The pleasures of indulgence yield the worry of surfeit. To have too much is to lose appreciation of what is particular. Reading five or six works by Justin Cartwright, seriatim, has driven home this too obvious truism. The book jacket notes that Cartwright is South African by birth, and that he resides in London. His novels show he is well-traveled enough (in the USA in particular) to write of three continents with easy authority. The New Book section of the library gave the first hint of his range and, being hooked by Other People’s Money, I read through five other novels. I put down the last, To Heaven by Water, with a sense that I had done the writer an injustice by way of excess. This should not be a surprising reaction, yet I wonder how often it is shared. Surely the strengths of a writer that attract at the start should not pall, yet, and perhaps this is the key, authorship is both the pursuit of an art and a profession. To be a writer, one must write and the daily “x” number of words demands to be cast as plot, character, analysis, voice.
Writers I have heard interviewed have mention being surprised where a character will take them as they progress with the fiction. Surely detective fiction writers, constrained by the “who done it?” or procedural aspects of the form, must work within a frame, but how widespread is this in other genre? Given the “professionalism” of the craft, certainly some books just get finished and others achieve mastery. Surfeit can blur discrimination of just such difference.
Cartwright’s great strength is his analysis of family dynamics. His plots often introduce a sharp disjuncture – unexpected death, infidelity, even imprisonment. His characters often wonder over their inability to know even their most intimate partners, and yet his plots move towards deep psychological understanding, at times issuing on to spiritual illumination. To Heaven by Water ends with the chief character quoting Hopkins’ “The Windhover” in an assertion of divine presence.
Everything I have written points to a very gifted writer (He has been awarded many literary prizes.), and I feel I have done him a disservice simply by reading too much at once, Yet in spite of this, and almost perversely, I number as most memorable and remarkable the novel, The Song Before It Is Sung, which is somewhat uncharacteristic. It recreates in fictional form the long relationship of the Oxford philosopher Isaiah Berlin and the German aristocrat Adam von Trott in the years before and during WWII. The story is the account of a student (Conrad Senior) of the fictional Berlin, E.A. Mendel, who has entrusted Conrad with all his papers. He has enjoined him ( a posthumous obligation) to tell the story of his relationship with Axel von Gottenberg (the fictional von Trott). The complexities of plot, the time shifts, the number of forms employed are remarkable as the conclusion of the work is low key – the resolutions occurring again by way of literary allusion (to W.G. Sebald). Cartwright is at pains to place before us the burden and the liberation that we inherit from the dead. The novel bears this heavy freight remarkably well – as its protagonist in the concluding lines swims, literally, in a lake of regeneration, inspirited by memory. Such immersion is redemptive, but take it also as a warning of reading too much too closely in time.