Sunday, April 29, 2018

Ostend: Stefan Zweig and Joseph Roth

Volker Weidermann. Ostend: Stefan Zweig, Joseph Roth, and the Summer Before the Dark. Translated by Carol Brown Janeway. New York: Pantheon Books, 2014 (original), 2016 (translation).

Weidermann's literary elegy begins at Ostend in Belegium in 1936. The celebrated writer Stefan Zweig is in Ostend with a growing circle of friends, all of whom are in exile from Germany or Austria as Zweig is himself. They are writers, journalists, communists, actresses, who are in exile because they are Jewish and/or because they have dared to challenge the Nazi party in power. For the most part, there is no home for those in this circle of intellectuals. When the summer is over, they must disperse as they are able. The circle included Jewish novelist, playwright, and editor,  Hermann Kesten, Czech-Austrian Communist journalist, Egon Erwin Kisch, Communist organizer, Willi Muenzenberg, German novelist, Irmgard Keun, German expressionist playwright, Ernst Toller, the young and prolific German writer, Klaus Mann,  German actress in exile and wife to Toller, Christiane Grauthoff, Zweig's young lover and secretary, Lotte Altmann, and Joseph Roth.

Weidermann's book focuses on the personal and literary friendship of Zweig and Roth as well as this time during the early years of Hitler's power and the advent of statelessness for many people. Roth was a generation younger than Zweig. As Weidermann describes it, Roth looked to Zweig for inspiration and support and literary model to aspire to.  Zweig admired Roth's novels even before meeting him. Both were inspirational to the other. As they became friends they also advised and edited each other's works. At the time of the Nazi ascendancy, Zweig was at the peak of his career with an international reputation, that supported him even after he could no longer be published in Germany. Roth had also had significant successes but without the financial security enjoyed by Zweig. Roth looked to Zweig for moral and financial support, and literary guidance and inspiration. Zweig sought to reverse Roth's dissipated habits and alcoholism.

They both came to Ostend in Belgium for the summer of 1936. Zweig was looking for an uncomplicated summer of writing, and he begged Roth to join him. Eventually they were united and Weidermann expands on their symbiotic relationship as writers and their more fraught relationship with Zweig as mentor and patron to the precariously situated Roth.

Weidermann provides insight into this group of intellectuals. He portrays their outlook on life as ranging from that of hopeful and dedicated resistance to dark despair. Specifically, Zweig is described as comfortable in himself, looking for the best in everyone, smoothing feelings as he looks for freedom and hopes for peace. Roth, as one who internalized his hate, physically ailing and in the late stages of alcoholism, and, always in contrast to Zweig, with a chaotic and careless approach to life.

While we experience Weidermann's narrative as a story from a distant and irreclaimable past, Weidermann provides enough detail for us to understand the sense yearning these individuals had for for a reversal of their present political reality and the terrible uncertainty that accompanied their understanding of the reality. He quotes from a speech given by Ernst Toller at the International Association of Writers for the Defense of Culture, "We take part in political life today, but we believe it is not the least significant aspect of our battle to free future mankind from the wretched competition of interests that goes by name of 'politics' today. We know the limits of what we can achieve. We are plowmen, and we don't know if we will be reapers. But we've learned that 'fate' is an excuse. We make fate! We want to be true, we want to be courageous, and we want to be human" (87). Certainly it was their humanity that Hitler and his Nazi power sought to deny.

The news coming from home was intolerable. They learn of Stefan Lux's suicide at the General Assembly of the League of Nations to protest the "world's inaction vis-à-vis the crimes being committed in Germany" (95). Weidermann writes that there was "brief horror," "distaste for such fanaticism, some shoulder shrugging, and then things went on" (95-96). They hear that Etkar André, who was arrested after the Reichstag fire (as was Egon Kisch), has been charged with high treason and attempted murder. Despite international attention to the case, which is they believe to be  fabricated, André is found guilty and condemned to death. Weidermann writes, that, "It is in moments like these that the émigrés are fully aware of their powerlessness and the all-powerfulness of their enemies . . . . They have all read Etkar André's final words to the court" (97). Weidermann quotes André's response: "Your honor is not my honor, for we are divided by our worldviews, divided by class, divided by an abyss. If you are going to make the impossible possible here and send an innocent man to the block, then I am ready to walk that hard road. I want no mercy! I have lived as a fighter, and I will die as a fighter, and my last words will be: 'Long live Communism!" (97).

Despair predominates within the circle as the summer draws to an end, and it is evident that there are "no real signs that the Fascist domination in Europe is approaching its end. At least not this year, and for many people no longer within the time frame they will live to see" (128).

 The translator's subtitle of this book "the Summer Before the Dark," is inaccurate in that, in 1936, with the Nazi Party solidly in power, Mussolini established in Italy, and the Spanish Civil War erupting,  the darkness was well established. Weidermann's original German subtitle is translated literally as "1936, Summer of Friendship" -- less eye catching perhaps than Janeway's choice, but certainly more accurate to the content and in some ways more poignant in that it is the last summer that this particular group would spend time together. It is the friendship of Zweig and Roth as well as this close network of exiled writers and intellectuals that tells the story of a certain segment of German and Austrian society who were thrown out of their natural orbit, and only a few of whom survived to see Hitler's defeat.

This is a cameo of a book, which highlights a time and a history that we should not be forget. Weidermann brings our attention to this group of writers who resisted through action and word until they no longer had the strength to continue.

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