Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 10, 2021

Summer before the Dark, by Volker Weidermann, translated by Carol Brown Janeway

It is the fate of too many of my Kindle editions that, without a physical presence on my shelves, I forget all about them.  Back in 2017 after reading Stu’s review at Winston’s Dad, I bought a Kindle edition of Summer Before the Dark with plans to read it for German Lit Week, but it never happened.  What I’ve just finished reading today is the Pushkin Press edition from the library, though the cover art is by Richard Bravery; it’s not the one with the gorgeous ‘railway poster art’ cover that Stu read.

Stu was right: this is the story of writers as ordinary people slowly waking to what was happening back home as the Nazis tightened their grip on power. The novella is set in Ostend, 1936, and the subtitle of the German edition is ‘summer of friendship’.  Years before, the impoverished but ambitious Joseph Roth had made his way to Vienna from his remote birthplace in Brody in Galicia (now Western Ukraine), in the hope of catching a glimpse of his literary hero Stefan Zweig.  Decades later in the interwar years in Ostend we see this friendship deepen, as the older, successful and financially secure Zweig takes on the responsibility for the younger Roth who seems determined to drink himself to death.

Ostend in 1936 was a mecca for literary exiles as the Nazi regime took hold in Germany.  From what I can see at Wikipedia, Ostend is — as the author says at the end of the book, not exactly charming.  After Allied forces flew numerous missions that reduced the city to nothing, the promenade along the beach is now strewn with white faceless buildings built postwar and later in hideous functional 60s architecture.  But you can see that it was once a lovely place even in these photos of the destruction in WW2 from this site.  There were cafés, bars and hotels catering to a vibrant street life where émigrés could gather while they tried to rescue what they could of their literary careers after their books were banned in Germany.  The book is a literary who’s who of pre-war German authors, even Thomas Mann’s children Klaus and Erika were there.

Roth is involved in a destructive yet strangely productive relationship with the author Irmgard Keun, who frustrated Zweig’s efforts to rein in Roth’s drinking.  Roth believes that it’s essential to shed the world when he’s writing, and he needs to drink to do that.  Together this pair engage every day in “the purest literary Olympics”:

She works at warp speed, and yet when they count their pages in the evenings, he usually has more than she does.  If she’s tired, doesn’t want to get up, doesn’t want to go to the bistro and write, he won’t let her get away with it.  She’s not a woman, she’s a soldier, a writer with a mission in the world.  No time out to relax, no breaks.  Writing is a sacred duty. (p.116)

Weidermann conveys with chilling accuracy the intimations of doom that were ignored by the world community.

The leading news out of Berlin these days is the preparation for the Olympic Games.  The whole world will be coming to the German capital.  The regime has been busy donning a disguise for weeks, divesting itself of the visible signs of anti-Jewish and anti-foreign policies and presenting itself as a civil state committed to international friendship. (p.102)

You can’t help reading this without thinking of similar deceits in our own times.

In truth, this is the nub of their anxiety: that the world will allow itself to be deceived this summer in Berlin.  That Goebbels will succeed in convincing the world of the Nazis’ peaceable intentions and putting it to sleep, confirming its belief that Germany is harmless.  England has just announced that it intends to shrink its navy.  The League of Nations has lifted the sanctions against Italy that had been imposed in the wake of the conflict in Abyssinia.  Mussolini’s Italy celebrated, and Germany celebrated along with it.

The world will sleep, in order to live in peace.  And the little group in Ostend hates its own powerlessness to the point of despair. (p.103)

One can’t help but feel great sympathy for their predicament.  But then, what about this?  Those of us, unpaid volunteers in the service of the literary community though we be, we who take our roles as reviewers seriously, are taken aback:

…they know that Joseph Roth actually reads very little but reviews a great deal.  He doesn’t need to read, he tells stories around the books and adds what he feels to be an appropriate judgement.  (p.109)

Ouch!

Zweig, OTOH, is crucially aware of the privilege he has in being able to read.  Weidermann tells us about a text called ‘The Book as Entrance to the World’ which is a homage to books and reading.

“And I understand that the gift of the blessing of being able to think in a wide-ranging fashion and amid a multiplicity of connections, that this magnificent ability, the only true way to contemplate the world from a multiplicity of vantage points at once, is only granted to the man who transcends his own experience to absorb from books what they can tell of many lands and peoples and times.  I was shattered to realise how narrow a person must find the world if he denies himself books.” (p.145)

This is a book that can be read in a day, but it’s not easily forgotten.

Author: Volker Weidermann
Title: Summer before the Dark: Stefan Zweig and Joseph Roth, Ostend 1936 (Ostende: 1936, Sommer der Freundschaft)
Translated by Carol Brown Janeway
Publisher: Pushkin Press, 2016, first published 2014
ISBN: 9781782272977, pbk., 172 pages
Source: Kingston Library


Responses

  1. Having studied German throughout ;high school and then with a private tutor, I’ll have to find a copy of this Lisa, it does sound interesting! I regret having let my German language skills languish over the years.

    How to you keep up with all your reading, I am in awe of you book reviewers and how much you get through!

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    • I’ll bet that if you spend ten minutes a day at Duolingo to refresh your German, and then started with some short fiction like one of Zweig’s novellas, your old fluency would come back to you. Although I do struggle, I really enjoy my efforts with reading in French, and I’m slowly resurrecting my Indonesian because there’s a book I want to read.
      Reading in another language is not like trying to converse in it. You don’t have to deal with people speaking ‘too fast’, or pronouncing things in ways you don’t expect, you can take your time, use the dictionary, even consult Google translate on occasions.
      It certainly keeps the brain working overtime!

      Liked by 1 person

      • I should try more Lisa – I worked with a German lass several years ago and I was surprised how much I remembered once I had the opportunity to converse with her in her own language. I’ve always regretted not learning French as well, but it’s so much harder to learn these things late (the same with music).

        I wished we had started learning foreign languages at primary school! When I was 12 we travelled overseas on a Swedish ship, and I remember happily having pretty good conversations with the Swedish crew just by picking up the language as I went – you’re so much less afraid of making mistakes at that age. Good on you for continuing with your French & Indonesian!

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        • I would say to take it up again only if you enjoy it. So many people did not enjoy language learning at school and have bad memories of it.
          I had many different experiences with other languages as a child, and I think that picking up a smattering of this and that in the way that you describe with Swedish is formative at a young age.

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          • I loved learning languages and dabbled with some Italian as well – I think the problem is music takes up much of my brain power these days!!! We had a wonderful German teacher at high school and a very small class – it was a terrific environment – she used to hold get togethers for us at her home and we got to chat in German and listen to German poetry and singing. Teachers can be inspiring!

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            • That’s true, my French teacher now is wonderful:)

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  2. First off, I do just the same with e-books – the number I have lurking on devices is ridiculous, but because I’m not a fan of e-reading they just stay there unread while I get on with tree books. As for this one, I thought it was a marvellous book – captured the people and the place just brilliantly. You’re right that it’s unforgettable.

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    • ‘Tree books’! I like it.
      Yes, I agree that it’s marvellous… it manages to be poignant rather than maudlin.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Reblogged this on penwithlit and commented:
    This was an outstanding read which introduced me to Irmgard Keun. I think Weidermann has just written another book which I do hope will be translated- also literary history.

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    • It’s so frustrating not to be able to read German, but perhaps if it gets translated into French first, I’ll be able to read it…

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  4. I enjoy books about literary history, including fictional – as long as the author doesn’t cut across my own preconceptions, and of course in the area of inter-War German fiction I have none. I have read only a little Zweig, and none of the others. But I was impressed by Weidermann’s bio and maybe one day I will come across this book and read it.

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    • This book makes me wish that we had that kind of café society here… my library started a sort of literary chat session last year between lockdowns, but it hasn’t restarted yet. Some us were just getting to the stage of supplementing the meeting at the library with casual chat in one of our local cafés, siphoning off just the people who read the same kind of books as each other.

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      • I know what you mean. I had drinks with Nathan Hobby the other day. Which was interesting as we have different but overlapping areas of specialization in WA literary history.

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        • Now *that* would be an interesting conversation!
          I am so looking forward to reading his bio of KSP, I really do want to read the books I’ve got before the bio, alas, I can’t double that up with AWW Gen 4. BTW What date in January is that supposed to be? Your post just says “nn-nn Jan. 2022”

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          • Sorry! Sun 16 to Sun 23 Jan 2022

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            • I’ll put it in my diary…

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              • PS I am correct in understanding that it’s ok to read any book by any of the authors listed on your AWW page, even if it was written long after the debut novel that you’ve listed? (E.g. Carmel Bird, still writing now.)

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              • Yes certainly. Writers seemed to be defined by when they began writing, though of course there are plenty of instances of them changing as new trends come through

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                • I’d love to get a copy of that Wacvie by Faith Bandler, but so far, my search has come up with nothing…

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