This book has been recently published in English as ‘Summer before the Dark’. It’s an account of the friendship between the Austrian writers Stefan Zweig and Joseph Roth and the summer they spent together in 1936 in Ostend, in exile from Nazi Germany and its ever more tightening restrictions on Jews and writers. I read the book in German and so can’t comment on the the English translation by Carol Brown Janeaway. However I’m delighted we have a translation so soon as both these writers are known far beyond the world of the German literature cognoscenti, for such greats as The Royal Game and Beware of Pity (Zweig) and The Radetsky March ( Roth). Stefan Zweig and Joseph Roth are just two of a whole community of writers in exile and we hear the stories of other writers like Irmgard Keun and Egon Erwin Kisch as well. Wider world events- the outbreak of the Spanish civil war, preparations to host the Olympic Games in Berlin-provide a backdrop, lending weight to the atmosphere of tense desperation which hangs over the group. And the awareness of the inexorable rise of populism during the 30s together with the denigration of liberal values and reason resonates chillingly with developments we are seeing today.
One of the challenges of writing about a phase late in the lives of two such writers must be the selection and organisation of material and presumably Weidermann sifted through many volumes of letters and diaries before deciding what to include. The result is a concise and yet far from superficial portrayal of both men. We’re given some prequel material for both. Zweig was a wealthy, highly educated, widely published Austrian writer with a house on the Kapuzinerberg in Salzburg and humanist values. Though his books were burned on Bebelplatz in 1933 because he was Jewish, they continued to be available in Germany for some time after that and he didn’t show his rejection of the Nazi regime by going into self imposed exile immediately as did some other Jewish and resistant writers. By 1936 however his marriage to Friderike was breaking down and he longed to spend some time in the cafes and beaches of Belgium, a place where writers and intellectuals could meet and talk, a place he’d loved for many years.
Joseph Roth came from a very different milieu. An ‘Ostjude’, he was born in Brody on the Eastern edges of the Austro-Hungarian empire into much more modest family circumstances and studied in Lemburg before going to Vienna, where he first met Stefan Zweig and began a career as a writer and journalist. He was an eternal itinerant, living in hotels, a spendthrift and an alcoholic. By 1936 he was having marriage problems too and was open to Zweig’s invitation to join him in Ostend.
Their friendship worked on many levels. From an early stage they had exchanged ideas and criticism of one another’s writing and, movingly, at the end of their stay in Ostend, Roth gave Zweig the idea for completing his story Der begrabene Leuchter. Zweig was desperately worried about Roth’s destructive lifestyle and concerned about the negative influence of Roth’s lover, Irmgard Keun, herself an excessive drinker, on his health. But another aspect of their intimacy, brought out by the book, was that they were both mourning the passing of a way of life, slipping away during the 30s and never to return. Now for Roth, this process of disappearance had begun with the breakup of the Austro- Hungarian Empire after the First World War, the monarchy which had given him opportunities and security in his youth and which he revered. Zweig’s world of humanist values, explored in his book Die Welt von Gestern-The World of Yesterday was disappearing with the rise of fascism and his most recent work Castellio gegen Calvin was criticised for being out of touch with present realities.
The liminal quality of this summer conveyed in the book is intensified by the stories of other writers and characters staying in Ostend-Egon Erwin Kirsch and Gisela Kirsch, Hermann Kesten- as well as the stories of Klaus and Erika Mann, mulled over and laughed about-determined as they were to put on a brave face and not admit to increasing anxiety about the future. Irmgard Keun as Roth’s lover plays a greater role. Her books were banned not because she was Jewish but because her female characters were far too modern and independent- as indeed she was, having the temerity to sue the Propaganda Ministry for loss of income and for the return of the confiscated copies! She comes to Ostend for a bit of sea and sunshine, meets Roth and, finding him the most sexually attractive man she’s ever met, falls for him. The two of them move in to the same hotel room and spend their days writing and drinking.
The summer of 36 is the last time Zweig and Roth are to see one another. Stefan Zweig goes on a trip to Argentina as a guest of PEN and also visits Brazil, which he is considering as a future home. Joseph Roth and Irmgard Keun continue drinking through the hotels of Austria and Zweig refuses to see them in Salzburg. On 12th March 1938 Hitler is welcomed with jubilation in Vienna’s Heldenplatz: the worlds of Joseph Roth and Stefan Zweig are indeed over and Joseph Roth dies just one year later.
I really enjoyed this book. Weidermann manages to convey the complexity of the characters and their relationship with skill and economy, rooting them absolutely in the tumultuous times in which they lived. At the same time he evokes an atmosphere of a community on the edge of a precipice which will signify a break for ever with the past. While seeing liberal values in Europe eroding, a turning away from internationalism in the UK with Brexit and a rise in nationalism I felt at times when reading this a chilling feeling of familiarity. And yet it is Weidermann’s skill as a writer which places Stefan Zweig and Joseph Roth in a world now gone, a world on which he quietly closes the door.