Ostend: Stefan Zweig, Joseph Roth, and the Summer Before the Dark
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It’s the summer of 1936, and the writer Stefan Zweig is in crisis. His German publisher no longer wants him, his marriage is collapsing, and his house in Austria—searched by the police two years earlier—no longer feels like home. He’s been dreaming of Ostend, the Belgian beach town that is a paradise of promenades, parasols, and old friends. So he journeys there with his lover, Lotte Altmann, and reunites with fellow writer and semi-estranged close friend Joseph Roth, who is himself about to fall in love. For a moment, they create a fragile haven. But as Europe begins to crumble around them, the writers find themselves trapped on vacation, in exile, watching the world burn. In Ostend, Volker Weidermann lyrically recounts “the summer before the dark,” when a coterie of artists, intellectuals, drunks, revolutionaries, and madmen found themselves in limbo while Europe teetered on the edge of fascism and total war.
Ostend is the true story of two of the twentieth century’s great writers, written with a novelist’s eye for pacing, chronology, and language—a dazzling work of historical nonfiction.
(Translated from the German by Carol Brown Janeway)
drinking more and more heavily, slowly losing his mind and with it his art. “You do not need to tell me, of all people, what a little poor Jew is,” Roth replied. “I have been one since 1894 and am proud of it. A devout eastern Jew from Radziwillow. Stop it! I’ve been poor and I’ve been small for thirty years. I am poor.” — Roth cursed, stormed, begged Zweig to come to him. “I’m dying, I’m dying,” he wrote. And on the ninth of April: “Dear friend, if you want to come, then come soon, what’s left
of me will be thrilled.” The situation was dramatic, and Roth heightened the drama in the letters to his friend. Zweig dodged. The only flights to Amsterdam were by Lufthansa, and he wasn’t going to fly Lufthansa. At the same time he wrote to his American publisher, Ben Huebsch, saying he was afraid of meeting Roth. He’d been telling him for years to rein himself in financially, alcoholically, and literarily. Nothing had helped, and nothing would ever help. “One could wish he would commit some
into his invention again. Much that he writes is drawn directly from things he sees here and that they discuss. And after he’s written it down, Irmgard Keun can barely recognize them again: “His lightning-quick fantasy had transformed them into something else.” And he always has good ideas, not just literary ones but practical ideas for living. When Irmgard Keun complains that she doesn’t know how to extract a divorce agreement from her Nazi supporter of a husband in Germany, who’s fighting it,
annotated by Mozart. It’s the terrible, masochism-saturated opposite piece to the romantic “Little Wild Rose,” and it ends: Alas! Alas! The girl went past: Unseen the violet in the grass was crushed, poor violet. It drooped and died, and yet it cried: “And though I die, yet still I die By her, by her, By her feet passing by.” He parted company with the rest of the collection, selling it to the autograph dealer Martin Bodmer in Zurich. In 1925 Stefan Zweig had written a novella about a
qualities that had struck Friderike and that in her eyes had made Lotte the ideal secretarial help for the duration of Stefan Zweig’s stay in England. — Lotte Altmann, born in Kattowitz in Upper Silesia in 1908, had studied French, English, and economics at the University of Frankfurt. As a Jew, she had already been denied formal status in the summer of 1933. Her brother was a doctor and since May 1933 had already been banned from practicing. He and his whole family had soon decided to look on