A fledgling biographer tries to make sense of the complicated friendship between an Oxford philosopher and a German aristocrat involved in the plot to kill Hitler.
This is a departure for the prize-winning Cartwright (The Promise of Happiness, 2006, etc.)—a story based on a real-life friendship, that between Isaiah Berlin and Adam von Trott (called here Elya Mendel and Axel von Gottberg), and so a mix of novelistic speculation and the historical record. Before he died, Mendel entrusted his untested student, Conrad Senior, with all his papers. For some years, Conrad, a freelance journalist in London, has been struggling to give the papers a coherent form. Cartwright’s novel moves between Conrad’s life and a mosaic of letters and memoirs, beginning with a 1933 trip to Palestine taken by the Zionist Mendel and his student Axel. They meet two Englishwomen, Elizabeth and her cousin, Rosamund, who will become sexually and romantically involved with both men. Later that year, after Axel has returned to Germany to work as a prosecutor, he writes a letter to an English newspaper denying courtroom discrimination against Jews. The letter creates a deep rift between Axel and Mendel; it’s a shame Cartwright doesn’t give this key letter, which Axel later admits was foolish, more context. Instead, he fleshes out Conrad’s life; his marriage to his obstetrician wife Francine has collapsed, and Conrad links their failed hopes to those of the doomed Axel, a jarringly presumptuous comparison. Cartwright leads up to a careful reconstruction of the failed 1944 plot. He has some surprises left (Axel and Elizabeth’s love child; the film of Axel’s hanging, which Conrad receives in Berlin from an ancient cameraman), but they don’t illuminate the crucial divide between Axel, a believer in historic missions, and Mendel, profoundly skeptical of all large-scale political endeavors.
The times were momentous, yet the novel is subdued and poorly arranged; a rare misstep by this agile author.