Nazi regime.

What was it that made von Trott, who appeared, even to his well-wishers in England, to be an apologist (if not an enthusiastic supporter) of the Third Reich at one stage, risk his life while plotting for its downfall in less than a decade? How did he arrive at the point of his final, heroic, act? It is this question that Justin Cartwright explores in his splendid novel The Song Before It Is Sung (The title is inspired from a quotation of Alexander Herzen, the father of Russian socialism, ‘Where is the song before it is sung?’, which Berlin, a great admirer of Herzen, often cited.) Cartwright makes it explicit in the ‘Afterword’ that the novel is based in part on the friendship between von Trott and Berlin: Axel von Gottenberg of the novel is von Trott, and Eliya Mendel is Isaiah Berlin (Berlin’s father’s name was Mendel).

Almost six decades after von Gottenberg is hanged, Conrad Senior, an Oxford graduate and a former student of Mendel is bequeathed his, Mendel’s, cache of papers and letters. In a letter left for Conrad, Mendel indicates that he had been haunted to the end of his life by the suspicion (and associated guilt) that he might have treated von Gottenberg unjustly; that had he given more support to von Gottenberg when he came to the UK on the eve of the Second World War, von Gottenberg might have been spared his appalling death. Why does Mendel choose Conrad, who, post-Oxford, has not made much of his life? Because Conrad, while not Mendel’s ‘most brilliant’ student, is ‘the most human’. Conrad, whose life (as his increasingly exasperated and disenchanted doctor partner suggests unkindly) has been a series of nearlies, clutches to the Mendel papers as if it were a rope suspended over a pit of dragons. He decides that what Mendel wanted him to investigate was to find out whether or not von Gottenberg was a self-romanticizing, ceremonious, politically ambivalent, and gullible aristocrat who over-estimated his sphere of influence and paid with his life; or whether he was genuine in his revulsion of the Nazi atrocities and echt in his attempts to overthrow the Nazis. The Song Before It Is Sung is the story of Conrad Senior’s quest for the truth. It is a powerful exploration of guilt, human frailty, errancy, friendship, mortality, and courage. Cartwright weaves an intricate web, mixing, effortlessly, fact and fiction. The von Gottenberg of this narrative is a deeply-rooted-to-the Fatherland, Junker (landed nobility of Prussia), with a sense of noblesse oblige, and Cartwright effectively conveys the aura of tragedy and doom surrounding von Gottenberg. The story is recounted in two different timeframes; the narrative moves back and forth between past and present. As Senior becomes more and more obsessed with the dark recesses of the European history of the twentieth century, his personal life disintegrates. His partner finds solace in the arms of her work-colleague, and leaves him. As Conrad traces the inevitable trajectory of von Gottenberg’s life towards its doom, his own life, so it seems, is heading towards a different kind of annihilation. The parallels between Conrad’s life—in the here-and-now—and those of the two men he is investigating are subtle yet uncanny. It is also a testimony of Cartwright’s artistry that he seamlessly introduces the only truly fictional element—the romantic interests of the Prussian aristocrat and Jewish Don—in a novel teeming with historical actualities. At times, though, he appears to stray away from facts; or perhaps his interpretation of certain crucial events is different from that of von trot and Berlin’s common friends. Cartwright indicates in the novel that Mendel warns Frankfurter and other influential Americans that von Gottenberg’s motives were suspect and that he was not to be trusted. All the available evidence suggests that in real life it was not Berlin but his fellow Oxford Don Cecil Maurice Bowra who warned the Americans about von Trott. (Bowra continued to view von Trott as a Nazi and was unmoved when the news reached Oxford of von Trott’s hanging. In later life Bowra expressed bitter remorse for his treatment of von Trott.) At other times, Cartwright sets out on riveting historical what-ifs, which add to the intrigue. Conrad Senior is convinced that a film of von Gottenberg’s execution exists. In real life, von Trott was executed eleven days after his fellow conspirators, and it is unlikely that his execution was filmed. Gestapo kept him alive for a variety of reasons: aware of his foreign contacts they wanted to extract more information and possible wider ramifications of the plot; it is also possible that some in the SS might have wanted to keep him alive in order to buy their way out when Germany lost the war—for, surely, by then all except the gullible and the deluded must have known that they were staring down the abyss of defeat.

Cartwright is an astute, if acerbic, observer of the human quirks and peculiarities, which makes this novel an especial pleasure to read. Conrad Senior’s observations and views on life, and his relentless insight into human ambiguities may be sardonic, but they are not flippant or mocking. This is an erudite, deeply thoughtful novel with a serious message: humans are the authors of their own lives. As one reads the account of von Grottenberg/ von Trott’s last days, and his epic composure at the trial, one is left with the feeling that it could not have turned out any other way. von Gottenberg / von Trott could have stayed back in England instead of returning to Germany. He did not. He rejected the safe option which would certainly have seen him through the war to the comfortable obscurity in the post-war Germany; and instead embarked upon a path which he must have known, as the war progressed, could only have one outcome.

Victa placet mihi causa—albeit lost the cause does please me—wrote Lucanus almost two millennia ago. History, however, the hardhearted mistress she is, has no time for causa victa, and is excessively fond of causa victrix. That, perhaps, is the reason why the German resistance to Adolf Hitler, which culminated in the July 1944 bomb plot, has not been accorded its rightful place in history; and the persons involved, the plotters, are forgotten names; they are the unsung heroes. Justin Cartwright, in this highly accomplished novel, has made a persuasive case for causa victa. Poignant, elegiac, soulful and profoundly moving, The Song Before It Is Sung is a triumph.

Monday, 19 January 2009

Books Read In 2008

When 2008 began, I made the following resolutions:

1. I would read at least fifty books.
2. Of these fifty, at least ten would be non-fiction books.
3. I would read Pride and Prejudice.

I have always enjoyed reading fiction, and, while I make no apologies for preferring fiction to non-fiction—I have always thought that fiction demands more creativity—my non-fiction reading is not up to scratch. I added the third resolution to the list because I was getting fed up with the constant badgering to which I was being subjected by a friend who cannot believe that I have not read one of the greatest novels written in English. My attempts to placate him on this matter—‘I do not much go for pre-twentieth century fiction, and, with the exception of Hard Times, have not read any nineteenth century fiction’; ‘I do not think I would find the tale of an old crone trying to marry off her daughters by giving as little dowry as possible engrossing, however well written’; ‘There is no call for him criticising my reading habits seeing as he reads no more than ten books in a year (two of which are Harry Potter)’— brought no joy. In the end, just to shut him up, I added Pride and Prejudice to my reading list for 2008.

Of the three objectives, I fulfilled one, the first one. The remaining two, sadly, will have to be carried forward to 2009.

Below is the list of the books I read in 2008.


1. An Underachiever’s Diary (Benjamin Anastas)
2. The Bottle Factory Outing (Beryl Bainbridge)
3. Cloud Atlas (David Mitchell)
4. Jeeves in the Offing (P.G. Wodehouse)
5. London Observed (Doris Lessing)
6. And Where Were You, Adam (Heinrich Boll)
7. Aunts Are No Gentlemen (P.G. Wodehouse)
8. Jake’s Thing (Kingsley Amis)
9. On Chesil Beach (Ian McEwan)
10. House of Meetings (Martin Amis)
11. Reader, I Married Him (Michelle Roberts)
12. Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (Alan Sillitoe)
13. The Giles Waring Haters’ Club (Tim Dowling)
14. Call It Sleep (Henry Roth)
15. Merde Happens (Stephen Clarke)
16. Bluebeard (Max Frisch)
17. Slam (Nick Hornby)
18. Ralph’s Party (Lisa Jewell)
19. Before She Met Me (Julian Barnes)
20. Accidental Woman (Jonathan Coe)
21. A Woman of My Age (Nina Bawden)
22. Children of the Revolution (Dinaw Mengestu)
23. Some Tame Gazelle (Barbara Pym)
24. The Playroom (Olivia Manning)
25. Crome Yellow (Aldous Huxley)
26. Gathering (Anne Enright)
27. Laughter in the Dark (Vladimir Nabokov)
28. Model Behaviour (Jay McInerney)
29. My Revolutions (Hari Kunzru)
30. The Masters (C.P Snow)
31. Girl with Green Eyes (Edna O’Brien)
32. Road to Wellville (T.C. Boyle)
33. To the North (Elizabeth Bowen)
34. The Song Before It Is Sung (Justin Cartwright)
35. Honey for the Bears (Anthony Burgess)
36. The Uncommon Reader (Alan Bennett)
37. Beloved (Toni Morrison)
38. Blaming (Elizabeth Taylor)
39. Coming from Behind (Howard Jacobson)
40. Revolutionary Road (Richard Yates)
41. The Ninth Life of Louis Drax (Liz Jensen)
42. Tomorrow (Graham Swift)
43. The Kite Runner (Khalid Hosseini)
44. Terrorist (John Updike)


1. Let’s Kill Gandhi (Tushar Gandhi)
2. Holy Cow! (Sarah Macdonald)
3. Mao The Unknown Story (Jung Chang & Jon Halliday)
4. My Invented Country (Isabel Allende)
5. Mistress’s Daughter (A.M. Homes)
6. The Fishes Come Home to Roost (Rachael Manija Brown)
7. After the Wall (Jana Hensel)
8. Among the Believers (V.S. Naipaul)
9. Literary Occasions (V.S. Naipaul)

A total of 53 books—one more than the number I read in 2007. The non-fiction, while it fell one short of the requisite number, was, still, an improvement over the number in 2007 (five). And, while I did not get round to reading Pride and Prejudice—I tried, I assure you; however, every time I picked up the edition in my collection, with Kira Knightley’s sickly, anorexic face on its front, I had the strange sensation of life-force sapping, and, it was all I could do to put the Jane Austin masterpiece back on the shelf and totter out of the library gasping for breath—it was not supplanted by another nineteenth century fiction, say, David Copperfield (which has also been on my ‘to read’ list); I did not read any nineteenth century fiction. It has been suggested that I should buy a different edition of Pride and Prejudice, preferably one which does not have Kira Knightley adorning its front. Let’s see.

There are many authors in the list above whom I read for the first time. In the non-fiction category, with the exception of Naipaul and Allende, I had not read the works of any of the authors (and I had read only the novels of Allende), although, as far as I am aware, Gandhi’s, Macdonald’s, Brown’s and Hensel’s literary outputs do not (yet) extend beyond the books I have read.

In the fiction category, there were nineteen authors– Benjamin Anastas, Michelle Roberts, Alan Sillitoe, Tim Dowling, Henry Roth, Max Frisch, Lisa Jewell, Dinaw Mengestu, Barbara Pym, Olivia Manning, Anne Enright, C.P Snow, Edna O’Brien, T.C. Boyle, Alan Bennett, Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Yates, Liz Jensen, Khalid Hosseini—whom I read for the first time. I must admit to being stumped—to use that quaint English expression (according to Jeffrey Archer, who, surely, is as English as they come)—Lisa Jewell’s Ralph’s Party in this list. Mind you, I have nothing against the mother-of-two, who decided to try her hand at writing after she was made redundant from her job as a secretary, and Ralph’s Party, as far as I can recall, is an easy-to-read-on-the-toilet type of books which do not make undue demands on your intellectual capacity; it is just that I read such books only when I am stuck mid-air for in excess of eight hours (and even then I generally read Jeffrey Archer). In other words, life is too short to read books whose genres are not to your taste. (I use the expression ‘Life is too short to . . .' quite often; I find it serves a useful purpose; it seeks to give the impression that while you are ignorant, you are ignorant by choice.)

I read Updike after a long time. The last novel of Updike I had read was Seek My Face, a gimmicky, unsubstantial and unreadable novel, which did nothing to reassure me that Updike’s creativity was not in terminal decline. While Terrorist shows glimpses of Updike’s former linguistic brilliance and is nicely paced, the premise, like the protagonist, is unconvincing, and the novel, which offers no real insight as to why an educated, academically bright Muslim boy turns to violence, is ultimately disappointing.

Kite Runner is written by the Americanized Afghan writer Khalid Hosseini, who, apparently, is a doctor by profession. The novel was a commercial success and was made into a film. It is a formulaic, melodramatic, over-the-top, predictable, and not very subtle novel, which divides the world rather neatly into simplistic categories.

Barbara Pym’s Some Tame Gazelle cannot be more different from The Kite Runner, both in its subject matter and narrative style. This comedy of manners is a quintessentially English novel, rich in subtlety-it is not the kind of novel that would make you laugh out loud, but will bring a smile to your face. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it.

Toni Morrison’s Beloved has been collecting dust on my shelf for the last fourteen years, although I have read some other novels of the 1993 Nobel Laureate, such as Jazz and The Song of Solomon. I finally read Beloved (which won the 1987 Pulitzer) after I attended a literary programme in which Morrison read from her most recent novel— a prequel to Beloved. I am glad I read Beloved, which, despite some annoying (and unnecessary) gimmicks, is a very good novel—probably not my most favourite Morrison novel, but well worth a read.

Before She Met Me is an early novel of Julian Barnes, one of my favourite writers. It tells the story of the modern day ‘Othello Syndrome’. It is a well-researched book, embelished by Barne’s trademark wit. The end stuns you as much for its violence as for unexpectedness. Not perhaps Barnes’s best, but well worth a read.

Crome Yellow, a satire on the upper-class English (and their affectations) in the 1920s, is Aldous Huxley’s debut novel, but you would not think so, so assured is his style.

Richard Yate’s Revolutionary Road was on my ‘to be read’ list for years. Yate’s wry, yet compassionate, novel of hopes (and their betrayals) of a middle-class American family,as it hurtles towards tragedy, is a great work of art. I will have to read other novels of this underrated genius.

The Masters is said to be the best of C.P. Snow’s ‘Lewis Eliot’ sequence of novels; it is also the book that has worn well. C.P. Snow’s tale of the intrigues and machinations of the election of the master of a college in Cambridge is remarkable as much for the great skill with which its key characters are drawn as for its superb, Dickensenian prose.

Road to Welville, the exotically named T Corghessan Boyel’s tale of John Harvey Kellog, the creator of Kellog’s cornflakes, is a riot. Boyle’s linguistic brilliance adds to the pleasure of reading. I shall be reading more of T.C. Boyle in the coming years.

If linguistic pyrotechnics get you what the Italians would call arrapato, then you should not miss Coming from Behind, Howard Jacobson’s debut novel. The plot, such as it is, is incidental; the novel is a vehicle for Jacobson to dazzle you with his crackling prose and wit. Jacobson is a great comic talent, sadly underrated.

Accidental Woman is the debut novel of Jonathan Coe, one of my favourite novelists. While it lacks the finesse of Coe’s later works and does not quite seem able to make up its mind which genre it wants to belong to, there is enough evidence in this slight (in respect of volume, not substance) novel the awesome talent Coe was going to turn out to be.

Alan Benet’s The Uncommon Reader is a sheer pleasure to read; this urbane and erudite novella about reading and its manifold delights can be enjoyed at many levels.

Call It Sleep is a multifaceted, at times deeply moving, novel of the Jewish imigrant life at the turn of the last but one century that I found remarkable as much for its black humour as for its innovative use of language. The poignancy is increased further when you learn of the deeply troubled childhood of Henry Roth, the inspiration for this autobigraphical novel.

Max Frisch's Blubeard was the only translated fiction I read in 2008. Frisch, whose better known translated works include I am Not Stiller and Homo Faber, has, in Bluebeard (the eponymous hero of Perrault's fairy tale), created a fascinating way of exploring old truths.

Of the nine non-fiction books I read in 2008, I shall mention three: Mao, the Untold Story is an extensively researched, meticulously referenced, eight hundred pages behemoth, which the Commuist regime in China dare not allow to be published. In seventy chapters Chang and her historian husband, Jon Halliday, trace Mao's life from his birth to death and, in the process, shatter every myth associated with the father of the People's republic of China. It is a bombshell of a book. Rachael Brown's All the Fishes Come Home to Roost is an engrossing, bittersweet account of the five years she spent as a pre-adolescent in the ashram of an Indian guru, Meher Baba, of whom her parents were disciples, in the backwaters of India. In an ironic, witty, humane, and genuinely affecting style Brown recounts the less-than-wholesome years she spent in the sleepy town of Ahmadnagar. V.S. Naipaul has the (undeserved) reputation of being anti-Muslim. Among the Believers, first publsihed in 1979, is Naipaul's account of his travels through Islamic countries of Iran, Pakistan, Indonasia and Malaysia. Written with his customary acerbity and relentless pursuit of ugly reality lurking underneath the patina of religious sohistry, the book is eerily prophetic.

My top three novels of 2008: Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (Alan Sillitoe), Jake's Thing (KIngsley Amis), and The Song Before It Is Sung (Justin Cartwright). I have reviewed Saturday Night and Sunday Morning on the blog, and shall review the other two in due course.