Justin Cartwright: interview

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'The Song Before It Is Sung' by Justin Cartwright is a compelling examination of the purpose and possibilites of liberalism in a time of horror. Time Out visits the author's 'Richard and Judy Wing' to speak to the author

  • Justin Cartwright: interview

    Justin Cartwright

  • Justin Cartwright is trying to make me a coffee, but his espresso machine has other ideas. An old-style contraption with a lever, it spits and hisses as the portafilter refuses to lock to the grouphead. Cartwright stoops over it, eyeing it sceptically – then remembers there’s a journalist watching. ‘What are you thinking?’ he wonders. ‘Christ, look at this old guy, shambling around like Roald Dahl’s mad grandfather…?’

    I’m not thinking that, I say. And really, tea is fine. But he won’t be deterred.

    Some novelists can only function by ignoring the critical consensus about themselves. Cartwright is the opposite. Genial and gossipy, he reads his reviews, is comfortable with the rough-and-tumble of ‘prize culture’ (the dominant force within literary publishing these days), and admitted to feeling angry when his last novel (2005’s ‘The Promise of Happiness’) failed to make the Booker shortlist. Not that it mattered. It was selected for Richard & Judy’s Book Club and went on to sell 150,000 copies in paperback, funding the stylish clapboard den he’s had built next to his Islington townhouse. (‘The Richard & Judy Wing,’ he calls it, laughing.)

    Cartwright has been writing novels for more than 30 years, but his first notable success was 1990’s ‘Look At It This Way’, a satirical odyssey through Thatcherite London triggered by an unemployed City broker’s death at the jaws of an escaped lion. Since then he’s been a reliable fixture on prize shortlists and won the Whitbread in 1998 for ‘Leading the Cheers’, a US-set novel that rehearses a favourite Cartwright theme – the dislocation experienced by those who return to the past to try to alter the present. ‘The Promise of Happiness’, however, was the point at which vast numbers of readers suddenly woke up to how good Cartwright is. A perceptive, affecting study of family hierarchies and thwarted ambitions, it took the unfashionable subject of English middle-class discontent and, like Cartwright’s heroes Saul Bellow, Philip Roth and John Updike – for whom ‘domestic canvas’ is not synonymous with ‘Aga saga’ – made something serious of it.

    ‘I have beliefs, but I don’t believe in them.’ This languid agnosticism haunts Charles Judd in ‘The Promise of Happiness’, who likes to think of himself as a decent liberal. Cartwright is a liberal too – indeed, his obsession with what liberalism means and entails lies at the heart of his powerful, frequently distressing new novel.

    ‘The Song Before It Is Sung’ is many things, but it’s chiefly an account of the friendship in 1930s Oxford between a Jewish philosopher, Elya Mendel, and a Prussian Rhodes Scholar, Axel von Gottberg. Already threatened by a romantic rivalry, the friendship is finally scuppered when von Gottberg returns to Germany and Mendel starts to suspect that his aristocratic Prussian nationalism is really a cloak for Nazism.

    In fact, von Gottberg loathes Hitler and becomes one of the conspirators behind a plot to assassinate him with a suitcase bomb in July 1944.

    The plotters were subjected to a ludicrous show trial and hanged from meat hooks. Films were made of their executions for Hitler’s personal pleasure. This was a tricky business for, as Cartwright writes, the films had to be technically perfect, even though the fact that ‘the condemned take different lengths of time to die, depending on their weight and the hangmen’s whims’ made this difficult: ‘Fritsch has to start running his camera, B Camera, three minutes after Steuben’s camera, so that there is time to change reels as A Camera runs out, or between executions, whichever comes first. He could run longer magazines of film, but they are inclined to pick up dirt and hairs.’

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