Freedom fighter

Isaiah Berlin believed that humans make their own destiny. But his encounter with Adam von Trott, Hi

The Song Before It Is Sung

Justin Cartwright Bloomsbury, 288pp, £16.99

ISBN 0747583412

In one of the last conversations I had with Isaiah Berlin before he died, I asked him which writer or thinker most closely shared his view of things. Without hesitation, he replied: "Herzen." Berlin revered Alexander Herzen, the 19th-century Russian radical émigré, for many reasons, but it was his insistence that humans make their own lives that resonated most deeply. Just as there is no song before it is sung - a saying of Herzen's that Berlin loved to cite - so there is no human life until it is lived. It is an idea inherited from the Romantics, and while it captures something profoundly important, it also has a certain unreality. Humans may fashion their lives, but in some of their most vital decisions they have no choice. When facing circumstances they cannot alter, they can only act in character, sometimes with tragic results, and in this sense their lives are fated to unfold as they do.

Justin Cartwright's The Song Before It Is Sung is, among other things, a meditation on the equivocal nature of human action as played out in the relationship of Elya Mendel and Axel von Gottberg - fictional versions of Berlin and one of the conspirators in Claus von Stauffenberg's July Plot to assassinate Hitler, Adam von Trott, who was tortured and hideously executed in August 1944. In most respects, Cartwright follows the actual history of their ill-starred friendship. The two men met in Oxford in the early 1930s, when von Trott was a Rhodes scholar and Berlin was a graduate student, then a fellow at All Souls. Though they were quite different in background and outlook - one a Jewish liberal, the other a Prussian with a fondness for Hegel - Berlin was "completely captivated". In 1934, however, von Trott wrote a letter to the Manchester Guardian (which had reported that Jews were being denied justice in Germany) claiming that no anti-Semitism existed in the courts of Hesse, where he worked as a lawyer. After this grotesque assertion, which flouted demonstrable facts and still has not been properly explained, the relationship between the two men was for a time badly strained.

From one angle, The Song Before It Is Sung is a roman-à-clef, and displays some of the difficulties of that problematic genre. When must the author be strictly faithful to facts, and when is there license to depart from them? Cartwright's account of von Trott's role in the failed July Plot is rigorously historical, and despite a slightly farcical episode in which Cartwright has him being sexually initiated by an "intelligent, upper-class girl", the character of Mendel is in many ways evocative of Berlin. Yet Cartwright goes astray in suggesting - not only in the text of the fiction, but also in an afterword to the book - that Berlin "repudiated" von Trott after his letter to the Guardian, leading to a lasting "estrangement" between them. In fact, as Berlin wrote in 1986, he never ceased to regard von Trott as "a passionate patriot, a brave and honourable man, incapable of anything ignoble or unworthy".

It is a judgement that reflects Berlin's characteristic generosity. At the same time, there is no reason to doubt that it expresses his long-held view; the friendship between the two was resumed and they continued to meet until 1938. Nor is it true - as Cartwright seems to imply - that by briefing against him in America, Berlin was responsible for the failure of von Trott's efforts to gain support in Washington for a coup against Hitler.

If anyone sabotaged the mission, it was Berlin's Oxford contemporary Maurice Bowra, who warned influential Americans such as Felix Frankfurter that von Trott's loyalties were in doubt - suggesting, in other words, that he might be a Nazi agent. The suspicion was groundless - all the evidence was that he had been an anti-Nazi from the start, and it should have been obvious that high-level conspiracy of the ultra-dangerous kind in which he was engaged was inconsistent with open opposition - but it undermined von Trott's credibility and may have stymied attempts that he made later in the war to contact the British. (On hearing of von Trott's execution in 1944, Bowra remarked brutishly: "That's one Nazi who was hanged." He later expressed bitter regret for his attitude.)

Yet the failure of von Trott's mission had much larger causes. Like others in the German military resistance, von Trott visited London repeatedly in the run-up to the war, to warn against Britain acceding to Hitler's ambitions in eastern Europe, but the appeasers who were then in power dismissed his warnings. An incident in November 1939, when the Gestapo rolled up Britain's intelligence networks throughout much of western Europe after the kidnapping of two British officers who had been tricked into believing they were in touch with anti-Hitler elements in the German high command, strengthened the conviction that nothing was to be gained by courting the German resistance. There was never any prospect of von Trott's pleas being acted upon, and his belief that he could persuade Britain or the US to underwrite a coup against Hitler was an illusion.

Does it matter that Cartwright's story strays from the facts? From one point of view, it matters a great deal, given that the book claims to be based on historical events. In another sense, it matters hardly at all. In this inexhaustibly intriguing novel - his most ambitious and accomplished to date - Cartwright probes the ambiguities of human action with relentless insight. Juxtaposing high drama with ordinary frailty, he captures the elusive process by which our projects and actions are lost in the welter of events.

If von Trott exemplifies this slippage in one of the starkest ways imaginable, the book's narrator, Conrad Senior - a dishevelled figure of a type that will be familiar to readers of Cartwright's earlier work - illustrates it in more quotidian fashion. His marriage foundering and his career as a writer stalled as he slips into bohemian early middle age, Senior has been left by Mendel a cache of papers containing an account of his friendship with von Trott. Struggling to turn them into a book, Senior is transfixed by the gulf the papers open up between the radiant peace of Oxford and the blood-spattered abyss of Nazi Germany. His obsession reaches its height when he locates and views the film Hitler commissioned of the July conspirators' executions, which shows von Gottberg dying hanging on a meat hook. (A film was actually made of most of the executions, though no copy has been found. Von Trott's execution was postponed for 11 days, in order that the Gestapo could attempt to extract information from him, so it would not have been shown in the film.)

After this epiphany of horror, Senior's ineffectual daily existence - his money problems, desultory sex with a druggy girlfriend and inconclusive reconciliation with his wife, now pregnant with a child that may not be his - comes as welcome relief. Returning to Oxford - "one more hopeful and slightly seedy seeker after truth, bicycling in the gloom, walking by the river, longing in a subdued way for the peace of the mind" - he presses on with the book. He concludes that Mendel was right: humans are the authors of their lives, making them up from day to day.

It is a consoling reflection. Yet the story Senior tells of von Gottberg and Mendel seems to me to point towards a view of human action different from the version of Berlin's and Herzen's philosophy that is the book's coda. Berlin could no more have altered the course of his friend's life than von Trott could himself have done. If the Prussian aristocrat had opted for safe obscurity instead of joining the Nazi party in a desperate attempt to destroy the Nazi regime, he would most likely have survived into comfortable respectability in postwar Germany. If he did not choose to do so, it was because he could not; his entire character forbade such a course. His heroic composure at his trial - faithfully rendered in Cartwright's account of Gottberg's last days - expressed a calm acceptance of his fate. The Nazi prosecutor asked him if the plan had been to sue for peace after Hitler was killed. Von Trott replied simply, "Gewiss" - "Certainly". Maybe there are times when the song does exist before it is sung.

John Gray's next book, "Black Mass: apocalyptic religion and the death of utopia", will be published by Penguin in July