January 2016

Carla Stockton

nonfiction

Ostend: Stefan Zweig, Joseph Roth, and the Summer Before the Dark by Volker Weidermann, translated by Carol Brown Janeway

In a story my grandmother never tired of telling, her father, whom she idolized, and her brother, whom she adored, parted company because of Austria's Kaiser Franz Joseph.

Like thousands of his fellow Eastern European landsmen -- the Ostjuden -- my great-grandfather had fled the pogroms of the Ukraine and had found refuge and subsequent prosperity in Vienna. He revered the emperor, was grateful to Austria-Hungary for giving him the one thing Jews rarely possessed: a homeland. In a time of blurred boundaries, of empires defined without individual nationalisms, Jews could feel a sense of belonging in the Kaiser's care, could cease wandering, could find equal opportunity for financial stability. Three of his ten children were born in Vienna, and all -- even his daughters -- were entitled to a level of education they would have not been able to envision in Odessa. It was more than my great-grandfather could have hoped for as he fled inland, following the Danube from the Black Sea to his emerald city. And if the price demanded in return was the military service of each of his sons, then so be it.

But his eldest son refused to serve, and in a rage, according to my grandmother's story, the old man disowned the beloved first born, who summarily left and caught the next ship to Amerika.

The odd man out then was the brother. It was 1904, and most Viennese Jews were squarely in my great-grandfather's corner. Unable to belong elsewhere, Jews feared nationalism -- assuming correctly that it would fall hard on them -- and became loyal subjects of the Emperor, whose crown governed a wide variety of disparate cultures and called them all citizens. Under the leader's watchful despotism, the Jews enjoyed a measure of dignity, a level of education, a stratum of social standing heretofore rare in their diaspora.

In the 1920s, as the Austro-Hungarian carapace dissolved into nationalities and left the Jews foundering once again, it was as though a carpet had been pulled out from under them in midflight. The Nazis' rise to power forced those with any kind of mobility out of the region, a dislocation that left the exiles feeling devastated. Despite the lessons learned from the repetition of their history, they had convinced themselves that they would never be reduced to this -- again. They had become, after all, supremely Austrian: cultural and ethical nationalists, whose religion no longer defined them. Their shock was real when the expulsions began, and the losses they suffered disempowered them in every way possible.

Stefan Zweig, then a budding journalist enjoying the complete intellectual freedom Vienna afforded, would have applauded my great-grandfather's choice to ostracize his son for the sin of disrespecting Austria. Like the old man, Zweig had easily distanced himself from his Ostjuden roots and was solidly, rabidly, hawkishly Viennese. When the First World War erupted, he was thrilled, excited at the thought that Austria-Hungary might eradicate the ethnic nationalities of Europe and create a continent where Jews and all other groups who lacked specific country roots could raise their children with patriotic fervor.

Zweig was a very young man living in Ostend when WWI broke out, and the Belgian seaside resort remained ineffably linked to his ebullient joy, his overwhelming optimism, long after that summer of 1914. So, in 1936, after his castle in Salzburg had been confiscated, after his German publisher removed his books from the production schedule, when German-language periodicals no longer wanted his words of wisdom, Zweig sought to replicate the idyll of his youth, in the company of like-minded outcasts, and settled in a hotel in Ostend, hoping to wait out the Nazi siege.

Joseph Roth, a younger, lesser-known writer of more recent Ostjuden extraction, joined Zweig in Ostend, along with Arthur Koestler, Irmgard Keun, Hermann Kesten; all but Koestler expected to be reunited in their idealized Heimat. Like Zweig, Roth was a staunch supporter of his Kaiser and all that the empire represented to the Jews. Though he was known to have changed his politics a number of times in his life, he never altered his belief in the ideal of European unity or his distrust of traditional nationalism. But that summer, it became increasingly clear that there would be no going home, and the mood in Ostend turned ever more morose as the writers became ever more desperate. Roth and Keun descended into alcohol while Zweig descended into melancholy; Koestler and Kesten made tracks for London and New York.

Zweig and Roth, too, emigrated from Europe to safer continents, but neither of them recovered from the loss of Austria; Roth died of alcoholism in Paris, in 1939, less than a year after the Anschluss between Germany and Austria, and Zweig committed suicide with his wife Lotte, in Brazil, in 1942, when it was clear to him that his homeland no longer existed. But for one glorious summer, one last moment of sunshine before darkness engulfed the world, Stefan Zweig and Joseph Roth imbibed in the comforting illusion that they were simply on a brief vacation at the beach, a sojourn that would end with their triumphant return to Vienna.

It is in that resort town of Ostend, Belgium, in that summer of 1936 that Volker Weidermann sets his Ostend: Stefan Zweig, Joseph Roth, and the Summer Before the Dark. The story here revolves around the waxing and waning friendship between the two literary giants and the way in which they interacted with fellow luminaries.

The book begins with Zweig's arrival, along with "his secretary, Lotte Altmann, who is also his lover." Lehman has brought with her Zweig's typewriter, and Zweig sees himself here as in a recurrent dream, "writing, gazing out into the emptiness, into summer itself." He is convinced that this time, unlike during WWI, Ostend -- in fact Belgium in its entirety -- will remain neutral, that he will complete his novel-in-progress The Buried Candelabrum, and that he and his fellow Jewish intellectuals will remain safe from any Nazi intervention. He has invited Roth, a brilliant if drunken and rather tragic compatriot, to join him, and together they form the center of a powerful salon.

Weidermann is a venerable reviewer, a biographer, a deft literary critic, and he chooses to incorporate some fictionalizing techniques in this work in order to endow his protagonists with thoughts extrapolated from their published work, from their journals, from accounts by those who knew them. Otherwise, he stays pretty close to the surface of what is known, what is historical, what is real. His writing is careful, respectful, and he discloses no secrets, exposes no scandals; he simply introduces the salon in a "You Were There" approach, acting as a camera recording events that have long since been revealed, adding commentary that rarely leaves the heads of the writers whose minds he ostensibly probes.

Carol Brown Janeway, best known for her translation of Bernhard Schlink's The Reader, and who died shortly after completing work on Ostend, has maintained Weidermann's tone and has captured the existential essence of the omniscient narrator's voice. There is a desire for optimism at the heart of each writer's longings, but there is also a resignation. There are too many historical precedents to allow them to ward off the inevitable pessimism, and Weidermann's aptly translated writing, always in present tense, reflects the sad inevitability of their common demise: "The mood remains depressed and irritable. [...] In this atmosphere poisoned by mistrust, [Roth]'s not the ideal man to bring cheer to the uneasy group."

There are some lovely insights. Roth, for example, hated the movies. It was his contention that:

[Whatever] the sins of the prewar empires -- he doesn't ignore their sins, for he was now a socialist -- what has replaced them is something worse: a wrecked, valueless world, caught between bogus political rhetoric on the one hand and, on the other, a fatuous illusionism, a dream world retailed by billboards and cinema, which, in his shorthand, he calls "America."

And while readers in the twenty-first century are more likely to recognize Roth's work than Zweig's, Roth was still fairly obscure in 1936. By then, his only flirtation with commercial success was The Sins of Man, a movie whitewashed version -- all Jewishness entirely extracted -- of his novel Job, released in Hollywood the winter before. Entirely aware of the irony, Weidermann's Roth unabashedly entertains the gathering at the Flore, their favorite tavern, with his sneering contempt at a discussion of Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times and subsequently urges Zweig to seek out an agent or a publicist who will sell the film rights to Zweig's best work.

Joseph Roth and Irmgard Keun, who are openly carrying on an affair while her previous partner awaits her in New York, like to tease Zweig for his "good nature, his na´ve, unshakable belief in the good in people, his love of humanity." Roth proposes the notion that perhaps Zweig's demeanor is affectation. "It can't be genuine," he insists on saying, though, Weidermann tells us absolutely that "he of all people knows better."

In 1939, when the Austrian people celebrated the incoming Nazi rulers on Vienna's Heldenplatz in front of the Hofburg Palace, the fatherland Joseph Roth and Stefan Zweig loved beyond patriotism no longer existed, and, soon, neither did they. Ostend is a tribute to that brief and shiny moment they shared in a beach resort that the whole world believed would never fall. It did, and with it fell two of Austria's greatest minds.

Ostend: Stefan Zweig, Joseph Roth, and the Summer Before the Dark by Volker Weidermann, translated by Carol Brown Janeway
Pantheon
ISBN: 978-1101870266
176 pages