Apparently the little author biographies of Justin Cartwright's novels used to contain a not-so subtle dig at his ex-wife: he lives in London, sometimes with his children. In The Song Before It Is Sung, he only lives in London, which is perhaps for the best. You can well imagine why his wife might have left him; the book concerns Conrad Senior, a somewhat self-absorbed man in early middle age who is using the bequest of an old professor's letters to a German friend executed by the Nazis as an excuse for doing not very much other than think rather vague thoughts about the grand sweep of history, swan about in London, and have pretty women - including his wife when she comes to divide up the marital goods having had quite enough of this extended adolescence - f*ck him at the drop of a hat. The women are ciphers, nagging shrews melting into his arms as he passive-aggressively refuses to engage with them or empty-headed wantons whose short skirts and drug use are indicative of their sexual licence. Even Senior himself is something of an empty vessel, not much more than a vehicle for the author's persistent equation of objectivity in morality with teleology in history: as if because we must give up on the idea of ineluctable progress we must give up on the idea of must.
Although the book has its moments - the scene where Senior meets the cameraman who filmed the execution of the German in Berlin is really rather well done, and there are some nicely catty asides - there are some passages which practically beg to be taken out and shot. There's a meditation on Grosz's remark that his work was a reaction to commanders in the field painting in blood that works itself up to the full height of imagining Hitler, the former art student, as the modern master of the genre. Or the observation, after a rather self-satisfied, condescending little list of the relevant features - illegal immigrant cabbies, hookers, greasy fast-food joints, and any number of stereotypes out of central casting - that metropolitan railway stations are a bit seedy; no shit, Sherlock. The prose is often just lazy: I suppose it thinks of itself as having the wonderful economy of someone like William Gibson, but it hasn't got anything like the self-control, the precision of Gibson's careful accumulation of exact detail; it just doesn't think carefully enough. This isn't just evidenced in the banal vignettes collapsing under the weight of meaning they're supposed to be bearing but in the theme: using a heroic good German to try and make a barely even sophomoric point about how Hegel said some crazy shit once and then, like magic, there were Nazis and everything else terrible in the world and so we should all be relativists, since what was so terrible about the Nazis was that they believed in objective morality and not that they started the bloodiest war the world has ever seen and murdered millions. Or something.
Anyway, don't bother. Or with Howard Jacobson: a less funny Philip Roth, with much more portension. What you should bother with is I Am Cuba, a hallucinatory, black and white propaganda film made by a Soviet director about the run-up to Castro's revolution in the mid-sixties. The white looks burned on to the camera, like anything not actually black the director pointed it at was sodium blazing away under an inevitably cloudless sky, so that sugar cane fields look like they're full of brilliant incandescent triffids and a crowd marching down monumental steps into water-cannon like innocents claiming their birthright and walking into heaven. That doesn't do it justice: it's full of mad, looping takes, framing characters from above and below, against hillsides, brightly-light shop windows, collonades, burning over-turned cars. It's so alive, so eager. I liked it much more than a kind of companion piece at least in subject matter, The Battle Of Algiers, which I saw a while ago but seemed to me to have no heart at all and to be very pleased with its achievement of that pitilessness, as if that was precisely the attitude one ought to adopt to violent rebellion. I Am Cuba was so much more human, was not just attempting to be a document of retrospective historical inevitability, if it was even attempting that, but to give life to those living through that inevitability.