Ostend: Stefan Zweig, Joseph Roth, and the Summer Before the Dark
By Volker Weidermann, translated from the German by Carol Brown Janeway
Pantheon, 176 pages, $24.95
In the summer of 1936, Nazi Germany was preparing for the propaganda triumph of the Olympics, and Spain was exploding into civil war. Meanwhile, in the Belgian North Sea resort of Ostend, a several mostly Jewish, German-speaking émigré writers were gathering for a final, collegial burst of creativity before scattering to their separate fates.
In Volker Weidermann’s lovely book “Ostend: Stefan Zweig, Joseph Roth, and the Summer Before the Dark,” the resort serves as a blissful safe haven — a momentary refuge from the unfolding catastrophe. While Europe is convulsing, “the gaily colored bathing huts glow in the sun,” and revelers can enjoy “[h]oliday mood, lively atmosphere, ice cream, parasols, lethargy, wind, wooden booths.”
The book is something of an extended literary vignette, or, more precisely, a series of shorter vignettes that add up to a nonfiction novella. The late Carol Brown Janeway, translator of Bernhard Schlink’s “The Reader,” has translated Weidermann’s lean, elegant, sometimes impressionistic prose gorgeously from the German.
Weidermann, a literary journalist for Der Spiegel, excels at interweaving the letters and other writings of the period with his narrative. Though flashing back to the outbreak of World War I, and ending in the near-present, he concentrates on those few charmed summer weeks, when hope and dread intermingled.
His characters sun and swim enough in the chilly sea to acquire a patina of bronze. But they come into focus mostly in the hotels, cafes and bistros of the resort. There they write, edit one another’s work, drink, debate politics and try to avoid giving way to despair, while “[r]acking their brains over what they can do to change the world’s trajectory….”
The centerpiece of Weidermann’s tale is the friendship between two Austrian Jewish writers of radically different backgrounds, temperaments and means. Stefan Zweig is an assimilated Westerner, world-renowned for his historical biographies and novellas. A striver for “conscience against power, humanism, cosmopolitanism, tolerance, and reason,” he has tried, perhaps for too long, to stay on the political sidelines. In 1934, after police search his Salzburg home, he flees Austria for England, leaving behind his wife, Friderike von Winternitz. By 1936 his books are no longer published in Germany.
Joseph Roth hails from Brody, a town on the far eastern, Galician edge of the former Hapsburg Empire. He is Yiddish-speaking, steeped in Jewish ritual, an unlikely monarchist. “Gregarious, generous, garrulous,” he drinks to excess and is perennially on the brink of destitution. It seems fitting that one of his novels, which he dedicates to Zweig, is titled “Job.”
The two men become fast friends and contribute substantively to each other’s work. Zweig subsidizes Roth, buys him clothes and laments his drinking; he is Roth’s “connection to the sun, to common sense, to the guarantee of a safe existence.” Roth lends Zweig’s writing a burnish of Jewish authenticity. Weidermann describes them as “[t]wo men, both falling, but holding each other up for a time.”
This odd couple is joined frequently by other displaced souls, among them the Hungarian émigré Arthur Koestler, later celebrated for his anti-Communist novel, “Darkness at Noon.” Also among their company are the reporter Egon Erwin Kisch, the charismatic Communist propagandist Willi Muenzenberg, and the playwright Ernst Toller and his glittering actress wife, Christiane Grautoff.
One notable addition to their circle is Irmgard Keun. Though she is not Jewish, her books — modern in style and in their depiction of self-aware heroines — are burned and banned in Germany. She has the guts to seek redress in Nazi courts for the lost royalties — naturally, to no avail.
In Ostend, the novelist Hermann Kesten quickly falls under her spell. But then Keun meets Roth, who “looks like a mournful seal that has wandered accidentally onto dry land.” Transfixed by his flair for storytelling and by his unaccountable “sexual magnetism,” she becomes his lover and constant companion. The middle-aged Zweig has a lover, too — a young secretary, Lotte Altmann, who will become his second wife. “Through her eyes,” Weidermann says, “he recaptures his own vision of why he wrote.”
When the summer ends, the writers depart and the friendship between Zweig and Roth frays. Zweig travels to Brazil for a literary tour; Roth wanders from country to country. In an act of self-preservation, Keun eventually leaves Roth; he dies of alcoholism in 1939. Three years later Zweig takes his own life. In these parlous times, the titular dark is not just political but also personal, the two impossible to distinguish or ameliorate. “Ostend” turns out to be both a tribute and an elegy.
Julia M. Klein is a contributing editor at Columbia Journalism Review and a contributing book critic for the Forward.