Summer Before the Dark: Stefan Zweig and Joseph Roth, Ostend 1936 by Volker Weidermann (Translated by Carol Brown Janeway) - review by Stoddard Martin

Stoddard Martin

Writers’ Retreat

Summer Before the Dark: Stefan Zweig and Joseph Roth, Ostend 1936


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The English author who perhaps most closely resembled Stefan Zweig was his near-contemporary Somerset Maugham. Maugham lived longer, and wrote more full-length novels and fewer biographical and historical pieces, but both specialised in short stories and novellas, and each grew immensely popular. Both were of the privileged middle classes and catered to middlebrow tastes. Both travelled restlessly and widely. Both were bibliophiles, collectors and possessors of lavish homes in popular holiday destinations. Each was plagued by a misjudged marriage; each belonged to a beleaguered minority from which he periodically tried to distance himself – yellow star in one case, pink triangle in the other. Both withdrew to the Americas in the early days of the Second World War, Maugham to the USA, where he wrote one of his most popular novels (The Razor’s Edge) while his lover drank himself to death, Zweig to Brazil, where he finished a celebrated memoir (The World of Yesterday) before committing suicide with his young second wife.

As the world fell apart, Maugham and Zweig continued to make piles, to the annoyance of other writers. Neither was fully respected for style or for content: Zweig was branded ‘sentimental’, while Maugham was dismissed as ‘purple’ or ‘pretentious’ and regarded as too cosmopolitan to authentically capture the lilt of the age. Both wrote about the psychological, but neither was seen to penetrate new areas of the psyche. Nor were they accepted as ‘experimental’ or modernist – no Joyce, Proust or Musil here, let alone Céline. Maugham shrugged off barbs and issued witty ripostes: ‘The Creative Impulse’ remains a classic put-down of literary snobbery. Disarmingly, if disingenuously, he described himself as belonging to ‘the very first rank of the second-raters’. Zweig was more sensitive. He revered Hugo von Hofmannsthal, who did not return the favour and graded him ‘sixth-rate’. Zweig’s work was damned by Alfred Rosenberg’s Kulturkampf in Germany during the 1930s, but a fellow Jew, Karl Kraus, had already taken a dim view of it in Vienna two decades before. Even Zweig’s friend and fellow émigré Joseph Roth could be patronising about it, despite Zweig bankrolling him through an exile that ended in alcoholic collapse.

Roth was one of the best German feuilletonistes of his generation. As a Jew, he was starved of outlets once the Nazis took control. There were émigré publishers, but circulation was small and profit scant. Roth’s fiction was less cosmopolitan than Zweig’s and could not gain a footing in the American market, let alone reach the benchmark set by, say, Thomas Mann’s. Was Roth a better writer than either? Like many who are alcohol-driven, he was brilliant at using language and in puncturing hypocrisy, but his work never aspired to the philosophical heft of The Magic Mountain. As for Zweig’s, it is now being rerated: biographies, reprints of his work and novels about him are proliferating. Is this due to a sense that his importance as a writer has been overlooked, an admiration for his humanist efforts in an age of intolerance, or just a slightly prurient fascination with his fate as a German-speaking Jew facing historic calamity?

Summer Before the Dark belongs to the last of these tendencies. Zweig, Roth and friends gather in Ostend for a month in the summer of 1936. They worry over the headlines of the day: the propaganda eyewash being prepared for the upcoming Berlin Olympics; the racial implications of Max Schmeling’s victory over the ‘Brown Bomber’ Joe Louis in the boxing ring; the show trials of those who have been brave or rash enough to stay at home, among them Etkar André, a communist activist in Hamburg, who has been sentenced to death. A fearful, often self-pitying bunch, they loiter in cafes along the beach promenade, sporadically discarding their pessimism for hopes of political change, rushes of creativity or glissandos of joshing and complaints about absent fellow émigrés – Klaus Mann comes in for it for his forthcoming ‘novel of revenge’ Mephisto, the plot allegedly purloined from another of their number, Hermann Kesten. Zweig’s role as mother hen to Roth is countered by the pitying passion of young Irmgard Keun, the only writer in the group to leave Germanophone Europe by choice rather than necessity. She helps Roth to evade Zweig’s watchful eye and drink himself silly on remittances from a tycoon in the States who, though respectably married, is besotted with her. Zweig meanwhile takes comfort in a cloître à deux with his demure and adoring secretary, the Silesian émigrée Lotte Altmann, who has innocently enough caused the break-up of his first marriage and will shortly become his second wife.

Around this core gathers a crowd of colourful others. There is Ernst Toller, a socialist playwright whose work has been translated into English by Auden. He and his actress wife, the ‘goddess’ Christiane Grautoff, arrive fresh from London surrounded by ‘a nimbus of beauty and fame’. There is the young Arthur Koestler, enlivened by news of the outbreak of civil war in Spain and trying to find a way to involve himself in it. Formidable and kitted out with an oligarch-style retinue is Willi Münzenberg, supremo of communist publishing during the Weimar Republic, now occupying himself as chief of the agitprop bureau of the Comintern. These arrivals provide surges of excitement, but beneath it all – and despite Zweig’s injunctions to maintain optimism – there is a deep, irremediable undercurrent of depression.

In its focus on this tight group, Summer Before the Dark recalls Holger Gumprecht’s intriguing ‘New Weimar’ unter Palmen (1998), a study of the German exiles in Los Angeles – the elder Manns, Brecht, Feuchtwanger, Schoenberg – a half-decade on, for whom issues of money, loss of audience, rivalry and envy were similar. But few of those who gathered at Ostend in 1936 would enjoy a postwar resurrection: Roth drank himself to death; Toller, Zweig and Lotte, and Koestler and his wife committed suicide; Münzenberg was interned in France and was later probably murdered; Keun and Kesten made ambiguous returns to Germany. The moment in Ostend is brief, and this account slight. It is what you might call a non-fiction novella, an amuse-gueule for those who know little of these writers and are unlikely to delve deep into their works. An urge for such books is alive on the Continent, but less so in Britain. Forty years ago Linda Kelly wrote The Young Romantics, a collective biography of Victor Hugo, Sainte-Beuve, George Sand et al, which managed in under two hundred pages to encapsulate a major literary moment and its prime movers. Meant for general readers, it set out on a road rarely taken in the decades that followed, publishers instead preferring the compendious, single-focus literary biography alternately loved or used as a doorstop. Time marches on and taste is changing. The Zweigian is ascendant. Roth might look on doubtfully.

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